Behind the Bull of Bull Street Gourmet & Market, Durham
Pulling up to Bull Street Gourmet and Market you can see a bull overhead and on the windows. Opening the door and stepping in, you get the story behind those bulls and what Bull City love means.
Walking in, I was instantly immersed by a friendly environment, delicious aromas, kind staff and the owner herself, Anne Niemann. With her hands full of supplies she’d personally run to get, Anne warmly greeted me.
After putting away the supplies and ordering up an iced Americano for me, Anne got to the important business of giving me a tour. We’d sit and start the interview process soon enough, but first thing was first — seeing what brought Bull Street Gourmet and Market to life.
It speaks volumes of Anne that the first thing she wanted to show me were the photos lining the hallway to the back of the house. Several framed photos hang above the white skirting board, each with someone who was an integral part of bringing Bull Street Gourmet and Market to life here in Durham. Pete Bikas the contractor, Shannon Bain the project manager, Dan Harrah the plumber, Bob Jenkins the trim work guru, Justin Croxall the owner of Bull Street Gourmet in Charleston and the list goes on. She couldn’t speak highly enough about what a delight they all were, going above and beyond from start to finish to bring her vision to reality.
To see a proprietor that invested in her business, its history and the people that made it all possible was impressive and heartwarming. This felt natural and very Durham. One of the best aspects of Durham is that it is real and Anne Niemann is exemplary of this. She is Bull City genuine and that was apparent before we even sat down to formally begin the interview.
Then she escorted me into the men’s bathroom. Hey, never a dull moment in Durham! No worries. She knocked first and there was a reason for this transition. Hanging in the men’s bathroom are very well done photos of all of her nephews. With 36 nephews and nieces, Anne has a lot of family to be proud of and integrating that into her café was important to her.
As we moved on to the ladies room, Anne joked that I could only guess what decorated the walls in there. She knocked and opened the door to show the walls decorated with the beautiful faces of all her nieces and her 4 stunningly gorgeous daughters. As an extra touch of tender, loving, thoughtful care there is a small child’s chair in the ladies room for kiddos to wait for their moms. Anne jokes that she has been tempted to pen and frame a little ditty to put above the little chair that reads, “Here’s a chair to call my own, while my mom sits upon the throne.” She really has thought of everything.
The unique and inviting ambiance and vibes make this place distinctly Durham. Every local business, even the chain stores, have their own thing going on. Yet it is this individuality that makes all things Durham distinctly Durham. If you get that and you’re with that, you’ve been to the Bull City.
One of the driving influences behind creating the space and the menu was Anne’s desire to blend her parents’ Southern backgrounds and all its inherent charms with the aesthetics of places in the North, which Ann was familiar with from growing up there — think Martha’s Vineyard.
Both her parents were raised in the South, but met in New York City. Anne was raised in suburban New York, but held mostly southern traditions, and, she admits, happily so. It’s those two very different worlds combing in one that have brought Bull Street Gourmet and Market to life here in Durham. New Yorkers love their strong coffee, a good deli sandwich and a place where everyone knows your name… oh hold on, that’s Cheers. But a place where you’re bound to run into a few of your neighbors.
On the other end, Southerners may prefer sweet tea and a simple pimento cheese sandwich over a solid ham and cheese on a Kaiser roll, they too still like a cozy neighborhood place. Take a little bit from both worlds and you have Bull Street Gourmet and Market. Step back and you’ll see how blending those striking differences and finding the common ground are very Durham. That the Bull City was the perfect place for Anne and her vision turned successful café.
The Bull Street Gourmet and Market Street website says that Anne and her husband moved to Durham in 1989, but Anne’s history with this city goes back much further. Anne’s father graduated from Duke in 1935 and remained very involved with the university until the time of his death in 2000. He was the one who encouraged Anne’s husband Tom to look into Duke’s Fuqua School of Business when he was applying to business schools.
Tom attended Fuqua and graduated in 1991. At the time of his graduation, Tom and Anne had two little ones in tow and they happily agreed that the Bull City was where they wanted to stay to raise their family.
