WILMINGTON — Wilmington is on its way to becoming a “foodie city,” but it’s not there yet.
At last week’s Feast Down East, Chef Craig Love hosted a panel on making Wilmington a “Foodie City.” His panelists included Keith Rhodes, who Love called “Wilmington’s first really recognizable chef, someone who wanted to get to the next level,” and Dean Neff, who’s restaurant Pinpoint helped signal Wilmington’s development into a full-blown food scene. The panel discussed how far Wilmington has come, and how far it still has to go.
Port City Daily met with Love at his Carolina Beach restaurant to continue the conversation. What does it take to create a real food-scene? How does that become a “Foodie City,” like New York — the culinary city on the hill — that will draw visitors who come, not for sun and sand, but for local cuisine?
“Well, first you have to have some good restaurants,” Love said. “For me, it starts there.”
Love first came to the Wilmington area in the late 1990s and made a permanent move from Richmond in 2003. After working for some local restaurants, he opened the Surf House in Carolina Beach in 2009. Love said he was hesitant at the time to get involved with the downtown restaurant scene after working there for some time.
“In those days, I felt like something was stunting the city,” Love said. The town, he added, seemed populated by “turn key” concept-driven restaurants. Part of that meant people wanting “the same thing on the menu all the time. Owners wanted ease of operation, customers wanted reliability and consistency. Those are important things, business-wise, but it was basically ignoring everything about what was local, what was seasonal.”
While major metropolitan areas like New York and Chicago easily hit a critical mass of “foodies” in the late 1990s, smaller cities like Charlotte, Charleston and Love’s own Richmond needed a nudge. Small communities of chefs, farmers and city planners made food scenes possible. But something, as Love said, was “stunting” Wilmington.
“The walls were up, between restaurants, between chefs,” he said. “In some ways, that had a lot to do with the industry. It’s a high turnover town in the summer, and the winters are hard. Either way, cooks put their heads down, working long hours.”
A certain sociological aspect of the cooking world also played a part.
“There’s also an element … the industry attracts addictive personalities,” said Love. “So, a lot of times, when chefs would get together, after work, those meetings weren’t necessary concerned with food-systems and community strategies.”
Over time, Love said people started seeing what he calls “sanctuary restaurants.” Love cited Manna which opened in 2010, and then Pinpoint in 2015, as trailblazers in downtown Wilmington.
“It was a lot of bars, a lot of places that were just churning out sustenance, but not really cuisine.”
These restaurants broke away and started serving what was local and seasonal; that wasn’t what every customer wanted, especially at first.
“We were at a critical place, chefs had to commit to their menus. In a lot of ways, we’re still there.”
Love said he found himself working against lifetimes of expectations.
“In the winter, we don’t have tomatoes on our hamburger, because they’re not in season here. And people will say, ‘well, just run out and get some Romas.’ But we don’t do that, we’re not going to ship them in from Texas or Mexico. But a lot of people will react negatively, they’re not used to that,” he said. “It takes a couple of visits before they’ll trust us. We might lose some customers, and that’s a risk. If we want people to get what we’re about, we kind of have to die on that hill for a while.”
Love said there was no easy way to cushion the blow to customers whose expectations didn’t line up with the reality of local and seasonal food.
In New York City, Love said, chef-driven, locavore restaurants like Dan Barber’s Blue Hill had earned the trust of customers; they could challenge customers and count on them coming back. In Wilmington, that trust still needed to be earned.
“At Surf House, 90 percent of our seafood is local,” Love said. “But elsewhere, it’s the opposite, which is as much of a concern as the places we’re importing it from.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 90 percent of the nation’s seafood was imported in 2016. Love attributes this to the demand for cheap seafood, like farmed shrimp and tilapia at grocery stores and restaurants. It also has to do with diners’ comfort zone, the prevailing, difficult-to-change taste for what he called “the big three,” of salmon, tuna and cod, or other mild whitefish.
“We’ve never served those fish here, unless I knew they had been line caught locally,” Love said. “And customers are sometimes skeptical, they’ve never even heard of some of fish we’re serving. The only way forward, the only way to earn their trust is conversations. It’s conversations. It starts with me, talking to my staff. Then it’s my staff, talking to customers. But I’m out there, too, in the dining room.”
Those conversations allowed the success of “sanctuary restaurants,” and allowed the culinary community to start thinking next level. Chefs became what Love called “chef ambassadors,” cooks at large who had the time, energy and motivation to join in public conversation about food culture.
“That led to 40Eats,” Love said, “and Feast Down East, so you saw that conversation among chefs growing outwards, becoming a conversation between chefs, farmers, civic government.”
Groups like 40Eats, founded by Manna owner William Mellon in 2016, have helped bring to light the raw talent that exists in the Wilmington area, Love said.
“I’m kind of an outsider, out here in Carolina Beach, an outsider looking in,” he said. “I think a lot of people feel that way.”
Love said he’s had conversations with Neff and Rhodes, but that the sense of community is still in its infancy.
“It’s a good start. But it’s not enough. It’s a long road. That kind of community, those relationships between farmers and fishermen and chefs – the kinds that remind me of established ‘foodie’ cities, the food scene in Nashville, or Charleston, and of course New York City – they take time.”
The transition from “sanctuary restaurants” to a “food scene,” Love said, was an important step on the way to building a citywide movement. The ultimate goal: moving beyond high-season tourist business and developing the food scene into a year-round industry.
“It’s a critical step, because you then get the attention of chambers of commerce and city councils, of civic government. Your success, essentially, convinces them to invest in you,” he said. “At a certain level, the success of the food scene reaches a tipping point, meaning that relationship flips, and the city is marketing itself in terms of the food scene, using that as the reason people should come to town. Then you’ve got a foodie city.”
Love cited Wilmington International Airport’s 2016 “We are ILM” campaign, which included Keith Rhodes in a 30-second TV spot, as a good example of how close Wilmington is to such a tipping point.
“The airport might be a little ahead of City Council in that respect,” Love said. “But it’s a good example. We’re getting there. Not there yet, but we’re getting there.”
In the meantime, Love says he’s looking forward to taking his own menu “to the next level,” reflecting on his plates the philosophy and relentless evolution he hopes to see in the area.
The Surf House restaurant is located at 604 N. Lake Park Boulevard and is open for dinner Wednesday – Saturday, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. and Sunday for brunch from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. For more information visit Surf House by phone at (910) 707-0422 or online.