Thursday, June 13, 2024

Wilmingtonian steps in as Burgaw restaurant competition winner, runnerup also opening a deli

Khristen Hunter and Vinny Mangual are getting restaurants in Burgaw. (Courtesy photos)

WILMINGTON — After announcing last month the original winner of the Burgaw restaurant competition Own Your Own was no longer moving forward, the competition organization has revealed who will take Karoline Schwartz’s place.

READ MORE: Winning restaurateur for Burgaw’s Own Your Own competition no longer in the game: Here’s why

Wilmington resident Khristen Hunter — who was cut in the final round as the only local chef represented — will be opening a Southern-style eatery in the heart of Burgaw, centered on country breakfasts and blue plate lunches and dinners. 

While Hunter is going into 106/108 Courthouse Ave., runner-up Vinny Mangual — who faced off against Colorado chef Schwartz in the final cookoff last October — is moving back to town as well. Competition founder Richard Johnson separately entered an agreement with Mangual to open a deli on West Fremont Street in the historic Antiques on the Square building. Talks began right after OYO’s fall competition wrapped.

“Following the competition we were hoping for an opportunity to work with Vinny in the future and we’re glad that opportunity presented itself,” Johnson said.

He also praised Hunter’s farm-to-table concept and work ethic: “She’s exceptional in front-of-house and places a big importance on building relationships so it just made perfect sense.”

Born and raised on a farm outside of Greensboro, Hunter moved to Wilmington to attend UNCW. She studied to become a special education teacher, but having always worked in the food industry, she decided to continue pursuing that path a few years ago. 

The Courthouse Avenue restaurant will be her first solo venture; she is currently at Eggs Up Grill in Wilmington and will continue managing it as the Burgaw restaurant renovations get underway.

Hunter said the goal is to open in eight to 12 months; upfit was supposed to begin on the 2,250-square-feet restaurant last month. But the stalled deal between Schwartz and Johnson delayed plans.

Schwartz told PCD in February she questioned moving forward on the win when she learned after the competition she would not own licensing rights to her restaurant’s name, Outland. Schwartz said she also took issue that formal documents were not presented spelling out the terms immediately after the competition.

Hunter said Monday she has a solid working partnership with Johnson and called the agreement a “perfect fit” for someone without a large amount of capital to start a restaurant. 

She said Johnson kept in touch with contestants following the Own Your Own Competition and introduced her to industry people throughout town to help strengthen relationships. When Schwartz’s concept didn’t pan out, Hunter said she jumped at the opportunity to step in upon being asked.

“Richard’s been pretty clear about the deal the whole time,” Hunter said, adding Johnson explained the details when the competition’s top 12 were chosen.

Hunter’s winnings include Johnson’s $1 million investment to renovate 106/108 Courthouse Ave. and a lease to be calculated based on the total amount spent on the project. The OYO winner will not pay back anything on principle, Johnson told PCD last month, but rent would be based on a 5% return on his investment. Johnson broke it down as $50,000 divided by 12 months to determine the base rent.

He added it saves restaurateurs from having to put money down on a project, fix up a building — a historic one in this case — and invest in equipment.

OYO owns the name and licenses it to the chef, but Johnson previously said it would not prevent anyone from taking the name and opening another restaurant outside of the competition area. Though he said the two parties would share in the financial windfall, should the restaurant be franchisable. 

Upon Schwartz’s exit, Johnson’s idea was to pair up two previous OYO contestants into one restaurant: Hunter and Brandon Hunsaker, a California chef.

“We just have two very different concepts,” Hunter said, adding that meshing down-home Southern cooking and clean California cuisine proved difficult. “We’re both very passionate and we didn’t want to take anything away from one or the other. I love Brandon and if he does eventually come to this area to do something, I definitely want to be in each other’s support system.”

The financial resources and size of the space also limited the pairing, according to an OYO spokesperson.

Hunter’s restaurant concept is what she calls “elevated diner” cuisine — born of the farmland she grew up on outside of Greensboro. She told PCD last year she was inspired by her mother Patty, whose cooking centered on biscuits and gravy, country-style steak and other hearty cuisine indicative of Southern culture. Those items will appear on the Burgaw restaurant’s menu, as well as a variety of egg Benedicts, breakfast bowls, sandwiches and meat-and-threes.