Bull Street Gourmet and Market opened its doors November 17th, 2011, but like Anne’s connections to Durham, the story behind this bull goes further back. The story goes that Anne’s daughters all fell in love with the original Bull Street Gourmet in Charleston, South Carolina while attending college. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find out that Anne’s vision in seeing more for Durham is really the spark that started it all.
“We moved to Hope Valley to 1999. This strips center was here and was the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen! Had very little to offer. It was this aqua blue thing. It was just horrible. All those years I kept yearning for a neighborhood place to get a great cup of coffee, a healthy salad, a killer sandwich and a few essentials like milk and eggs. And would it be too much to ask to be able to pick up a delicious, freshly prepared, ready to heat and eat dinner for the family?
“I kept thinking that this strip mall could be a gold mine if only someone would take the time to renovate it. Finally a company came in around in 2009 and they did a facelift. They raised the rent and the other business left. I thought this is the perfect opportunity for ‘somebody’ to come in and open a coffee shop or diner. I wasn’t thinking about me opening a business.
“Three of my daughters at the time were going to school in Charleston and the fourth is there now as a senior. Every time we’d go to Charleston the girls would be like, “we have to go to Bull Street.” It’s a tiny corner café in a residential neighborhood. It had the amazing sandwiches I’d long for all these years. You cannot find a good sandwich in the South. Some amazing pulled pork or fried chicken, but not a deli sandwich.
“The Charleston cafe had great sandwiches and salads, all with a twist on the traditional. I liked his twist. Everything had a little extra. The Turkey and Brie Sandwich had smoked turkey, creamy brie, cranberry mayo, lettuce, tomato and cucumber on a freshly grilled ciabatta roll from, you guessed it, New York! The Bull Street Chicken Salad Sandwich had freshly roasted, hand-pulled chicken comingled with cranberries and toasted almonds and mayo. These two items are about the only remaining menu items borrowed from the original Charleston Bull Street location. They remain favorites.
“Along the way we’ve created quite a few of our own signature items that have become top sellers. Topping the favorites chart are avocado toast with a fried egg and bacon on top, the loaded pulled pork hashbrowns with two fired eggs on top, the southwestern quinoa bowl and a brown rice bowl loaded with edamame, scallions, kale, carrots, apple, raisins and sesame-teriyaki dressing. They’re visually pleasing and good for you.”
Anne had tried to convince the Charleston owner, Justin, to open a second location in the Bull City, but he was expanding in Charleston. Because of that, Justin turned the tables on Anne and convinced her to be the one who opened a Durham location. She was that somebody who was meant to do something with the potential of that strip mall. He assured her that he would help her in any way he could. This was a promise he made good on.
Anne was hesitant at first. She was 54 at the time and we were in the midst of a recession. Anne’s husband Tom, never one to turn down a challenge, stepped in and encouraged her to do it. She describes him as the ultimate Nike slogan guy, “just do it!”
With Tom’s cheerleading and both the Charleston owner’s blessing and financials in hand, Anne wrote a business plan and away they went. “Justin was so kind and generous with his time and his knowledge. He strove up from Charleston several times and in fact the week before opening he came up stocked shelves and tested recipes. He was here from the crack of dawn until 11 o’clock at night with me.”
“We agreed that Bull Street Gourmet from Charleston coming to the Bull City in a new incarnation was meant to be, and so, decided to keep the name. By adding ‘and Market’ to the name we added a small market section to sell local artisan goods. I knew people were going to call it Bill City Gourmet all the time, but I didn’t care. I actually liked that. Bull Street and Bull City — it was meant to be.”
That is how it began.
Anne knew that she wanted to have memorable food made from fresh ingredients, but there was more to it than that. She wanted it to be warm and welcoming. “I wanted a variety of seating. It was important to offer every style of seating so that there was a place for anyone and everyone where they were guaranteed to feel comfortable.”
