Complete instructions on how to stumble upon something truly unique and awesome in Durham, North Carolina: go to Durham, North Carolina.
That is exactly how I discovered the treasure in Bull Durham’s backyard. If iPhone memory serves me right it was a fine Saturday morning in the Bull City and I had moseyed on into the downtown area to score some excellent local produce at the Durham Farmer’s Market. I found a prime parking spot on Foster Street in front of an unassuming brick building with “Bullitt Studios” beautifully posted above the door. The last remnant of a production studio that is no more and perhaps one of the endless, shameless plays on “bull” in the Bull City. Who knows? Google and a few local probably, that’s who.
Before evening fully closing the car door, I knew it was a going to be a quick minute before I reached the actual Farmer’s Market as adventure was calling, or rather the overwhelming urge to snoop around the area. I busted out my handy iPhone, closed the car and locked it and then locked it again for good OCD measure.
I popped across the way and began taking in the sights, realizing that I was somehow gravitating to Cocoa Cinnamon’s despite the fact it’s in the opposite direction of the Farmer’s Market and that I was already sipping on my third homemade cup of coffee. Catching myself short of a caffeine overload, I stopped and looked in the windows of a Durham standard: an aged, brick warehouse, most likely of the tobacco nature.
Although at first glance the building looks to be out of commission it is the Nomadic Trading Company and I’d later find out that true to Durham fashion, there’s plans in the works to fix the building up. Brick by precious and honored brick, the Bull City is on the rise, but forever dirty. It’s a Durham thing.
Although it felt as though the espresso beans were calling to me from Cocoa Cinnamon’s, whispering sweet nothings of flawlessly executed Americanos, I continued on my way towards the Farmer’s Market. I made it a whopping 10 feet before I found another building that was awesome and demanded to be crawled all over with a sign that read, “Authorized Personnel Only.”
Appreciating the recognition I took a photo of the sign and then unhooked the chain it was on to take my self-authorized self to get a closer look at the place. The brick work was in incrediBULL condition and the authentic, outdoor industrial light fixture was on point. Trying to get a better picture of said fixture, I nearly fell to my doom… or at least to a bruised back. I discovered there was no railing in place to prevent falls and it almost seemed as hough the area was still under construction. Why wouldn’t they block that off somehow to keep people out of harm’s way? Sheesh.
I took my authorized self out of harm’s way to continue my explorations elsewhere. I hopped over the chain and this time made it a solid 20 feet before something awesome caught my attention: a sign with a couple booze barrels reading “Rickhouse.”
I didn’t rightly know what that meant at the time, but I did know this was a place I needed to check out in depth and with supervision. I went on my merry way and proceeded to buy an absurd amount of delicious local bell peppers and tomatoes, two things you can never have enough of, especially if they’re purple or stripey.
Returning to my car with my sweet haul of the day in tow, I noticed the sign yet again and decided it was best to email the proprietor right then and there before I forgot. Within 24 hours I got an eager response and an invite to come on in later that week.
It was about the time I walked through the doors of the Rickhouse that I realized I had no idea who I was meeting with. Note to self: get names. Names are good. I opted to go with the ol’ “look nice but clearly lost” routine and it worked. As I walked past a team arranging event décor, a man piped up and said, “you must be Sheila!”
Sweet! I knew the answer to that one.
Daniel Kulenic proceeded to introduce himself and tell me about the Rickhouse. “I went to UNC. I bought my first place in Chapel Hill and moved to Durham shortly thereafter. I’ve lived in Durham Proper’ for 12 to 15 years.”
What? Durham Proper? Durham is and has been called A LOT of things, but I’d never heard proper thrown out in reference to the Bull City. I let out a reflexive laugh and Daniel picked up on exactly what was so funny. Rolling with it, he went on to explain that was his way of saying he’s a local, but acknowledges that around here, there’s no real hard-and-fast definition of local.
“What does local mean? If you ask 10 different people, you would get 7 different answers. Everyone has a different opinion of what ‘local’ means. It is an interesting place. You have to think most people aren’t “local.”
With a team of people swirling all around in a big, beautiful space, I gathered that Daniel did a bit more than point out the shortcomings of ambiguous catch phrases. I was ever hopeful that it had something to do with a bull at any minute, as I was wondering how to tie this all in to The Bulls of Durham. I asked him what he does.
Daniel answered, “I’m making dreams happen. That’s a joke a like to tell my wife, referring to getting into the wedding business, even those she is still waiting on me to make them happen for her!”
At this point he took me on a brief tour of the establishment starting with the back patio and that’s when the bull connection came in. I had pulled a complete Durham rookie move in not fully realizing where this building was in relation to the city. We were standing right in Bull Durham’s back yard — the mostly original Durham Bull’s stadium where the real Durham Bulls played for many years before moving to their new stadium and where the Kevin Costner classic was filmed over 20 years ago.
Daniel motioned over to a staircase to point out a patch of dirt and grass where the original “hit bull win steak” bull sign stood. The darndest things are treasure to the ‘locals’ here. Turns out the back of the next door building is the one Kevin’s character hit a ball off of.