The local will keep her famed chicken and waffles, the signature dish she prepared at the town square cookoff last fall, which welcomed 24 finalists in the competition to prepare dishes for the community, who in turn voted. Thereafter, the competition was pared down to 12, six, then two. 

Hunter originally pitched the business with the name Patty’s Corner Kitchen; however, the moniker will change. Hunter and the OYO team have been floating different ideas, though nothing has been firmed up quite yet.

“We think Burgaw is the perfect place for a farm-to-table concept given the access to so many great local ingredients right in our backyard,” OYO representative Taylor Wilhelm-Kork said. “Khristen’s Southern concept allows her to remain flexible, source locally and adapt to the needs of the town.”

Right now, the team is drafting floor plans. An archway connecting the adjoining buildings has been knocked down to open the space. 

Hunter said she was looking over blueprints last week to assess kitchen needs, dining room layouts and meet with architects to get the ball rolling to meet a spring 2025 opening. There will be roughly 70 seats, with both indoor and outdoor seating. 

“I really look forward to utilizing the outdoor patio,” the 35-year-old said, adding it faces a nearby park that hosts markets and family-friendly events. “The property itself is gorgeous. I love the exposed brick and want to keep as much character of the building — keep it fresh clean.”

Johnson purchased multiple buildings in Burgaw in the last decade and one-by-one is transforming them to bring commerce back to historic Burgaw square — particularly, with a desire to make it a food hub. It can already be seen in Burgaw Brewing and Fat Daddy’s Pizzeria, both upfits bankrolled by Johnson but owned by Kevin and Emmaline Kozak and Jay Kranchalk respectively.

Johnson worked out the same deal with Mangual to renovate the Fremont Street deli and marketplace. 

Originally, he said he and Johnson were discussing opening a new concept in North Carolina’s Piedmont region, closer to where Mangual’s mother and father live in Charlotte. However, they couldn’t land on a deal as good as a building Johnson owned in Burgaw.

“Burgaw being three hours away is better than 11,” he said.

The goal is to scale a sandwich shop focused on homemade breads and sauces, as well as a handful of house-smoked and roasted meats — turkey, roast beef, ham, chicken cutlets, chopped pork. There will be fresh-prepared sides, such as macaroni salad, potato salad, cole slaw and other deli fare, plus frozen take-and-bake meals, including mac and cheese, chicken pot pie, Shepherd’s pie and the like. 

He added his wife has been reaching out to locals they met via social media to learn more about the community needs.

“They’re really looking for a place where they can go and hang out and have a meal,” Mangual said. “Originally, we weren’t going to have too many seats in the restaurant itself. But that’s changed now.”

The 1,800 square feet will consist of around 40 seats. Though from up north, Mangual is hesitant to call it a New York deli: “I don’t want to pigeonhole it.” Instead, he wants the Burgaw community to help shape it, make it “approachable with items they’re familiar with.” There will also be some retail.

“I’d love to sell fresh flowers and plants,” Mangual indicated, though the focus will be breakfast and lunch, with the exception of a Sunday family-style dinner hosted with prix-fixe meals. 

Price points he imagines will range from $13 to $16, but the menu has not been fully sussed out. He also wants to offer discounts to school-aged children and Town of Burgaw workers, he said.

In addition to the restaurant, Mangual plans to operate a food-truck companion, scaling a smaller menu to serve Wilmington area breweries and events, eventually rolling throughout the state as well. Food trucks are his forte; he said he has put in place systems that streamline efficiency with little overhead.

Mangual operates Empire BBQ and Bay Steaks in Brooklyn. They cumulatively brought in $800,000 in business last year. It’s projected to increase to $1.5 million in revenue this year, he said.

Mangual will not be leaving the concepts he helped found with his partner, but will travel back and forth between Burgaw and New York as his family relocates South.

The partnership so far with Johnson has been smooth, Mangual said, adding he isn’t keeping a franchised opportunity off the table. He’s willing to work with Johnson if anything of the sort came to fruition.

“He wants me to succeed and he’ll do everything he can,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you know, it’s on me to make sure that this business succeeds.”

Mangual hasn’t landed on a name for the deli yet. He’s pitched Pender Provisions and Fremont Marketplace.

“But my wife has shot them down,” he said with a laugh.

He and his wife and son will be moving to Burgaw in the next few months as the restaurant begins to take shape. Like Hunter’s Courthouse Avenue space, it’s on an eight-to-12-month timeline. According to the OYO team, the deli requires less renovation due to the concept and structure.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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