WILMINGTON — A year ago Kory Sanderlin officially opened his brick-and-mortar M&K’s Kitchen on Village Road in Leland, serving Southern-style homey cuisine. One year later, he’s reverting operations back to the streets, where M&K’s got its start as a food truck. Only this time around, Sanderlin is launching with a new concept.
“I’ve been working 96 hours a week for two years,” he told Port City Daily by phone Friday morning.
Starting a new restaurant and launching during a pandemic came with a lot of stress, Sanderlin admitted. Located in the old Mr. Frosty’s Subs and Ice Cream building, he and his family renovated the space for seven months at the beginning of the pandemic in order to open the restaurant.
By the time Sanderlin turned on his neon “Sexy Food” sign last fall, out of the gate M&K’s was operating at a disadvantage: The dining room was closed. Covid-19 mandates and capacity limitations were in full effect for the 37-seat eatery, so Sanderlin decided to focus solely on delivery and take-out.
A few months into 2021, he was making moves to open indoor dining, when staff members started falling ill with Covid-19.
“I would say seven of 14 employees were sick at some time or another,” he said. “I got brothers and sisters that work for me, nephews and cousins that work for me, so when Covid started affecting us, we’d lose three employees for three or four weeks and a couple of them for four to five weeks at a time because many live together.”
Finding replacement staff was problematic, a nationwide issue affecting many industries from the pandemic. Then, Sanderlin said he kept noticing the floor in the restaurant felt weak, so he contacted his landlords about it.
“And they kept putting it off,” he said.
One day during prep, the floor collapsed while an employee was on it. The landlords came in and patched it up. Yet, they didn’t replace the whole floor, which Sanderlin described as rotting. A few months later, it collapsed again in another spot, this time from underneath Sanderlin.
“I didn’t get hurt in any way,” he said, “but I had to close the business for 28 days.”
In turn, he lost incoming revenue, but more so thousands upon thousands of dollars in ruined products. During the closure, a walk-in freezer glitched into auto defrost mode and spoiled over $50,000 in food, according to the chef.
“It’s been three months and we are still waiting on the insurance,” he said.
By the time he got M&K’s up and operating again, Sanderlin said he was down to half his staff and 80% of his customers had depleted. He said the restaurant was experiencing a 92% sales decrease from when it was operating earlier in the year.
“A lot of my clientele were visiting one or two times a day,” Sanderlin described of its early months of operations. “If that’s what sustains your business and 80% of them don’t realize you’re back open after closing, it’s a struggle.”
The significant rise in food costs added to the dynamic. Sanderlin focuses on homey Southern food, like oxtails that braise for 16 hours a day or a pot roast that cooks for 13 hours. He also featured seafood, with crab cakes being a popular item.
“Crab used to cost me $8 a pound, now it’s $31” he said. “Also, people don’t consider the time it takes to make all this food from scratch, which also has to go into the menu prices.”
With a pile of bills stacking up, Sanderlin said the operation was open seven weeks after the final floor collapse before he had to make the decision to close. M&K’s announced its last supper a week ago on Sept. 3.
From for-profit to nonprofit
By end of day Friday, Sept. 10, Sanderlin said he will be turning in paperwork to launch his new concept, The Sexy Food Truck. It will be a nonprofit, Sanderlin said — to allow him to get back into working for the community and rediscover why he loves cooking for others.
When Sanderlin was operating the food truck before the brick-and-mortar, he said he had better flexibility in being a community partner. He worked with World Central Kitchen, Cajun Navy and Support the Port during Hurricane Florence. He also served meals in parks for the unsheltered community, as well as teamed up with other nonprofits to help food-insecure populations.
“Honestly, I didn’t want to get into food to gain a profit, which really sounds bad as a business model,” Sanderlin said with a laugh.
He remembers traveling to Columbus County when he was child, helping feed people for a week after a tornado. Sanderlin said the gratification of serving others stuck with him, even more so by offering sustenance in a moment of hardship. He said it was a feeling he could understand.
“I grew up in an area where a lot of people struggled to feed themselves, so I want to help get good, quality food, nourishing food, to people that are in the same boat I grew up in,” Sanderlin said. “In the last eight to nine months of running this business, I haven’t been able to do the things I enjoy doing most. And that’s feeding people. I got into cooking because I liked seeing people eat, not because I like taking money from them. And I got to figure out how to still be able to do what I enjoy doing — because that’s what I’ve been sacrificing most to try and keep a business going.”
The Sexy Food Truck, which he hopes to launch in the next 30 days, will institute a donation model. Sanderlin said his menu prices essentially will be donations that go back to providing people the bare essentials (the name of his LLC): water, food, shelter.
He has pared down operating expenses, with only four employees and, to keep down food costs, a menu that will feature five or six items — a burger, chicken sandwich, BLT and nachos, to name a few. Items will be priced $12 and up, but customers can essentially upcharge their meals to help cover a meal for someone else. A diner will be given what Sanderlin called “a golden ticket” — basically, a meal voucher — to hand out within the community.
“Or you can use it for your next meal,” Sanderlin explained. “It’s a way to pay it forward. So if you come up to me and order a $12 meal of sandwich, chips, and drink, you have the option of spending $22, and by giving me another $10, I’m going to give you a golden ticket.”
Instructions will be printed on the ticket so the user knows how to redeem it for a meal at The Sexy Food Truck. “And if someone doesn’t have cash, we accept canned goods for the meal vouchers — three number 10 cans,” Sanderlin specified.
Those goods will be used to create free community meals at large gatherings, which Sanderlin hopes to host twice monthly. They will be scoop-and-serve meals focused on areas that house food-insecure populations.
“We used to feed people at Greenfield Lake a lot,” he said. “I’ve teamed up with Support the Port to help feed different areas on the northside. I want to team up with Walking Tall.”
Once The Sexy Food Truck is open, it can be booked for corporate events. Primarily, Sanderlin said the truck will be operating for breakfast, lunch and dinner across Wilmington and Leland — just search for the neon “Sexy Food” light to be shining.
“That light will be like our own Krispy Kreme Hot ‘N’ Fresh sign,” Sanderlin said. “So when it’s on, we’re doing good.”
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