SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — “It’s been a good Hump Day,” Girard Newkirk said last week. “We passed the health inspection — that’s a reason to pop the bubbles.”
He was driving around town to procure last-minute items for a new food hall and commercial kitchen opening on the North Campus of Cape Fear Community College this month.
It’s Newkirk and his wife Tracey’s latest venture, Block Eatz, a partnership between their company Genesis Block and CFCC’s Small Business Center.
Genesis Block operates out of Common Desk coworking space downtown and provides small businesses opportunities to undergo training for development and connect with mentors in like-minded career fields. The goal is to help startups succeed across various sectors of the business class, “block by block,” Newkirk said.
The Newkirks were compelled to start Block Eatz after learning 500,000 new food startups open in the United States annually, according to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. In the next seven years, it’s expected to be 650,000 a year.
Block Eatz will be a food hall and kitchen incubator, located on CFCC’s North Campus in the former Port City Java, inside the campus’ McKeithen Center. It is set to open Sept 19.
“The data we got from [Genesis Block,] working with so many people, especially minority entrepreneurs — 85% of our businesses are women-owned — showed, for those that lack access to capital, food is typically the industry that they go into, just because that’s the lowest-hanging fruit,” Newkirk said.
Block Eatz is for budding restaurateurs looking to get their feet wet in the industry, without nose-diving into a lot of overhead with their own brick-and-mortar.
Earlier in the year, the Newkirks began renovations, upfitting the space into a commercial kitchen, now permitted as shared-use among its tenants. Essentially, its 2,500 square feet acts as a pop-up facility for restaurants, Newkirk said.
“This is a place where entrepreneurs can test a concept,” he explained and added Block Eatz’s goal is to break down barriers of entry into the market. “So they have a higher success rate two or three years down the road.”
Data shows that is when challenges begin to arise for business owners, according to Newkirk.
“Year two to year three, this is when the failure rate normally happens,” he said. “So what we try to do is develop a solution that addresses that two- to three-year period.”
The goal for Newkirk is to provide entrepreneurs help “from ideation to commercialization, with quality training, production space, and brand development.”
The hall will consist of two eateries at first, rotating days and hours of operation. The First Bite — a breakfast-centered food truck that’s been around for two years — will operate Monday and Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Paella Fusion owner Yanni Lopez is launching Cultura 311 Taco Shop to take over the remaining days, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Yanni Lopez and has participated in Genesis Block’s entrepreneurial workshops since launching Paella Fusion in 2017. The food truck and catering company won Genesis Block’s recent Shark Tank at the Shore event in mid-August.
Like the popular ABC show, the local concept consisted of contestants pitching business plans to judges and community members, and convincing them as to why the ideas would work.
“Yanni’s been in our ecosystem for about two years,” Newkirk said.
Genesis Block just began working with The First Bite over the last three months. Corey Maxson started the food truck with business partner Brian Glisson in 2021.
“I remember Genesis Block reaching out back then,” Maxson said, “but when you’re new in the business, you get so many emails, you don’t know what’s what. But they are a good group of people.”
Since The First Bite started, Maxson said he wanted to make changes to the menu, but some of the ideas wouldn’t necessarily work without the right equipment.
When starting The First Bite, no one else was doing a breakfast truck at the time. Despite supporters claiming they would eat breakfast all day, Maxson said the concept doesn’t always land well at evening events.
The First Bite menu consists of chicken and waffles, breakfast sandwiches and nacho tots. Maxson said having access to more equipment means testing more lunch items. He’s hoping to have a menu of at least five, in addition to the five items served for breakfast.
Featured will be a Buffalo chicken sandwich and an eggroll burrito, the latter consisting of chicken doused in an orange glaze, served with broccoli slaw and a side of peanut sauce.
He also looks forward to upping the ante on breakfast. Eventually, Maxson hopes to churn out homemade biscuits since he will have an oven, add in a Carolina burrito with country ham, sweet potato tots, apple butter, eggs and cheese, and sell different varieties of French toasts and pancakes.
“We have done a Key lime pancake that’s pretty amazing,” he said.
Price points will be $6 to $12 per order.
The First Bite food truck will also operate on days Maxson isn’t in the incubator kitchen, depending on staff availability.
“We’re still working out those details,” he said. “This opportunity, it’s just really neat. We get to learn what it would be like in an actual restaurant-style setting and what we’re capable of, and learn more about business things that we don’t know — so that part is really exciting.”
Genesis Block has a mentor network built of more than 25 people and 40 businesses; the company has worked with Chef Dean Neff of Seabird and Chef Keith Rhodes of Catch, both 2023 James Beard Award semifinalists for Best Chef Southeast. Block Eatz will offer monthly consultant services to tenants through those connections.
“A full consultant will provide seminars, workshops, and one-on-one training,” Newkirk said. “We have our our own entrepreneurship resources at Genesis Block, the culinary resources from a community college culinary department, and the Cape Fear Community College Small Business Center.”
Block Eatz also will provide a pipeline to CFCC’s culinary students. Newkirk envisions students who graduate with a culinary arts degree will be able to have a direct resource with Block Eatz to further develop business training.
“By uniting the resources and expertise of our diverse community, we have created a dynamic space where aspiring culinary entrepreneurs can thrive,” CFCC President Jim Morton said. “This effort fosters culinary talent, cultivates a spirit of entrepreneurship, and provides valuable experiential learning opportunities for our students.”
Block Eatz vendors’ leases are short-term, which Newkirk said is intentional to rotate offerings, likely each semester. All profits are split between the vendors and Block Eatz.
“Our vision is to support 25 food entrepreneurs in the Wilmington area by the end of 2024,” Newkirk said.
The Newkirks were looking at 1110 Castle St., a former bus depot, earlier this year for an incubator space but were outbid by developer David Spetrino. (PBW Development, LLC offered $867,500; Genesis Block bid $10,000).
“That was a great learning experience,” Newkirk said, “for me to learn how to play Chess a little — shake money sideways and make it long.”
Last week, Newkirk said there is a promising place on the southside of the downtown area for another kitchen and he’s looking at the Soda Pop District, among other spots.
“What we’re trying to do, especially in marginalized communities, is activate properties in those areas with food production centers,” he said.
The North Campus incubator space seats 115 people. According to CFCC, 327 faculty and staff work on the campus, with 3,046 students registered for courses there. Newkirk said there are plans to implement mobile ordering systems as well, so people around the campus can place an order for pick up.
“We have those industrial parks right there behind it,” Newkirk said of the North Campus. “Also, this is a food desert area,” meaning limited access to affordable and nutritious foods.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity to activate this; it’s going to be open to the entire community,” he added. “It allows the entrepreneurs to test new concepts and provides a dynamic experience for the public as well.”
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