WILMINGTON — In just over a year, Sam Steger has turned Mess Hall into one of Wilmington’s most popular burger joints. Located in a quonset hut in The Cargo District, the restaurant operates with three to five people churning out upward of 450 or so burgers a day to diners situated in the Alcove Beer Garden and outdoor dining area.
It has exceeded Steger’s goals since he started the operation in July 2020.
“I was like, ‘Man, if we could do like 120 to 150 people a day, that would be awesome,’” Steger recalled. “I can’t believe we have grown so fast.”
He gestured to Mess Hall’s soon-to-be 3,000 square-foot building, formerly a wood shop and office located at 2156 Wrightsville Ave. The industrial warehouse will seat 60 or so diners inside, and 80 to 90 outside in an adjoining 7,800-square-foot grassy area. The empty lot was a perfect fit for Steger’s expansion plan: to grow Mess Hall beyond a restaurant and into a full-service bar, with all ABC permits, and dog park.
“We’ve got places in Wilmington you can take your dogs, and it’s awesome,” Steger said, “but there’s not a bar or restaurant where you can just let your dog run off-leash.”
The outdoor area of Mess Hall will be fully fenced-in so folks entering with their dogs can safely do so without coming through the indoor dining room. The health department doesn’t allow dogs inside of restaurants unless they’re service animals.
Half of the outdoor dining space will be further gated for pups to safely run, play, and partake in obstacle courses off leash. Steger said an attendant will be overlooking the dog park at all times. Yet, the owners also have to be nearby while eating and drinking at one of the outdoor tables, to keep a close watch on their animals.
“You can’t just bring your dog if he is aggressive toward other dogs and has a track record of that,” Steger clarified.
The dog park portion of the business will be a membership-based model. Steger hasn’t firmed up pricing but is considering $150 or so for the year and $25 to $30 for a monthly pass; a day pass would be $5 and the costs are per dog. The fees help pay for the attendants and the upkeep of the park itself. Individuals will purchase memberships on Mess Hall’s website and will be required to upload their animal’s vaccination records and any behavioral reports.
“It’s inevitable we will have dogs that are going to be banned, which is unfortunate, but we also have to keep it safe for everybody,” Steger said.
Diners won’t be able to eat in the dog park proper; however, dogs that remain leashed will be welcomed tableside outdoors only.
The dog bar and restaurant trend has popped up in cities nationwide, from Texas to Colorado, Kansas to Maryland. Seger said he plans to have special events hosted for dog park members, such as training sessions and vendor fairs.
The idea to grow Mess Hall into a dog park came from a few people in Steger’s sphere. He said Leslie Smith of LS Smith Inc. — who developed The Cargo District — showed interest in a dog bar coming to the area. Smith is helping Steger construct the new space, only a few blocks away from the district.
One of Steger’s employees suggested it, too.
“Actually, her mom told her she should talk to me about doing a dog park and restaurant,” Steger said. “I hadn’t really considered it.”
Steger — who, with his wife and two toddlers, also are proud dog-owners — researched it and liked the concept.
“When I mentioned to my employee I was going to do it, she was pumped,” he said. “I like to have a team who is as excited about Mess Hall as I am.”
It’s one of Steger’s goals, in fact: to be a place people want to work and change some of the bad habits kitchens and the restaurant industry overall have garnered over the years. “They can be toxic,” Steger admitted. “I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants that just didn’t have a good culture.”
A graduate from Cape Fear Community College’s culinary program, Steger said he runs Mess Hall with a 20-member team currently, all of whom he considers friends. He expects to add 10 or 20 more employees once he moves the restaurant into a larger space.
“As we grow, I’m trying to make opportunities for everybody,” he said. “I’m not trying to make a bunch of money off of people. I’m trying to do good, have a restaurant where you can enjoy your job, and bring friends along with me.”
The starting wage at Mess Hall is $13 an hour, with pay increases, and everyone benefits from tip share. Steger said employees mostly clear $20 an hour and more on weekends. He also does outings every quarter to show appreciation and get to know the team on a more personal level.
“Everybody is getting just as excited about the move as I am about it,” he said.
For one, he and his kitchen staff are looking forward to spacing out a bit more. The kitchen will triple the size of its current setup, which was outfitted out of a 160 square-foot cargo container. Counter service will still be the modus operandi, only Steger is considering a buzzer system to alert diners when their burgers, fried chicken sandwiches and tots are ready.
Steger will finally be serving breakfast, too, he said — something he has wanted to do since opening Mess Hall’s doors. Though the menu has been finalized, he essentially ran out of space to operate during morning hours.
“The restaurant is accepting three trucks of inventory a week already,” he said. “We don’t have enough storage for everything right now.”
Even though that will change in the Wrightsville Avenue location, Steger said it doesn’t necessarily mean more menu items will be added for lunch and dinner.
“I think that keeping the small, simple menu is just the way to go,” he said. “I may add a specialty burger here and there. I’m weary of places that have 40 to 50 different things — I get stressed out. I think it’s a lot easier to do everything great if we have eight things we’re doing constantly.”
A bar will be front and center inside the building, with a program offering cocktails, beer and wine. It also will include milkshakes, even boozy varieties.
The building has 400 square feet of offices at one end for Mess Hall to occupy as well. While it will serve its purpose to file and pay bills at the onset, Steger’s wheels are already turning for a possible separate concept in the future.
He’s also envisioning the next growth spurt of the business, which could include expanding into other cities.
“I like having a lot of things going at once,” the 30-year-old said.
Steger is eyeing spring 2022 for the restaurant’s relocation and opening. Until then, Mess Hall will continue to serve the public at its current space, 348 Hutchison Ln., Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
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