As a child growing up in Texas, James Smith eagerly awaited summer vacations when he would visit his grandparents in Oklahoma and spend his days in the kitchen of his grandfather’s diner. Now the owner of three local restaurants, Fork n Cork,
Smoke on the Water and Bone & Bean, Smith can say with confidence that those days in the diner were when he fell in love with the restaurant business.
“We’d get up at 4 a.m. to make biscuits and I’d help make the toast during breakfast service,” Smith said. “Everybody got toast when I was there. If you ordered toast you got a side of toast. Food cost wasn’t really an issue when I was a 6-year-old propped up on the counter working the toaster. I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
Smith said it wasn’t just working the toaster that he loved, it was the people. It was the regulars from his small Oklahoma town whom he came to think of as friends.
He worked his way up the culinary ranks, starting with a short stint at McDonald’s in high school before making his way to prep cook at an Italian restaurant. From there, he moved to the front of the house, waited tables, tended bar and tried his hand at management. He was bartending at the famous Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck, and relocated to Wilmington shortly thereafter.
After working as a managing partner in a now-closed restaurant and tending bar in the Port City, Smith began serving mouth-watering burgers to the late-night downtown crowd from his Patty Wagon, one of the city’s first food trucks.
Smith would play a pivotal role in establishing the current codes that govern food trucks in the city of Wilmington. Back in 2011 there weren’t any regulations specific to food trucks, and city officials were struggling with how to categorize this new business model. Smith was forced to petition the city council to allow trucks to set up on private property and create a set of ordinances that would allow the trucks to operate successfully without infringing on existing businesses. It took about eight months of working with the council, Smith said, but in the end he was glad to have helped pave the way for future trucks.
Just three months after the food truck ordinances were settled, Smith found out that Slice of Life owner Ray Worrell was planning to move from his cozy brick space at 122 Market St. Smith wanted the space and made the transition from food truck to restaurant with the launch of Fork n Cork in 2013.
“By the time we were ready to open, it was Memorial Day weekend,” Smith said. “So we turned on the open sign and opened the doors and didn’t say anything else about it. We were fortunate to be steady from the start. About two weeks later the open sign broke and we had our busiest day ever, so I took it down and it’s never gone back up. I’m kind of superstitious that way.”
As Fork n Cork continued to gain a loyal following, Smith was approached by developers at RiverLights, the 1,400-acre mixed-use community located along the Cape Fear River, to open a restaurant in the neighborhood’s community hub known as Marina Village.
While the initial thought was to open a second Fork n Cork, the concept evolved into Smoke on the Water, a riverfront restaurant specializing in smoked meats and fresh seafood. The opening fell just weeks after the death of Smith’s father, and he admits he opened to mixed reviews.
“It was a bit of a rough start, but I think we’re coming into our own now, and are looking forward to our peak months ahead,” Smith said.
A few months ago, Smith took over an existing restaurant, Bone & Bean, specializing in Texas-style barbecue. For a Texas native with a love of barbecue, he just couldn’t say no when the previous owners, Chris and Pam Valverde, approached him with the offer to sell. And Smith said he plans to open a second Fork n Cork on Pleasure Island in Carolina Beach.
With three restaurants, and another on the horizon, it’s not the purchasing, scheduling or finances Smith finds most challenging: it’s meeting customers’ expectations.
Smith said that today’s diners are more discerning. Food culture has advanced in recent years, as have customers’ expectations.
Smith longs for the days when people went out to eat to socialize and enjoy a meal, rather than to critique restaurants on Yelp and Trip Advisor. He also finds that customers are quicker to post a negative review than a positive one.
“Unfortunately, I’ve learned that you can’t please everyone,” Smith said. “That’s a hard one for me but I’m working on it.”
But customers’ expectations may continue to be on the rise now that Fork n Cork was one of several Wilmington restaurants visited by Guy Fieri last month for his Food Network series, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
While the segment hadn’t aired as of press time, Smith said the publicity has really helped to fill in the 3 to 5 p.m. time slot, which was previously pretty quiet.
Smith said that while higher expectations and customers’ proclivity to post on social media brings its own set of challenges, they also push restaurant owners to be at the top of their game.
“When I first moved here from New Orleans in 2005, there were maybe five or six good, go-to restaurants,” Smith said. “Now there are a lot. Wilmington is definitely becoming more food savvy.”