WILMINGTON—Three years ago Ryan Horne began buying real estate in the South Front District, specifically near Kidder and Third streets. One spot — a 1,000 square-foot rectangular building that used to house Tiny’s Grill from the ‘60s through the ‘80s — became his first commercial property. He and his wife, Jessica, transformed it into Bodega Market, which opened to the public on Nov. 6.
“It was boarded up when we bought it and really had urban decay,” Horne said. “My intention was to bulldoze it all and go up, but then I fell in love with the building and its stories.”
People from the neighborhood started dropping by and telling him the folklore surrounding two sisters who owned Tiny’s. The ladies operated the small grill facing 3rd St. and lived in a house behind it. Supposedly, they stowed away all their earnings in their home’s walls.
“The house burned down and so did their money, so I’ve heard from many old-timers who live on the block and residents nearby,” Horne said. “Since I’ve owned it, people have come here with metal detectors to find coins because they used to get gold coins from here back in the day, apparently. Older men would come by and say, ‘I’d get hot dogs here after baseball games that we’d play on the Optimist Field around the corner on Front.’”
According to Horne, he reflected on those moments and began to think about the workforce housing that used to be prime in the neighborhood, and commerce that served the people who lived there in the early 20th century.
“People shared a beer in there,” he said, pointing to Bodega, which was built in 1915. “They had a meal together and talked about their daughter getting married or their divroce — all the celebrations and challenges of life. So I wanted to revisit that community and the commerce that had been here at one time.”
Horne bought properties surrounding Bodega and began renovating them over the last year. So far he has completed Bodega and the house to the right of it — an extension of the business, which includes his office, the employee break room, extra storage, and a room for Jessica to homeschool their two children. He repurposed, recycled and salvaged materials to give Bodega a mixed vintage and modern vibe.
“The wood is from a tobacco barn we took down in Pitt County, the hardwood flooring in the bathroom is from a house we took apart on Castle Street,” he explained. “A lot of stuff is from Legacy Architectural Salvage, so it’s really a story of restoration and second chances — to breathe new life.”
Elm Builders helped Horne with construction; though Horne is clear he touched all wood, all the metal throughout the space. ”I may not have nailed every board, but I placed every board,” he noted.
The attention to detail carries through the products in the store as well. Horne said his wife, who lives a plant-based lifestyle, desired to bring better quality, fresh food and produce to the area —which doesn’t have a grocery store within a mile of it. At first Bodega was going to be a simple produce stand. It evolved into a boutique shop of local products.
It sells take-and-bake meals from Carolina Beach’s Veggie Wagon, sandwiches, quiches, breakfast burritos and wraps from Lunchbox, and sweets from Cape Fear Rum Cakes, Red Dawn Bakery and vegan bakery Cravings. The Hornes source from local farmers, like Humble Roots and Green Acres Farm, for eggs and produce, and even carry local beers from Waterline, Edward Teach, Flying Machine Beer Company and Wilmington Brewing Company. Bodega also has a coffee bar, specializing in brews from Luna Cafe, Longboard Roasters and Vigilant Hope.
It carries more than foodstuff, too, like handmade masks and jewelry from Rachel Hinkley. Horne will be adding soaps and candles for the holidays and offering gift-wrapping services.
“We want it to be a place where someone can drop by on their way to a dinner party to get some cheese, a bottle of wine and a hostess gift,” he explained.
Horne is seeing the whole neighborhood patronize the establishment in various ways — “from the little lady three doors down grabbing a garlic clove and onion, to younger kids at South Front getting a grab-and-go and bottle of wine.”
The store has a $6.99 price point for most wine varietals: Pinot, Cab, Merlot. Horne curates the selection so it’s different from what’s normally found in grocery stores.
“Someone can get one of our take-and-bake casseroles, a fresh baguette and a bottle of wine for only 20 bucks and some change,” Horne said, highlighting Bodega’s affordability.
The morning offerings also remain reasonably priced, with a desire to reach folks driving to nearby jobs.
“You can get a cup of coffee and a locally made, fresh burrito for $6 or less in 6 minutes or less,” Horne said. “I wanted the working guy at the state port to be able to park on the street for free, grab a good cup of coffee and breakfast, and be in and out quickly.”
Horne’s seeing families stop by in the afternoons to enjoy a scoop of Veggie Wagon’s homemade ice cream, especially made for Bodega (vegan varieties are also offered). Customers can take a seat in the backyard area, filled with picnic tables, teak bistro sets and Adirondack chairs.
Horne says, eventually, they will book acoustic music outdoors, while folks enjoy a beer or bottle of wine and food and wine tastings on the back patio. He wants to install fire pits and book a rotation of food trucks.
“We’re looking to grow over time,” Horne said. “Our grand opening was a quiet friends-and-family weekend because of Covid-19. Right now, we’re starting out small to see what’s going to work.”
One thing that is clear: Horne and his family are committing to the South Front neighborhood long-term. He sees opportunity — a place where entrepreneurs can maximize their creativity and community mindset.
A financial day planner, who also works in residential real estate, he and Jessica moved to Wilmington after graduating from college in Greenville, NC. They have been here for 20 years now, rearing their two children.
“I want my kids to learn the entrepreneurial spirit,” Horne iterated, “the value of a hard day’s work.”
He also wants to show them the importance of community, past and present. Horne would like to see the historic vibe of the South Front area remain intact while including its distinguishable industrial elements. To the left of Bodega is an abandoned former ice house.
“It would be a great seafood place,” Horne surmised. “I think we need less Dollar Generals and car washes. We could use more eat-in restaurants. When those little community spaces go away, they’re gone forever.”
Currently, Elm Builders is renovating a single-family residence Horne owns behind Bodega. Another, which is zoned mixed-use, is still in the conceptual phase. While Horne has yet determined what it will be, he is toying with the idea of an Airbnb-event space combo.
“People are so much more adventurous in how they travel and where they stay nowadays,” he said. “It could be a place where small parties, like brides and bridesmaids, can stay. But we don’t know yet. We just know we want to be a part of the whole revitalization.”
Bodega Market is located at 1222 S 3rd St., and opens Monday – Thursday, 7 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
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