WILMINGTON — There are six closed business on a single block of Front Street in the heart of Wilmington. So, what’s going on?
The businesses include long-time closures, like the Bank of America building, to recent casualties of Hurricane Florence, like Chops Deli and Farmin’ on Front, and other, more complicated stories.
Port City Daily spoke with Ed Wolverton, CEO and president of Wilmington Downtown Inc., the non-profit charged with, among other things, stimulating economic activity in downtown Wilmington. We compared notes on several of the closed business to see what the future might hold.
While it’s undeniably a tough time for the block, at the center of Wilmington’s business district, there is good news for a lot of the locations on the horizon, as well.
For Chops Deli, which went through a very public bout of financial difficulties over the summer, the added strain of storm damage could be too much. Chops co-owner Brad Corpening has declined to answer questions about if and when the Front Street location will reopen; Wolverton said he wasn’t sure what the status was, but said the storm had pushed several struggling businesses too far.
“The Hurricane has been somewhat of a tipping point for some of those businesses,” Wolverton said, adding that restaurants lost not only business, but had to throw out and replace inventory and repair physical damage.
“The failure rate of small businesses, especially restaurants, is pretty high especially in the first five years of operation. So, some of the vacancies that are in place now reflect that. There were some small businesses that were going okay – they were getting by – and then you have a major catastrophe, and restaurants were especially hard hit,” Wolverton said.
Farmin’ on Front
After closing temporarily in early October, Farmin’ on Front now appears to be permanently closed, although the Farmin’ Brands company is still operating.
Mandy Campbell, who worked as creative culinary lead at Farmin’ Brands, confirmed the store’s closure is permanent. Since early November, several calls and emails to Farmin’ Brands President W. Benjamin Long and Senior Director of Business Sharm Brantley have gone unreturned.
Wolverton said a recent family tragedy, the death of founder Wayne Long – at the age of just 60 – may have contributed to the company’s struggle.
“I don’t know precisely what their future holds, but they’re also a family business. The patriarch of the business passed away last year, he was very young – and so you have a small family-run business, so I don’t quite know what’s happened in terms of the estate, and how all that may or may not be playing into that,” Wolverton said.
“And you layer onto that a major hurricane, and loss of product, and damage to the building — if the business was fragile to begin with, then something like this is going to be the final blow,” he added
Sam’s Hot Dogs and the Cobbler’s Bench
“In Wilmington, you know, there’s always a story,” Wolverton said.
While the closing of Sam’s Hot Dogs was a relatively straightforward affair, Cobbler’s Bench was a more complicated issue.
The owner of the shoe repair shop was dealing with medical issues, Wolverton said. Despite his illness, the owner wanted – and planned – to return to running the store; the owner’s family and the landlord were able to work together to hold the location, Wolverton said.
Unfortunately, the owner passed away and the lease option was opened to new tenants.
Last September, Greenville-based Smash Waffles announced plans to combine the Sam’s Hot Dogs and Cobbler’s Bench but later backed out. According to Wolverton, the company decided to focus on new locations in Raleigh.
Finally, the Hemp Farmacy decided to take on the lease, and will relocate their downtown store – currently on Grace Street – to the Front Street spot, occupying both the former Sam’s Hot Dogs and Cobber’s Bench spots.
Bank of America
Even those who have been familiar with the Wilmington downtown for a decade can’t remember a business operating in the former Bank of America spot on the corner of Front and Chestnut streets.
“It’s been closed ever since I’ve been here,” Wolverton said.
The Bank of America location closed and moved operations to become the anchor tenant of the Third Street and Walnut building in 2007. At the end of 2014 Raleigh-based LM Restaurant, which operates Hops Supply Co., Carolina Ale House, and Oceanic, purchased the location with the intent of opening a restaurant.
“They have been waiting for River Place to finish up construction. What they didn’t want to do was do the renovation, open up a restaurant, and then have a massive construction project – like River Place – taking place while you’re open and operating.”
Waiting out the River Place project has taken years, and will probably take one or two more. But it’s probably a smart move, Wolverton said, “If you have the ability to be patient and hold the real estate [until construction is complete].”
141 North Restaurant and Lounge
The location was formerly the popular Sunny’s Sushi. The restaurant, run by owner and chef Sonny Sonny Souvannarat, struggled with rising rent under a sub-lease arrangement. Souvannarat straightened out his lease situation, but was robbed – thieves stole expensive kitchen equipment – before he could reopen. Despite a groundswell of local support, Sunny’s Sushi never recovered.
The new owners of 141 North Restaurant and Lounge apparently never found their footing, closing prior to Hurricane Florence.
But downtown Wilmington hasn’t given up on the location; with a non-traditional layout featuring a second kitchen on the restaurant’s mezzanine level, the spot could be challenging or exciting, depending on a restauranteur’s tastes. For at least one local business, it was just the right spot.
“It’s my understanding it has been released. I’m not at liberty to say who that is, it is as I understand it, it is an existing downtown business that will be relocating to that spot,” Wolverton said.
Wolverton added that, due to extensive storm damage, he couldn’t be sure of the timeline for the new restaurant to open. But repair work continues behind the closed doors, and Wolverton is optimistic.
“We’re a dynamic market, for sure. And we have a very strong entrepreneurial community here,” Wolverton.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.