CAROLINA BEACH — Almost two weeks after restaurateur James Smith passed away, one of his restaurants will be closing, according to his family.
The Carolina Beach Fork N Cork, which opened in 2019, will have its final day of service on Sunday, Aug. 13.
Smith’s brother, Dustin, and his mother, Diane, inherited the restaurants. Dustin told Port City Daily the downtown Fork N Cork and Riverlights’ Smoke on the Water will remain open. The decision to shutter the Carolina Beach location was made over the last week.
“After having discussions with our attorneys, financial advisors and tax people — and we tried many different formulas — we all came to the conclusion this is the best for the ongoing future of James’ work,” Dustin said.
The beach location has endured its fair share of hardships since opening, he added, including hurricanes, a global pandemic and most recently changes to paid and expanded parking in Carolina Beach.
“During the summer, as you know, it’s much higher,” Dustin said. “You’re gonna walk 500 feet to the restaurant from wherever you’re paying to park. With the carnival there, that’s two whole parking lots full directly across from the building. That didn’t close us down, but it plays a role — especially for employees who have to pay to park.”
Expenses also have increased in recent years — from cost of service to food — due to inflation and supply and demand.
“Absolutely everything has gone up,” Dustin said, adding that being a seasonal restaurant doesn’t help either.
FNC faces a decline in clientele by September when the summer season comes to a close. Carolina Beach has a bit more than 6,000 full-time residents, which during the summer swells to 30,000 or so. While many restaurants close off-season, Fork N Cork does not, but the reality is, numbers decline.
“The beach is a different animal,” Dustin said. “Our revenue drops 40% immediately after summer until March.”
He broke the news to staff on Thursday about the closure; some are college students who are likely less affected, as they will be heading back to school in the coming weeks. He hopes to transfer some employees to Smoke or the downtown Fork N Cork — or at the very least help them find jobs elsewhere.
“I have reached out to other local restaurants, from the island all the way to downtown, and I’ve had some great conversations with Jeff Duckworth at Copper Penny and Max from Veggie Wagon,” he said.
He added it was hard to come to the conclusion, but it seemed the most logical step under the current circumstances. Dustin has been moving between the stores in the last few weeks, while taking care of his brother’s estate and rearing his young son.
“We had dreams of anchoring Carolina Beach,” he said. “But things change — unexpectedly.”
A culinary figure on Wilmington’s dining scene, James suffered an injury that resulted in his death on Sunday, July 30. It was a freak accident, as the restaurateur tripped over his new puppy and hit his head.
A memorial was held at Smoke on the Water Monday evening, with more than 100 people coming through to pay their respects.
“It was great,” Dustin said. “We opened up the microphone and had a bunch of people talking about James and sharing stories.”
The Smiths grew up in Texas. James went to college at Texas Christian University for a brief bit before landing in New Orleans. He relocated to the Port City in 2005 and worked as a managing partner at the now-defunct Delancey’s, before becoming a bartender at Caprice Bistro and Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
In 2011, he went into business for himself by launching a food truck, Patty Wagon, specializing in gourmet burgers. He was at the forefront of advocating for better regulations that allowed the trucks to operate in the City of Wilmington.
James’ business was booming by 2014, the year he transformed Patty Wagon into Fork N Cork at the former Slice of Life location at 122 Market St. It won Best New Restaurant by the now-shuttered encore magazine, which had the original Best Of awards in Wilmington.
All items at the Pleasure Island eatery will be 25% off through Sunday, from drinks to burgers.
“I would love to make it through Sunday,” Dustin said. “But you never know — if we continue to get this outpouring of love, we could sell out before Sunday.”
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