You can see this all around. There is a picnic table that was hand painted by a friend of Anne’s, cushy banquettes and cozy, café style tables. Not to be left out, there is New York style counter seating. The latest addition is the FITA lounge (pronounced feeta and stands for Food in the Air) This seating section is named for her four daughters famous Instagram account @foodintheair. And for those wanting to take advantage of the many perfect weather days in Durham, there is outdoor seating as well.
Anne mentioned that the menu has changed quite a bit from the original Charleston location to be distinctly Durham and part of the family. A few menu items that have a family story behind them; Aunt Madelyn’s Gooey Butter Cake and Penny’s Lemon Bread to name a few. Other offerings from the heart include gluten free bread options for all the sandwiches, as well as gluten free dessert options, vegetarian and even vegan options as well.
Bull Street Gourmet and Market grew from there. Catering was not necessarily in the plan, but it happened naturally as an off shoot. Literally, week 1 people were asking about it. Sure, why not?
Between her husband and her daughters, the family knew the majority of Duke athletics coaches and staff. A couple weeks after opening, Anne dropped by the Iron Dukes and Men’s Basketball offices with a platter of sandwiches, bowls of salads and, of course, the irresistible Aunt Madelyn’s Gooey Butter Cake. The next day, the Iron Dukes office called to order lunch for 100 people the next week. To this day Duke athletics is still their biggest catering customer, followed by the hospital.
Bull Street Gourmet and Market’s story is very much the story of Durham. Many have come here and brought the best of their world with them to add to what this city has to offer. The Bull City is genuinely filled with people who want the best for themselves, their neighbors and for Durham as a whole.
Anne herself states that her favorite aspect of Durham is its eclecticness, which is now a word because it’s a spot on description of Durham.
“It’s so eclectic. I love that there are so many cultures and socioeconomic groups. From world renowned surgeons to farmers who were raised farmers by generations of farmers. It’s a cosmopolitan place with people from everywhere.” Anne said. In comparison to where she grew up in New York, Durham is undeniably Southern with a worldly flare.
“When I think of all the places we frequent in Durham there is truly a history there. They are all in beautiful, unique buildings. Cocoa Cinnamon, Full Steam and Piedmont there is history there. It continues with Pizza Toro, Revolution, Dos Perros and Scratch.”
It may seem like this is all misty eyed reflections of bias, Bull City inhabitants, but Anne points out it’s not. “Everyone loves Durham. My friends come here and visit and they see the neighborhoods — not cookie cutter. Once they have the food… oh. The food here in Durham is so good.”
Furthermore, Anne is the first to admit Durham still has some areas for improvement. She points out “The Boulevard,” which I took to be a pun: BULLivard. Not exactly what she meant, but we agreed that this twist on the name, much like her menu twists, could be the touch that turns that section of the city around.
In reference to revamping ‘The BULLivard,’ and overlooked section of the 501 highway, Anne says, “That’s the only thing. Downtown is thriving and getting better and better all the time. We have the best higher education, the best food, and the best people. To round out the whole thing we need something in that corridor. It’s an absolutely critical connector between downtown Durham and Chapel Hill. As it currently is, it’s an underutilized eyesore and then at the bottom half has some wonderful and thriving businesses. Super valuable real estate because of where it is. Someone needs to do something with.
“The bottom part of it is starting to come around Fosters, Guglhupf, Refactory… Then it abruptly stops and turns into abandoned shopping centers, auto dealerships and big box stores. If the upper part was developed into upscale apartments, town homes and independently-owned retail, it would be the perfect complement to what’s going on in downtown Durham. It’s an ugly caterpillar — no offense to caterpillars — waiting to turn into a beautiful butterfly. Let’s do this Durham! ”
I stopped myself short of pointing out to Anne that the last time she thought someone needed to fix up an area of Durham, that someone turned out to be her.
As for Anne’s personal favorite bull in the Bull City, every resident has one, it’s the bull that’s on top of the Old Bull building on the corner of West Pettigrew and Blackwell Street. It’s an iconic neon lit sign pointing the next direction for the Bulls of Durham to go.
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