LELAND — Kory Sanderlin’s dream of opening a full-service restaurant has been simmering since he was 12 years old. The Brunswick County native always took an interest in food more than other hobbies.
“My brothers were athletes,” Sanderlin said. “I was in the kitchen watching ma and grandma cook Thanksgiving dinners, or sitting near my dad’s grill just waiting for a sample.”
These days Sanderlin is more seasoned, with 10 years of experience behind him, including a degree from the culinary program at Cape Fear Community College. He’s worked in numerous local restaurants, from Elijah’s to Blockade Runner, and lived in Las Vegas, working in casinos, banquet halls, ballrooms and more restaurants, including under Wolfgang Puck and the late Kerry Simon.
Now, Sanderlin and his brother and business partner, Miles, have expanded their local venture M&K’s Kitchen from a 580-square-foot burger stand and food truck off Lanvale Road into a 2,600 square-foot establishment on Village Road in Leland.
Sanderlin didn’t imagine his dream would come to fruition in the middle of a global pandemic.
“This building hadn’t been run as a restaurant in 10 years,” he said of what used to be Pelican’s SnoBalls. “SnoBalls doesn’t have to follow health code but agricultural code, so the building hadn’t been inspected in a while.”
As Covid-19 shut down many restaurants in March, Sanderlin had signed a lease three weeks beforehand and took the downtime to work on his establishment: Electric, water and plumbing had to come up to code so he could get permitted.
“We spent seven months during Covid staying away from people, working around the clock to get it ready,” Sanderlin said.
Four weeks ago M&K’s opened to the public for takeout and delivery only.
Daily, the restaurant has been serving over 120 covers. Sanderlin’s menu hones Southern comfort foods, like crab cakes, meatloaf, drunken BBQ hen, and the chef’s favorite, oxtails.
“I opened this restaurant never cooking oxtails,” he admitted. “My business partner loves them and orders them everywhere we go.”
Sanderlin found the sweet spot of lowering the dish to 250 degrees and letting them cook for 14 hours slow and low.
“Not nine hours at 370, or even 13 hours at 250,” he specified. “My first batch was horrible—tough and dry. My second batch was executed well, but my third was perfect. They’ve become a menu favorite.”
Sanderlin cooks upward of 20 pounds a day and by 7 p.m. is usually sold out of the dish, which is served over rice with a choice of two country fixins.
M&K’s menu also includes the burgers and sandwiches Sanderlin perfected at M&K’s food stand—a place he calls a mad lab to test out what would work in the new location.
“I ran a specials board there, so this menu is a composite of all those specials,” he noted. “We would easily serve 80 people a day there, and the conversation wasn’t ‘what’s on your menu’—it was the specials: ‘What did you do today that you didn’t do yesterday?’”
Sanderlin misses the interaction with customers; he often took their order at the stand’s walk-up window. Nowadays, beginning at 6 a.m. he’s spaced out in a larger kitchen with a few line cooks, prepping the day’s ingredients before serving lunch at 11 a.m. By 3 p.m. he switches gears and begins helping with dinner deliveries.
“Customers now see me live on social media in the morning and at night, and then I show up at their door with their food,” Sanderlin said. “The last person they expect to show up is the chef, but I like building relationships.”
Community and family is at the heart of M&K’s philosophy. The restaurant is a family operation, with the Sanderlins’ mom, cousins and siblings keeping customer service homey and approachable.
“I want this atmosphere to be like in grandma’s kitchen, to feel like home,” Sanderlin said.
However, he isn’t in a hurry to move into dine-in seating quite yet; his grandmother, in fact, lives with his family. They’re close-knit and manage to share meals together, despite the crazy work hours the restaurant demands.
“Grandma is elderly, so we will open the dining room when I feel like I won’t be bringing any threat home to her,” Sanderlin said.
He designed the dining area to seat 37 people, with little room to space the tables 6 feet apart. He also has communal high-tops in another area, welcoming 12 diners.
“We encourage people to get to know one another, which is not Covid friendly,” Sanderlin noted. “So we aren’t going to open the dining room until people can connect—and come make a friend. That’s what we want M&K’s to be about.”
Sanderlin takes the same philosophy into the community with numerous nonprofits he’s been involved helping. He utilized his food truck to be of service to Support the Port’s Stop the Violence campaign with founder Cedris Harrison. The two delivered food to families in the northside of Wilmington during Thanksgiving and Hurricane Florence. They also worked with Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen during Florence, delivering upward of 300 meals a day, five counties wide. That philanthropic approach will continue.
“We’re helping sell 100 Boston butts right now for a classmates’ dad who is undergoing chemo,” the North Brunswick High School graduate said. “We also will be working an event in November with James Moore, who just opened Biig Fiie on Campbell Street. We have helped him feed the homeless at Greenfield Lake. Community is important to us.”
M&K’s Kitchen is open seven days a week, 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. weeknights and until 11 p.m. on weekends.
Send tips and comments to Shea Carver at firstname.lastname@example.org