WILMINGTON — “I am nervous — and excited,” Rachel McGhinnis revealed Tuesday, five hours ahead of her first dinner service at The Little Dipper. “I’ve been a freight train engineer, I’ve been an underground miner, but I have never been a restaurateur.”
McGhinnis and her husband, Jason, got the keys Monday to 138 S. Front St. They purchased the 17-year-old fondue restaurant from Pete and Kristen Gruodis, who oversaw almost two decades of its growth and expansion.
“This is definitely a bittersweet moment for us,” Kristen Gruodis said in a press release sent by MoMentum Companies, which oversaw the business transaction.
The Gruodises want to spend more time with their children, according to the release: “We like to say [selling the restaurant] was a lot like raising a child who’s now ready to go off on their own. While we focus on our young family at home, we are excited to turn the business over to a great couple.”
The McGhinnises found the for-sale business, marked as confidential, in a classified listing earlier in the year. “The ad said something like it had been established since 2005,” Rachel McGhinnis said. “I started Googling what year downtown restaurants opened in Wilmington.”
She and her husband surmised, even hoped, it would be The Little Dipper. Both are foodies and have frequented the establishment since moving to town (Rachel over a decade ago and Jason six years ago). Once they signed a nondisclosure agreement and learned their suspicions were true, both didn’t hesitate to make the investment.
“We love that place — awesome location, amazing reputation, well-established,” McGhinnis said.
Only one of the two McGhinnises have restaurant experience, yet they’re bringing to the table combined knowledge in marketing and understanding processes in which successful companies run.
“I was a manager of a restaurant in my 20s,” McGhinnis said, though she’s been working for Alcami over the last decade. She will be overseeing The Little Dipper daily operations as she transitions away from the pharmaceutical industry until her replacement is hired.
Her husband will continue to work as an engineer for ThermoFisher and run his own marketing company, while working behind the scenes at the restaurant. Tuesday night both will make first appearances on the floor.
“I’ll be following the general manager, he will be in the kitchen,” McGhinnis said.
Getting to know their 25 employees and countless customers are the first steps to acclimating to the new enterprise, McGhinnis said. They are keeping all staff and hoping to add five or more in coming months. The newly minted restaurateurs plan to add benefits, like profit-sharing, paid days off, including birthdays, for part- and full-timers, and cover the costs of educational programs, such as culinary classes, bartending school or wine tasting opportunities. They also will pay for downtown parking fees and uniforms for their employees.
“We would love to give them full benefits,” McGhinnis said. “We can’t afford it right now, but we are looking into that long-term.”
She is encouraging open dialogue with servers, bartenders, kitchen staff and managers to find out what is working and what could use improvement. The plan is to set monthly sales goals so staff can witness firsthand how they can earn more money.
“I want them to feel like they have a chance at a career instead of just a job,” McGhinnis said.
An updated look is also coming to the eatery. The couple has been working with Big Sky Design to bring a “whimsical steampunk” vibe to the space. McGhinnis described darker colors, more constellations and stars, with some Victorian elements.
Renovations will take place on Mondays when The Little Dipper is closed and during the day before the restaurant opens for dinner.
“We’re taking baby steps,” McGhinnis said, though she also envisions opening on Mondays eventually.
As far as the menu is concerned, The Little Dipper favorites will remain. If anything, the new owners hope to bring additions — first and foremost, vegan options, including dairy-free “cheese.”
“We also want to serve raclette,” McGhinnis said. “It’s basically a giant wheel of cheese that you melt and then you scrape it off onto the plate.”
More appetizers and snack foods from Switzerland, the birthplace of fondue, will be added. McGhinnis imagines those items to be especially popular on the outdoor deck of the restaurant, which they hope to utilize more with live music.
“The Little Dipper isn’t just for dinner,” she said.
After dinner service, from 10 p.m. to midnight, McGhinnis wants to roll out a “super cocktail hour,” highlighting specialty drinks and putting the focus on flair bartending.
“More like works of art versus just, you know, your dinner cocktails,” she said.
Lunch and brunch will follow, with a concentration on foods for dipping: sandwiches and soups, biscuits and gravy or pancakes and syrups.
“We’ve got so many ideas, we really have to start corralling them,” McGhinnis said.
The Little Dipper is open for dinner at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 4 p.m. on weekends.
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