WILMINGTON — The Cargo District has cranked up the backhoe for its incoming food court, a project more than two years in the making.
Developer Leslie Smith is eyeing a summer opening of Cargo West, a two-story food court featuring seven restaurants. Backing up to the court will be a 3,500-square-foot arcade and bar, located in the old Bottles and HomeGrown Market space. Smith couldn’t announce the name or owners quite but said it will contain a 20-foot bar and games including skee ball, air hockey, pinball and others.
“It was something I always wanted to do here,” he said. “And as arcade bars continued to gain ground in other municipalities, like Raleigh and Charlotte, we began seriously considering it.”
Rally Point opened just last fall in downtown Wilmington on Walnut Street and there are rumblings of a Dave and Buster’s scouting the area.
Smith centers the Cargo District on all local concepts. In consideration of the food court, he has heard from restaurateurs selling Korean corn dogs, desserts, and barbecue. Zeke’s Bowls and Copper Penny have expressed interest as well.
Zeke’s co-owner Nick Cole has been in talks for three years now with Smith to launch a second location in the district. Zeke’s opened in Wrightsville Beach in 2018.
“This new development could not be more perfect,” Cole said. “We love the idea of having a walk-up-and-order 40-foot container.”
Cole said a truncated menu would be served in the district, featuring Zeke’s most popular items, such as açai bowls, tuna poke bowls, smoothies and cold brew coffee.
The food court will have pathways leading to surrounding Cargo District hubs. Not only will it be close to the bar and arcade, which will have some lounge areas outside, Cargo West is adjacent to Azalea Station — a bar that opened last year behind the second Coworx space off Castle Street. Outdoor seating will be constructed for Azalea Station and the food court, according to Smith, plus already in place are roughly 175 seats in the nearby Alcove bar and Beat Street restaurant.
“We will have some covered space, too, such as pergolas and cabanas,” Smith said.
Construction delays on the food court have been caused by business growth in other areas of the Cargo District. In the last two years, Smith has built out Azalea Station, a second Coworx, Ruff Draft, Bull City Cidery, helped Mess Hall relocate and outfitted another space for End of Days Distillery’s production needs.
Cargo District started in the immediate area of Queen Street between 16th and 17th streets when Smith began acquiring properties in 2010. He started upfitting the buildings rather than razing them and turning infill space into offices and businesses made from shipping containers.
The district has grown into a six-block radius, along 15th, 16th and 17th streets, up Queen and Castle streets. Smith bought the Delgado Square strip mall in 2022, expanding the it east onto Wrightsville Avenue. Next door to Delgado are Cargo District businesses Ruff Draft and Mess Hall.
The food court will be located in what has been dubbed “Cargo West,” near the corner of Castle and 15th streets. The first containers will be stacked Wednesday and then Smith anticipates the pace will move along quickly.
“Our construction tends to move at a much faster pace because a lot of it we are prefabbing,” he explained, referring to the shipping containers. “Normally on construction, you would grate, put the pad in and set the building. We do the complete opposite. We put up the tree protection, put up the shield fence, set the building, and then start grading up to it.”
The latest additions will bring the total number of businesses up from roughly 89. Currently, the Cargo District has six restaurants, nine drinkeries — including bars, bottle shops, coffee shops, a cidery, and distillery — plus more than 70 creative, service-based and retail businesses. The dynamic vibe in the district is what most appeals to Cole.
“It has such an awesome customer base and amazing business and business owners,” he said. “What’s so great is the district is already steadily busy yet growing at the same time.”
Soon, Banh Sai — a popular food truck — will transition into its first brick-and-mortar in Delgado Square. Another expansion beyond the food court is also on the horizon, as Cargo West LLC bought Grissoms Wheel Alignment at 1802 Castle St., located across from End of Days Distillery.
Built in 1940, Grissoms shop is just over 9,000 square feet. Smith hasn’t decided yet what it will be, but he likes the vibe of Starbucks Reserve — an industrial concept by the coffee chain giant which centers on java experiences under one large roof. There could be a roastery and a bar featuring boozy coffee drinks, made from rare single-origin coffees.
“Of course, it wouldn’t be Starbucks because we like to support locals,” Smith said.
The Cargo District’s entire mission supports business startups. Many entrepreneurs get their legs by setting up shop in smaller containers and shifting around to larger ones as they grow. This comes from not mandating long-term leases.
“I don’t want them locked in to where they couldn’t get out of it and just break a person,” Smith said. “That’s not what this is about. We like to leave it open enough, to where if a business is not performing like they want or it has a new concept, we can make changes.”
As for who exactly will go into food court or for how long, Smith said nothing is set in stone: “I haven’t signed with anyone.”
But he hopes to start filling the seven spaces by spring.
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