These days this area is booming with new businesses in renovated old buildings and always hopping with activity. Not so long ago, the buildings all but forgotten, languished, dark and cold and the hopping activity wasn’t of the safe, merry assortment. Daniel explained the changes he’s seen in recent years since acquiring his local status.
He explained, “That area behind Full Steam used be a very unsafe part of Durham. I have had people ask me if it was safe to walk from the DPAC parking lot to the building and I immediately knew they were from not from Durham.”
An increase in business and safety in a community seems overall like a big win, but there is a common air of unease in the city, even amongst the change instigators themselves, that there is too much change going on all at once and too little thought behind the changes effects on the locals.
The Rickhouse is a warehouse that has recently received a revitalizing onceover. But if you look closely at the details, you’ll see Durham. The light fixtures are structured on reclaimed wood that was once the floorboards in a remodeled portion of the building. Aged, North Carolinian, 4”x4” wood that many of the buildings in the area boast as both floorboards and ceilings. In a room set aside as a dressing room for event patrons, there is a large mirror framed with more original wood from the building. Down the hall, look up and you’ll see an antique wine bottle and its original shipping crate fashioned into a beautiful light fixture.
It’s clear that Daniel and the company he keeps care about keeping history and culture of the city. Hell, their tagline boldly boasted on their website is, “History made us. Good times sustain us.” I asked Daniel his thoughts on all the ongoing changes.
He said, “It’s hard not to be aware of it. For me it’s the hope that we’re all going to unite to maintain our culture and keep Durham “Durham.” Whether that is dirty or whatever you want to call it. That we’ll manage to keep building and improving, but hopeful we’ll maintain what makes Durham special.”
With all the ongoing changes in the city and much of it being in renovated historic buildings, it’s hard to put a finger on the age of a business. I asked how long Daniel and his business partner have had the Rickhouse.
“We’ve had the building for almost 3 years. The Rick House has been open for 17 months — opened end of March 2015.
It was my business partner’s vision. He wanted to open up a distillery and we found this building. Obviously this building is large. There is a lot of square footage that can be utilized. The time that we bought this building was when Bay 7 at ATC went exclusive to The Angus barn. This left a void of non-affiliated event spaces to have an event for more than 120 people in Durham.
We thought this space could serve as additional revenue while our products aged. As for the name, a Rickhouse is simply the room or building where barrels go to age — it plays off the synergy of our adjacent [in house] distillery, Two Doors Distilling, Co.”
The history with the names got a little deeper when Two Doors Distilling came into play. This part of the story goes all the way back to the days of prohibition.
“During prohibition there was a house in downtown [Durham] that had 2 doors in the back, one for the speakeasy and 1 for the residence. That allows us to keep our Durham roots without having ‘Bull’ in the name. It can be hard for marketing, especially when it comes to going outside the city.
“We hope to distill everything but tequila but will, most likely, launch with a white rum. Hope to be operational in the next 2 months and hope to be on shelves at the beginning of the year, whatever that means.”
It took a quick minute to realize what he meant that having “bull” in the name could be a limiting factor to marketing outside of Durham. Right. Outside of the Bull City businesses and people don’t have a full on bull obsession. That’s a strange notion once you’ve been around here for a bit. The collective bull preoccupation was one of the very first things I noticed about Durham. We joked about that for a bit and then I asked him what stood out the most to him about Durham.
“I think it’s the culture. The open-mindedness of everyone. The collaborative the attitude. The warm and welcoming faces. Sincere.”
As for what changes Daniel would like to see for the city of Durham, that answer was less sweet and more concise, “Besides Parking?”
Fully understanding there was no more to that answer, I moved on to what locals deem to be the hardest interview question, “Which bull in the city is your favorite?”
Without skipping a beat he answered, “Going to have to say Major. It’s centrally located — all these crossroads that kinda best describe Durham.”
This is when Daniel walked me into the still under construction distillery — told you I was authorized personnel — anyone is if they believe hard enough. Then he introduced to me to someone who wasn’t on my schedule, but there is no doubt I was supposed to meet. That is another Bull City ‘tail’ all on its own. Try not to be BULL dozed with anticipation as The Bulls of Durham project leaves you with its first to be continue… Dun. Dun. Dah!
Not to incite a stampede, but if want to schedule an event with the Rickhouse, you best get to getting on it. With top notch location, ambiance and ability to accommodate up to 200 people, the venue books up quickly. Head over to their website RickhouseDurham.com or go old school with a phone call to 919–264–1038.
Check out the first 11 The Bulls of Durham blogs by clicking the following links: A Bull’s Eye View of Durham, North Carolina, A Walkabout in the Bull City, Behind the Bull of Bull Street Gourmet & Market, Take Me out to the Bull Game, The Brightest Bull, Seeing Bull City Images Come Into Focus, The Bull Friendship Forged, Candy Coating the Bull City Art Scene & Defying Expectations, The Sweet Story of How One Bull Came to Be, The Bull City: on the Rise but Forever Dirty, Officially, Bringing Bright Eyed Perspective & Beats to the Bull City