Business

Durham restaurateurs attend debate as Biden's guests

Posted October 22, 2020 3:31 p.m. EDT
Updated October 23, 2020 9:01 p.m. EDT

— A Durham couple had a closeup view of Thursday night's debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

Leonardo Williams and Zwelibanzi Moyo-Williams, the owners of Zweli's Kitchen & Catering in Durham, were invited to attend the debate as Biden's guests.

Because of Zweli's work with the Durham community throughout the pandemic, state Sen. Natalie Murdock, D-Durham, put the couple in touch with the Biden campaign, Leonardo Williams said.

After they hosted a campaign event in Durham last weekend that featured actress Kerry Washington, campaign officials called on Wednesday and asked the Williamses to head to Nashville for the debate.

"We are the type of folks, business owners, that caught the heavy part of the pandemic," Leonardo Williams said Thursday. "I'd like for Donald Trump to look at us and see us and recognize that American citizens are struggling."

Williams said he and his wife didn't realize how close to home the pandemic would hit at the beginning of the year.

"We didn't think it was going to come to America because, hey, we're America, and we've got the federal government to protect us," he said. "We just knew we were going to be safe, but we weren't safe."

Within three days in early March, Zweli's lost 81 percent of its revenue when dozens of catering customers canceled, and they had to lay off much of their staff.

"We were waiting for a national strategy [to address the pandemic] that never happened," he said. "Unfortunately, we couldn't depend on the federal government."

To survive, Zweli's partnered with other local restaurants to start their own food delivery service, and the restaurant partnered with community groups to help feed elderly and homeless Durham residents suffering during the pandemic.

Leonardo Williams said a Biden administration would provide government support to back up the steps Zweli's and other businesses have taken to continue operating in recent months.

"The Biden plan will create a space and support us," he said. "I haven't heard any plan from the president other than we're just going to open up, which is irresponsible and incompetent."

When they arrived at the Belmont University auditorium where the debate was held, the Williamses said they were stunned to learn they would be sitting in the front row, between Biden's wife and Trump's son Eric.

"It was so surreal. It was like a movie," Zwelibanzi Williams said Friday after the couple returned to the Triangle.

During the debate, Leonardo Williams couldn't stifle a laugh when the president declared himself the "least racist person in the room."

"It was extremely offensive," he said of the comment. "It was embarrassing on my part because, when he said it, I said, 'Is he serious?' and I remembered where I was and I quieted back down, and Eric Trump was sitting next to me, and he looked at me and he had this look of just disdain."

The couple said they were happy to be part of an important part of the election process.

"For me, it really means everything," Leonardo Williams said. "It means that everyone is truly a part of the process."