WILMINGTON — The National Restaurant Association reported last month that as of December 2020, sales from eating and drinking establishments had fallen 22% from pre-pandemic levels. For Jenny and Allen Luper, owners of NOMA 8207 in Porter’s Neck, operations during the coronavirus proved to be more profitable.
With Covid forcing their hands to switch to a larger takeout operation, Jenny Luper said sales grew by 20% beyond their 2019 numbers. The success has helped her formulate a new business model that has NOMA doing away with dine-in service altogether.
“We didn’t lose our customers,” Luper said. “They were very supportive and loyal — and made sure we knew they were here for our business. So every meal we were preparing in house for somebody was now going out the door, plus some — and five times as much from our cases.”
Luper is speaking of NOMA’s ready-to-go food cases — coolers that house meals like lasagna, casseroles, shepherd’s pie, tomato pie, beef bolognese, and other items that can be taken home and reheated for the family.
As production ramped up during the shutdown, Luper chose to turn her small dining room into a makeshift to-go area so it would run more efficiently. When Gov. Cooper allowed dining rooms to open at 50% capacity in May, she decided it wouldn’t serve NOMA well.
“We were so small and only had 26 seats to begin with,” Luper said. “So to add 13 people and try to spread them out didn’t make sense. At that point, we had morphed into a concept that was working for us, and so we just said, ‘We’re gonna keep with it.’”
From Temptations to NOMA
In 2018, the Lupers bought the gourmet market, then known as Temptations, from James Snyder who decided to sell both of his eateries separately. The other was located on Oleander Drive in Hanover Center; together, the restaurants had more than three decades of a devoted clientele.
“We saw the business for sale literally on a Tuesday, and by Friday we made an offer,” Luper said.
The Hanover Center location was sold to a Pennsylvania couple and retained Temptations in its name. The Lupers decided to rebrand their shop to the area it was positioned in: 8207 North Market Street, hence NOMA.
“Basically, my husband bought me a full-time job,” Luper quipped.
However, it was one she always wanted to pursue — a dream she had for years as a stay-at-home mom rearing two children while her husband ran a wheel and rim repair business. But starting from scratch without restaurant experience overwhelmed Luper, she said. Temptations seemed perfect because it was a turnkey operation; it came with all the staff, the chef and the menu in place.
The Lupers, who live in Hampstead, already had familiarity with the eatery. They knew what was working and didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.
“People who have been customers for, you know, 15 years were not going to feel like they lost all their old favorites,” Luper said about keeping Temptations’ staples, like pimento cheese, tarragon-and-almond chicken salad, and quiches.
She also began peppering in new hearty specials — prime rib, a filet, a pork chop.
“We slowly started adding a taco bake, chicken-wild rice casserole, lobster mac and cheese, ravioli, tons of dips,” she listed. “That just kept growing and growing and growing.”
Luper especially leaned on her chef and staff to carry forth its familial customer service. “NOMA feels like a home and we are truly a family,” she said. In fact, Luper’s daughter now works at the restaurant.
During the shutdown, Luper said she was lucky she didn’t have to cut employees. Though, she did have to shift their responsibilities since table service wasn’t open.
“One of my girls, who has been here for almost 15 years, who was a server and like a manager, had to be moved into the kitchen — and she loves working in the kitchen now. We all just jumped in to help do everything.”
As NOMA began operating more as a convenient gourmet market than a dine-in restaurant, folks were heavily placing call-ahead and online orders for curbside pickup.
When restrictions lifted a little, customers came in to wait for made-to-order breakfast, lunch or dinner items to go. In the meantime, they picked up a bottle of wine or some beer, a few locally made treats from N.C. purveyors, desserts, ready-to-go meals for the family for the week, and they would be out within minutes.
The changes have been successful enough to compel Luper to renovate NOMA. It’s a move she has considered for two years now, but Hurricane Florence stalled plans in 2018 — followed by Hurricane Dorian in 2019.
Then Covid hit.
“We already had drawings done of the renovations,” she said, “which went to an architect and engineer to help us decide what new equipment we needed and where things should be placed.”
Since January, the market has been closed to undergo renovations, including removal of the dining area. Instead, there will be a larger kitchen taking up two-thirds of the restaurant. A six-door walk-in cooler will be installed, too.
“Think of a walk-in beer cooler,” Luper explained, “only with meals, dips, by-the-pound items, and such.”
Luper also will be adding more staff soon enough. She said NOMA has the expertise and is ready to train passionate people who love good food.
“We need people who are enthusiastic,” she said. “If you’ve ever cooked a casserole to take to somebody who was sick, or prepared a meal for a friend or cooked for your family, you’re qualified.”
NOMA 8207 will reopen to the public soon — “hopefully by the end of next week,” according to Luper. Its hours will be Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. NOMA is closed on Sundays.
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