Player’s Retreat restaurant and bar has long been a staple of NC State, attracting generations of people to a place where all are welcome. After closing for 16 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the establishment has since reopened, experiencing success with both business and safety.
Founded in 1951, Player’s Retreat is one of the longest standing restaurants and bars in Raleigh. Located near campus at the intersection of Hillsborough Street and Oberlin Road, it’s always been a part of student life and likewise, NC State has always been part of the Player’s Retreat.
“We've got a tie to NC State from day one,” said Gus Gusler, owner of Player’s Retreat and former NC State student body president. “The original name, some people don’t realize … did not relate to sports. It was basically related to the actors at the Thompson Theater, ‘The Players.’”
Mickey Hanula, original co-owner along with her husband Bernie, especially enjoyed theater performances and wanted to pay tribute and create a space for those performing at NC State. Since then, the term "player" has taken a new meaning, as the bar provides a retreat for anyone and everyone.
“We get a lot of students, especially on game day,” Gusler said. “But we [also] have a lot of politicians, lawyers, doctors, professional people, plumbers, electricians. … You can go in and see the governor sitting with his wife in one booth and then two plumbers with dirt all over their pants sitting at the other booth drinking a $2 PBR. It’s awesome, it puts a smile on my face when I get to see that.”
This diverse environment is something that has always been a special part of the Player’s Retreat and will remain for the foreseeable future.
“[Player’s Retreat] in the '50s was very inclusive,” Gusler said. “That was one place in Raleigh where you could go in there, and there would be gay couples, interracial couples, Black couples, white couples all hanging out, having a drink and eating with each other. … The Player’s Retreat has been that way for the entire 71 years it’s been owned. … It’s certainly not going to try and change under our watch.”
Speaking of change, the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly disrupted everything, at least for a period of time. Player’s Retreat was no exception, with the restaurant temporarily closing in March 2020 for the safety of its employees and customers.
“In all the conversations with the team, I told them that we’re not going to reopen until [my wife] and I feel safe,” Gusler said. “Basically once we both got fully vaccinated, then we started planning on coming back. … We had a lot of discussions, did a lot of research and talked with our team and our managers, especially doctors and state health officials [and] decided that after 16 months, we were going to reopen.”
Player’s Retreat reopened in June 2021 with some controversial policy changes.
“We decided we weren’t going to hire anyone back that wasn’t fully vaccinated,” Gusler said. “We let everybody know that and some people didn’t want to come back, they didn’t want to get vaccinated, some people did. … Probably the biggest decision we made was that we were not going to allow unvaccinated people in the building.”
Once announced on WRAL News, the decision received considerable backlash on Facebook but the restaurant continued with its plans.
To prepare for reopening, Player’s Retreat began handing out “PR I am Vaxxed” buttons to individuals who came by the restaurant with vaccine cards to pre-register in order to speed up the check-in and seating process. Additionally, the restaurant underwent some renovations including retrofitting AC units and removing the front wall of their pool room to allow open air seating and bathroom access for unvaccinated customers, separate from the indoor dining area.
“We opened on June 23,” Gusler said. “We really didn’t have any, maybe one or two, but very few people tested positive [for COVID-19] from June 23 until Christmas. It was just not a problem. For our staff, no one was having to go home and quarantine and word spread about that.”
Gusler reported an increase in cases around Christmas and New Year's however, but positive cases have remained low overall, helping propel the restaurant back to success.
“We started getting calls from people looking to come to work with us from some really nice restaurants who were making really good money but were having to sit home [because of COVID-19],” Gusler said. “So we went from only being open five days a week, and being short hours, pretty quickly, we got where we were fully staffed.”
Today, Player’s Retreat continues its full operations.
“We're working seven days a week, lunch and dinner, just like it was before the pandemic,” Gusler said. “We’re fully staffed, we’ve got a great team. … We’re back doing pre-COVID numbers.”
With recently lifted restrictions and mandates, masks at Player’s Retreat are now optional but encouraged. However, unvaccinated people still will not be served inside.
To gauge customer comfortability with this issue, the restaurant sent out a survey to its guests asking how they would feel if unvaccinated people were let back in the building. According to Gusler, 23% said they would be fine with it, 52% said they don’t care either way and 25% said they weren’t comfortable sitting with unvaccinated people at all.
“I was trying to lay [down] a decision, ‘Do I let the unvaccinated people in now?’” Gusler said. “Most of them aren’t going to come back anyhow, but I'm taking the chance of running away that 25% that has been supporting us. So it was a pretty easy decision to make to continue to not allow them inside.”
Wherever you stand on vaccines, COVID-19 or any other issue for that matter, it is hopeful to see an old NC State favorite up and running again after the pandemic. Life as we know it is coming back, and players of all backgrounds can once again gather, whether inside or outside, at Player’s Retreat.