Refectory, now in single location, maintaining mission

Jul. 13, 2014 @ 11:45 PM

The owner of The Refectory Café started on Duke University’s campus with a mission to change the model for quick-service food and to be the school’s first “green café.”

Now that the business is located entirely off-campus at a single location on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, she is working to continue that mission.

“The public votes with their feet,” owner Laura Hall said in an email. “They found us on and off campus.”

Hall said she wants to create a place that could “feed every diet there is.” The restaurant has vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menus, and is launching a new plant-based menu called “mi nu me.” The menu includes smoothies, teas, a range of salads, as well as plant-based Indian dal, chili, soups and tofu  tacos.

They also have a focus on sourcing their products locally. Chef Bob Compton said he works with local farmers to add seasonal vegetables to the menu, and scouts out products at local farmers’ markets.

And in addition to the new menu, Hall said the business is working to focus more on dinner in addition to breakfast and lunch. She said they’ve transitioning to a sit-down dinner service, and have added cocktails.

“We’re evolving into a different kind of restaurant in the evening,” Compton said, adding that they’re planning to keep entrees under $20 and to retain a casual atmosphere, but to offer high-quality food.

And in the location, she said she saw volumes surpass her on-campus business in the first year. She also said the restaurant has drawn people from around the Triangle, and she’s in talks to open location in Charlotte.

“The overwhelmingly positive response that we have had from Durham, the surrounding communities and travelers speaks to the niche market that we have and the demand for our food as well as our business model,” she said in an email.

The business got its start on Duke University’s campus, which Hall said she saw as the “perfect fertile ground” for creating a new restaurant model with new versions of local and international dishes, and where she’d be able to teach the students about nutrition at the same time.

Hall said she read nutrition books and magazines the way other people read beach novels. She approached Duke to start a restaurant on-campus initially to try to create a new “green café” model focused on social, environmental and economic sustainability.

The idea was to serve dishes made with food sourced largely form local farms, that would be healthy, that would produce minimal waste, and that could pay its staff a living wage.

She opened the café inside the basement of the Duke Divinity School in 2005. A “refectory” is the name of a dining hall typically found in a monastery. In 2008, she also bid and won a contract to open a second location at the Duke Law School.

After seven years, the Divinity School location closed in 2012, and the Law School location closed earlier this year, following a lawsuit filed by Hall’s company Bon Vivant Catering that named the university and a former employee.

According to the suit, which was filed by her company Bon Vivant Catering Inc. last year, she closed the café at the Divinity School after the school increased the required gross revenue commission paid to Duke Dining Services from 10 to 15 percent.  She closed the business at the end of her contract in July in 2012, and to transition to the off-campus location on the boulevard.

The suit alleges that the company, Core Catering, behind the new restaurant awarded the contract for the Divinity School location was run by a former employee, and used the same concept, operating model, and a similar name. The name was “The Divinity Refectory,” but was changed to the “Divinity Café.”

Patricia Eder, owner of Core Catering Inc., declined to comment for this article. Hall also declined to comment on the suit.