The initiative helping Bull City bounce back after COVID

The initiative helping Bull City bounce back after COVID

With the help of the Back on the Bull campaign, Zwelis and other local businesses received PPE and more, helping them through the pandemic.

By Mona Dougani

Step foot into Zwelis’ kitchen, and you will experience a taste of Zimbabwe.

The aroma of earthy spices fills the restaurant as African beats pulse through the venue. The vibrant red and gold painted walls and traditional art displayed around the space foster a home-like atmosphere.

In 2016 Chef Zweli Williams and her husband Leonardo Williams founded Zwelis Inc., a catering company. Five years later, the catering company expanded to add a sit-down restaurant in a Durham shopping center.

“Zweli has always been an amazing chef,” her husband Leonardo said. “I was basically tasting her food whenever she was cooking dinner. That’s her love language. That’s how she speaks. I would always just be mesmerized by how she makes something so good, so comfortable, yet still so healthy.”

In addition to providing savory southeastern African flavors to those who visit their restaurant, both Zweli and Leonardo Williams hope to give back to the community that has been there for them, especially after the pandemic hit.

Leonardo, a former public school teacher, met Zweli when they both were students at North Carolina Central University, a historically black university that has long been involved in the city where it’s housed.

Instead of serving up lessons and managing at other people’s restaurants, they’re dishing up plates piled high with samosas, cauliflower stews garnished with pickled onions, large portions of spiced chicken, and sweet and smokey plantains.

When COVID-19 changed everything in Durham, they wanted to do more than provide nutritious and tasty sustenance for the community they love.

“We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know what to do,” Leonardo said. “Everything just stopped. We just kicked into community mode, we continued to feed folks as much as we could, and every time we fed people, people were donating money to us, so we were able to make it through the pandemic based on donations until we were able to do takeout again.”

Image of three dishes including toasted plantains, colorful cauliflower stew with pickled onions, and samosas with sauce on the side.
Platter of fried plaintains (left), Dovi Cauliflower (middle), and Samosas (right) from Zweli’s. Photo Credit: Mona Dougani

Getting ‘Back on the Bull’

Back on the Bull, an initiative that grew out of the Renewal and Recovery Task Force of Durham in response to the pandemic, promotes community health and safety as well as economic growth, especially for communities of color and marginalized people. The program has helped provide needed resources for Zwelis and other local businesses.

The health ambassadors with the program sent out flyers telling people to make sure to wear masks and stay socially distanced. They also wanted to let people know what local restaurants were doing to keep COVID transmission possibilities low.

“They took on the education component,” Leonardo said. “They took on the print component of the graphics, so we didn’t have to create any of those things. We just used what Back on the Bull had.”

Zwelis opened up to customers in stages, first opening up for takeout orders and progressively moving toward complete re-opening.

” data-medium-file=”×210.jpeg” data-large-file=”×338.jpeg” loading=”lazy” width=”2560″ height=”1920″ src=”” alt=”A couple standing next to a chalkboard in their restaurant that reads “Welcome to Zweli’s”” class=”wp-image-34351″ srcset=” 2560w,×210.jpeg 280w,×338.jpeg 450w,×113.jpeg 150w,×576.jpeg 768w,×1152.jpeg 1536w,×1536.jpeg 2048w,×450.jpeg 600w” sizes=”(max-width: 2560px) 100vw, 2560px” />

Leondardo Williams (left) and Zweli Williams (right) standing next to a chalkboard in their restaurant.

“I just appreciated not having to recreate marketing and the education of it,” Leonardo said. “Just by participating as a business, being equipped to ensure my staff had those you know, personal protection equipment, such as masks and hand sanitizer, and things like that. They upped their game when they bought into QR codes. I can put it at the front of my restaurant, or put it on each table and customers can simply scan.”

Along with providing personal protective equipment and the tremendous creative support to local businesses, one of the more notable aspects of the Back on the Bull initiative is the community health ambassadors.

“We are a bilingual, multicultural, multilingual team of health ambassadors,” Jenny Palmer, lead community health ambassador for Back on the Bull, said. “We have monolingual English speakers, monolingual Spanish speakers, and bilingual English and Spanish speakers on our team.”

The team surveyed local restaurants and businesses about measures they were taking to safely greet the public and posted that information on their website.

People could search for LGBTQ-, Latin-, Black-, women-owned businesses and more  — providing an avenue for local businesses to connect to the community while people also were connecting with them. 

A sign outside of Zweli's restaurant that reads
Back on the Bull sign posted outside of Zwelis.

Connecting People to Vaccines

Now, the initiative has pivoted toward a greater emphasis on connecting people and businesseswith COVID-19 vaccination sites and clinics.

Salita Greene, a community health ambassador at Back on the Bull, was drawn to the program because she grew up in Durham and wanted to give back to the community that made her who she is today.

“I, at a period of time that was really focused on Black businesses or Black-owned businesses, … would go and talk to the owners and employees, and a lot of them, frankly, just didn’t really know how to go and schedule a [COVID-19 vaccination] appointment,” Greene said. “Me, coming in with the tools just made it a whole lot easier for a lot of people.”

As of July 19, the total number of Black North Carolinians vaccinated was 849,737, or 17 percent of the population, overall, an increased proportion of the population since March, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services vaccine dashboard.

Greene and other health ambassadors not only were able to help those in the Durham area schedule appointments, but they also debunked vaccination myths. They listened to questions and explained the potential benefits of getting a vaccine in terms that were easier to understand.

“I’ve always taken the approach of never trying to convince somebody to get the vaccine, but I listen to what their concerns are and what they say, and I just like to point them in the direction of the facts,” Greene said. “Once you point someone in the direction of the facts, their eyes are open, and they’ve started to make their own realizations.”

‘Better Together’

Leonardo and Zweli Williams also wanted to connect people with vaccines.

In the spring, with the help of Back on the Bull and partnerships with IndyCare/Urgent Care in Hillsborough and Discover Durham, a booster organization for the city, Leonardo and Zweli Williams were able to host a vaccination clinic at a Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Durham, another partner.

They vaccinated roughly 250 people.

“We had volunteers going out into the neighborhood and they were pushing people down the street in their wheelchairs and getting 70- to 80-year-old folks to walk over to the church and get vaccinated,” said Leonardo. “It was a beautiful, beautiful sight.”

With the help of Back on the Bull and other partners, the restaurant owners were able to reach more people.

“Those folks that the Back on the Bull campaign team members had access to, I did not have access to,” Leonardo said. “We would have still done the pop-up. It just was more impactful and impressionable among the community by having them.

Leonardo Williams now is looking for another way to lend his voice and expertise to his community and has embarked on a campaign for a seat on the Durham City Council.

“We’re greater together, we can accomplish anything when we do it together,” Leonardo said. “And, you know, just the vaccination pop-up clinic was just one example of how we can make something so rapid amongst community members.”

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