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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Right ‘On Thyme’: Popular food truck debuts brick-and-mortar on Castle Street 

On Thyme Restaurant opens to the public Saturday. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON —  “There was a lot of anxiety in buying this place,” Corey Scott said Tuesday morning. 

He and his wife Phallin were preparing for Saturday’s grand opening of On Thyme Restaurant. In the last 21 months, the Scotts have been facilitating operations of its food truck as it morphs into a brick-and-mortar.

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Last year, they signed a lease to take over 918 Castle Street, once home to Booty’s Soul Food. The restaurant, opened by Lynwood “Booty” Davis in the 1970s, was renowned for its fried chicken. In March 2020, it closed due to the pandemic and a year later Davis decided to hang up the tongs.

“Getting a permit for this place, undergoing construction, waiting on final permits, supply chain issues, continuing the food truck, it has been a lot,” Corey said. “But, now, I feel like everything is starting to come together.”

On Thyme Restaurant will be unveiled on the southside near downtown at 11 a.m., Nov. 26. The 1,500-square-foot gray building has been gutted and undergone vast renovations with the assistance of Old School Rebuilders. The dining area has tripled capacity from its former iteration. Fifty-four diners will comfortably seat at booths and tables inside and on a newly built deck outdoors.

The Scotts tapped another new small business, LJD Studio Co., to help create On Thyme’s vibrant aesthetic. A red, black and white palate is highlighted by geometric details and art work. A wall of greenery pops at the back of the restaurant, illuminating the words “Ooh … you got thyme,” to offer Intsagrammable moments for diners.

“It’s about creating a vibe,” Corey said.

The Wynwood area in Miami — a district brimming with colorful murals — was a point of reference to help bring to life the “arts” in the name of On Thyme’s locale in the Castle Street Arts District. 

On Thyme Restaurant’s interior design was created by LJ Design. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

On the side of the building, overlooking the restaurant deck, is a mural commissioned by Art by Nugget and Manix. It celebrates landmarks and luminaries of Wilmington’s Black community: Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon, NBA star Michael Jordan, world-renowned tennis player Althea Gibson and Dr. Hubert Eaton who discovered Gibson. 

It also highlights the tiger mascot from 10th Street’s Williston School — the first Black school in the area built in the late 1800s. Booty is included in homage to the restaurant’s roots, as well as the Scotts’ faces indicative of its future. A pink ribbon features the phrase “creating a community” in honor of Phallin’s survival from breast cancer.

“This is the path that was given to us,” Corey said, “and it’s a great path for numerous reasons. We saved a historic Black-owned building on Castle Street. And Castle Street is growing like crazy — the new small downtown.”

The Scotts are seasoned in burgeoning growth. On Thyme’s rise to fame came quick and in the middle of a pandemic, nonetheless. As a food truck, it was poised to withstand Covid-19 restrictions that disproportionately affected many industries, including restaurants. 

Because it’s operations survived with to-go products and without dine-in standards, it could churn out hundreds of meals in a few hours at various locations and still adhere to social distancing measures. On Thyme parked at area businesses — GE, the Honda dealership, New Hanover County Department of Health and Social Services — as well as neighborhoods five to seven days a week. 

One unexpected big box store brought the most customers: Sam’s Club. 

“They had closed down their kitchen and brought in food trucks,” Phallin said, “and we just took off.”

Within three months, she said On Thyme cleared what Corey normally would make in a year’s salary. Formerly, the thirty-something was employed by New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s cafeteria, where he met Phallin. 

“I like the restaurant business because I like being pleasant to people — for customers to feel welcome,” Phallin said.

She has decades of experience, working as a shift leader at fast-food chains before being employed by LM Restaurants, at its former eatery Eddie Romanelli’s in Leland.

On Thyme Restaurant’s mural was done by Art by Nugget and Manix. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Phallin will lead On Thyme’s front-of-the-house management, while Corey will focus on back-of-the-house.

Aside from cooking for his brother and sister in youth while his mother worked, Corey admitted he hadn’t considered a job in the culinary field — much less envisioned himself a restaurateur. 

“I left Pembroke in 2006 and was playing football,” he said. “Then I got a job at the hospital and stayed there for 13 years.”

He worked his way up through the ranks, from dishwasher to line server then as chef during the last six years at NHRMC. 

“I didn’t know how to flip fish, a burger or anything,” he said. “But I used to play around in the kitchen with the chefs at the hospital, and one day they were short a person on the line and gave me a shot.”

After picking up more cooking shifts and gaining experience, Corey said he learned he thrived under pressure and being efficient. By the end of 2019, he left the hospital to launch On Thyme Catering officially, with the goal to do private events. The paperwork was signed in December and three months later the pandemic reached North Carolina.

“Everybody canceled their weddings, their family reunions — everything,” Phallin said. “Luckily, we had the food truck at that point and pivoted.”

Within weeks of its debut, On Thyme’s famed Philly cheesesteak egg rolls and shrimp po’boys with Corey’s signature remoulade sauce had become customer favorites.

Corey served burgers and wings, crab cakes and shrimp fried rice, as well as fried seafood plates. 

“I like messing with seafood,” he said. “There is so much you can do with it.”

Yet, the confines of a food truck only allowed for so much product. At first, the Scotts opened for four hours at a time, but they consistently were selling out of food before shifts ended.

“We had to crunch it down in two to three hours because of how busy it was,” Corey said.

As the brick-and-mortar opens, it means having more space to store and prepare food and operate longer hours — five days a week, Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday until 9 p.m.

“So many people told us, ‘I can never catch the truck from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. because I’m working,’” Phallin said. “So, now, those people can have dinner with us.”

Corey has devised a menu with 19 items to start — a surf and turf burger, crab and shrimp balls, seafood mac, fried chicken sandwiches, crab dip. As the restaurant finds its groove, he will add daily specials, like a lamb chop with Henny glaze (barbecue sauce created with Hennessey cognac).

“Having customers tell me how good the food tastes, it’s unmatched recognition — and I don’t mean like popularity,” Corey said, “but for the art of creation and putting out good work.”  

The menu features interchangeable ingredients, consisting of only four proteins — shrimp, burgers, chicken and fish — made five or six different ways. It’s Corey’s goal for the process and productivity to be easy on everyone working the line.

“Those egg rolls may be a tough one for the prep station, though, because they’re hand-rolled,” he mused. “We’re looking at like 100 to 150 a day to start.”

The Scotts have hired 12 people to prep, cook, check out customers, and expedite food. Phallin said they also plan to continue running the food truck and will have staff split shifts between the restaurant and mobile eatery. 

And the On Thyme brand won’t stop there. Already, the Scotts are cooking up plans to expand on the three other lots they purchased beside Booty’s. 

“We thought about building a commissary kitchen,” Phallin said, referring to the health department-regulated spaces food trucks prep out of. There seems to be an ongoing shortage amid growing food truck demand.

“Other people are always reaching out to us for ideas on where they can go because as soon as one opens, it fills up,” she said. “So we want to do something on those lots that helps the community.”

On Thyme Restaurant’s grand opening takes place Saturday, 11 a.m., and will feature live music spun by MC Bigg B of Coast 97.3, games, plus a live band will take the stage at 5 p.m. Food will be served for dine-in only; the menu can be accessed here. Phallin said they will continue to book entertainment in its outdoor courtyard.

On Thyme Restaurant’s interior design was created by LJ Design. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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