SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — A culinary figure in Wilmington’s dining scene passed away unexpectedly.
James Smith, 48, owner of the downtown Wilmington and Carolina Beach locations of Fork N Cork, as well as Riverlights’ Smoke on the Water, suffered a head injury that resulted in his death on Sunday.
His brother, Dustin Smith, said the freak accident occurred when the restaurateur tripped over his new puppy and hit his head.
“He was always there for me,” Dustin said. “Anytime — and, honestly, he treated other people very much the same way.”
Smith grew up in Texas, went to college at Texas Christian University for a brief bit before landing in New Orleans. In the Big Easy, he worked at Pat O’Brien’s but left after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.
Upon relocation to the Port City, Smith was a managing partner at Delancey’s in The Forum. He also worked as a bartender at Caprice Bistro and at Ruth’s Chris Steak House before going into business for himself.
“James just always had the desire for food,” Dustin said. “I will quote him on this — and my mother is gonna get mad — but James always said he learned to cook because my parents could not.”
Their father was a railroad worker, their mother an overnight nurse.
“When I was 6, 7 years old, he was making lasagnas, homemade pasta,” Dustin recalled. “He always wanted to learn and he turned it into something and grew with this town.”
In 2011, Smith put his energy into his own startup: a food truck, Patty Wagon, specializing in gourmet burgers. He also was at the forefront of advocating for better regulations that allowed the trucks to operate in the City of Wilmington — a move that has led to a flourishing industry 12 years later.
“He went up against city council and spoke out for more changes,” Dustin said. “There’s been a lot of brick-and-mortar restaurants that came from food trucks because of the trail he blazed.”
By 2014, Smith’s business was booming and Fork N Cork was born, opening in the former Slice of Life location at 122 Market St. Two years later he opened Smoke on the Water in Riverlights, followed by a second Fork N Cork in Carolina Beach in 2019.
Dustin, also in the restaurant industry throughout his life, moved to town in 2017 to help his brother take over the former Bone & Bean BBQ on Carolina Beach Road. But after hurricanes, construction issues and the Covid-19 pandemic, Smith decided to close it in 2020 and rolled over items from the restaurant’s menu to his other eateries.
“It’s been a busy six years,” he told PCD at the time. “It’s time to regroup, see what works and go from there.”
Dustin helped man the Carolina Beach location after Bone & Bean’s closure. However, three months ago, he stepped back to focus on his 11-year-old son, with whom his brother was close to as well.
“James loved his family,” Dustin said, seven years his junior. “He put his restaurants on hold from opening three times throughout the years: for my wedding, for my son’s delivery and again for our father’s funeral. But we are keeping them going.”
All three restaurants closed Sunday upon the official announcement of Smith’s death but reopened Monday.
“That’s what James would have wanted,” Carolina Beach Fork N Cork bar manager Shannon Moore said.
She has worked at the location for three years. What was meant to be a part-time job turned into full-time, partially because of how easy it was to work for Smith.
“He was just a great person,” Moore said.
She said Smith had a clear vision for his restaurants but a laid-back leadership style that made it a welcoming place to be. He was never one to micro-manage and always open to new ideas.
“He was so friendly, outgoing and would do anything for anyone,” Moore said. “I’m kind of at a loss right now, but I know he would hate all this attention.”
While Smith had a passion for cooking and cocktails, he also loved the community he called home. Oftentimes, he would perform selfless acts of kindness. In 2015, he reached out to local Kieran Brown to help after the single mother had forgotten to make reservations for a special brunch with her young daughter, Ava.
“Ava had been stressing because she knew Mother’s Day was coming up,” Brown said. “And she had friends planning gifts and stuff like that for their moms. And she was concerned she didn’t have anyone to take her to get gifts.”
Brown told Ava not to worry, that she would make sure to get them a reservation.
“But time got away,” the mother said.
So when she posted on social media that all reservations she had attempted to make were booked and she didn’t want to disappoint her daughter, she got a message from Smith. He told her he would make sure they got in to eat that day at Fork N Cork.
