WILMINGTON — When Mess Hall owner Sam Steger threw down a deposit for a spot inside the growing Outpost project in the Cargo District, there was no turning back — even when, weeks later, the Covid-19 pandemic caused a large portion of the state’s economy to come to a screeching halt.
“I guess I’m a stubborn person, and just said, ‘We’re going to make it happen,'” Steger recalled of those early days, weeks after he had left his chef job at the Casa Blanca coffee shop in Ogden to open his first restaurant.
Now, months into the pandemic, he’s looking to open the newest business in Leslie Smith’s incubator hub this Thursday (pending a meeting with the county’s health department).
The idea for Mess Hall began when Steger and his son were getting their hair cut across the street from the Outpost at the Queen Street Barbershop. When he mentioned to his favorite barber a plan to open a food truck, he was told to reach out to Smith. When they met, things just clicked, according to Steger.
“This just kind of fell in place, so I’m doing it,” Steger said, laughing at how everything had worked out.
But instead of opening in one of the shipping containers stacked out behind the old Quonset hut at the corner of 16th and Queen Street, as was the original plan, Smith had another idea for the aspiring entrepreneur and Cape Fear Culinary School graduate. Bespoke Coffee was going to leave the space at the front of the building — because of the pandemic, owner Chris Batten needed to focus on his downtown location — so Smith offered Steger that space plus a small kitchen in an adjoining shipping container.
He said he’s keeping his breakfast and lunch menu simple due to the tiny-home style kitchen he’ll be using: ‘breakfast burgers’ served with fried eggs on a meat patty and bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, ‘cheeseburger omelets,’ breakfast burritos, and several variations of hamburgers for lunch.
Asked what it’s been like opening his first restaurant amid a global pandemic, he said he was built for it.
“Honestly I don’t think I’ve ever done anything the easy way. The last five years, I’ve had two different trees fall down on my house: from Matthew first and then Florence,” Steger said. “And we plopped two kids out in that time — each time we had a kid, a tree fell down on our house.”
Like other local restaurants who have done well under the governor’s Covid-19 restrictions — places like PT’s Old Fashioned Grille and Port City Cheesesteak — Steger said he’ll focus on a takeout and delivery model.
“Even if we go back to Phase One, I think we would still do well,” he said.
Steger also said he wants to provide “high-end fast food” at affordable prices, expanding beyond what many would call a certain demographic inside the Cargo District.
“I want people to come here everyday and eat here if they want to. And especially in this community we’re in — I’m not trying to just draw white hipster people in here. I just want to serve a bunch of food and be a part of the community,” Steger said.
Ultimately, he’s happy to fit inside Smith’s vision for the place, where businesses come together in one area and complement each other’s products and services. Now, the Outpost has hamburgers and breakfast in the front space, a beer garden in the back of the hut, and a coffee shop and florist (Petals to the People) in two of the shipping containers out back.
Outpost Coffee began when Kourtnie Souders, the former manager of Bespoke’s Outpost location, told Smith how sad she was to see it go.
“It was weird; it wasn’t planned,” Souders recalled. “We came back from quarantine — we were closed up for a month-and-a-half or so — and heard all the changes that were being made. And I embarrassingly cried about how much I loved the shop, and he gave me a really cool opportunity.”
So she opened a small cafe in the container, where on one side it serves customers in the outdoor patio and on the other people driving through.
She said Plant Outpost had recently set up across the street next to the barbershop, selling house plants from a container.
“So you can go get your haircut, go get a tattoo — or a beer before your tattoo — then a post-tattoo coffee and then buy some plants,” Souders said.
See more pictures of the Mess Hall and Outpost below:
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