Upon arrival, not only was a seat saved for the two, Smith bought flowers and a card for Ava to sign, as well as gave her a gift card to pay for the meal for her mom.
“Everything about it was amazing,” Brown said.
It has become their annual Mother’s Day ritual. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, when restaurants were closed due to shutdown orders, Smith ensured their special day was planned. He rented out a model condo above the CB Fork N Cork, had a cook go into the restaurant to prepare their brunch, and sent the meal up to them, along with champagne for Brown, to enjoy while overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
He also helped Ava during a tough time in school in 2018 when she was being bullied, Brown described. Smith reached out and suggested they help make the then-primary school student a local celebrity by letting her create a burger of the week to be on the Fork N Cork menu. Ava settled on a breakfast burger, made with waffles — “he always made special strawberry waffles for me,” she said — bacon, egg, shoestring potatoes, and jam atop a burger.
Smith unveiled the handheld during Guy Fieri’s visit to Wilmington and Fork N Cork for “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in May 2018. He also had Fieri give Ava a pep talk before they went on air to discuss the burger.
“Guy still follows her Instagram,” Brown said. “And all of that was coordinated by James.”
The restaurant features the Ava Burger every year on Mother’s Day.
Ava said once she got her own phone, she and Smith kept in touch and not just for the traditional holiday event. Ava launched her own business in recent years, selling pens and key chains, and said she would hear from Smith.
“He was always a good support system,” she said. “He would text me that he was proud of me.”
Beer Barrio owner Hayley Jensen hailed Smith’s compassion and generosity, something that always shone through. They met when she and her husband, Stephen Durley, were considering moving to Wilmington to open Beer Barrio.
Fork N Cork had opened a year before and won Best New Restaurant in Wilmington through the now-defunct encore magazine’s Best Of Awards.
“He told us, ‘You’ll be taking home the win next year,’” Jensen remembered. “He was just an industry guy through and through. With 20 plus years, you understand people — you know when they’re upset or when they’re happy. That was James. He had a good head on shoulders and was trustworthy.”
Jensen said she looked to Smith as a confidant, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. They often checked in with each other over the challenges they faced and how they planned to rise above a hard-hit industry, whether it was to apply for PPP loans or other grants.
“He’s just gonna be so missed for his perspective and his experience,” she said. “He was always so upbeat — just a man of character.”
Barbary Coast owner Eli Ellsworth agrees. He said two weeks ago Smith called him to take the temperature on how Hi seltzers — a nonalcoholic beverage — were selling at downtown Wilmington’s oldest bar.
“I was so flattered he called for my opinion, of all people,” Ellsworth said. “He knows many in the industry who have their thumb on the pulse, so to speak, but always respected everyone’s thoughts.”
Ellsworth said he can’t remember the time he actually met Smith. Rather, the larger-than-life personality was embedded on the scene at the onset of his arrival.
“He was like everyone’s long lost brother who just showed up out of nowhere,” he said.
Smith helped Ellsworth’s wife, Erin, get her flower business, Petals for the People, off the ground. He would order blooms daily for Smoke on the Water and a large bouquet for his own home on River Road.
“He supported everyone, always had a kind word,” Ellsworth said. “He’s just a legend in the business — many times giving people second, third, fourth, fifth chances because he really believed in the good in folks.”
In 2017, Smith paired up with manna owner Billy Mellon to host a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. It raised a little more than $10,000, donated to a local church to distribute among their congregation in need.
“He and I always talked Texas,” said Mellon, who called Smith “a great guy — doubtful anyone disliked him.” “We used to try and figure out how to ‘import’ Lone Star [beer] into the NC market, but for some reason could never make that happen.”
Every 9/11 Smith would have fresh steaks cut to deliver to firefighters at Station 2 near Empie Park as a gesture for the hard work first responders endure.
“A couple of times, we had a barbecue pit delivered for them to cook on,” Dustin said. “I have super large shoes to fill, but I will do my best to keep my big brother’s legacy going.”
A public gathering will take place at Smoke on the Water on Monday, Aug. 7, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Drinks and appetizers will be served. All the restaurants will be closed to dining during this time.
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