On a Friday afternoon, chef Matthew Gould would normally be last-minute shopping and prepping exotic dishes such as pork belly with smoked wood jus and juniper or snap pea panna cotta for his weekend pop-up restaurant Canape.
This particular Friday, however, Gould was scheduling contractors, managing commercial kitchen regulations and wondering where to find time to refurbish a bar made out of whiskey barrels.
The gypsy lifestyle that the roving Canape provided Gould is over. He has traded the pop-up restaurant experience – a concept in which a chef brings temporary menus to changing venues – for a permanent location.
He’s not the only wandering Wilmington cook parking his toque.
When Gould launched Canape in summer 2011, pop-up restaurants as well as food trucks were the national rage. Wilmington chefs eager take advantage of the trends launched various models. Efforts came and went, but Canape endured, as did some food trucks. Still, difficulties operating from place to place and nagging dreams of owning their own kitchens pushed Gould and others toward brick-and-mortar locations.
As he readies Canape for an early 2014 opening in downtown Wilmington, owners of two area food trucks – burger-centric Patty Wagon and taco hotspot La Bella Airosa – said they also are preparing to unlock doors to their own restaurants soon.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen this fast,” Gould said of Canape’s development at an abandoned restaurant space at 1001 N. 4th St.
The pop-up version afforded him a means to test his plan without huge start-up costs.
“It was a good way to judge the market, to see if Wilmington would like the brick-and-mortar I would eventually create,” he said. “You can’t really learn to much of that [working] at somebody else’s restaurant.”
Like Gould, Patty Wagon owner James Smith never intended to keep serving on the go. He needed to limit start-up costs and stash profits while he designed his own store. Yet to be named, Smith’s restaurant opens in the spring at 122 Market St.
“The great thing for me, when I was thinking about it [the food truck], is without the overhead of a restaurant, I can put the money back into the business,” Smith said.
One city regulation that challenged Patty Wagon and other food trucks led to La Bella Airosa’s expansion into a restaurant site.
Rules require each food truck be associated with a fixed commissary kitchen regularly examined by New Hanover County health department inspectors. As the price of leasing a restaurant kitchen for that purpose rose, the Romero family that owns La Bella Airosa sought alternatives.
When the family, in business for six years, discovered a building they considered leasing was for sale, they bought the place. The 150-seat, 7,000-square-foot Taqueria La Bella Airosa Mexican restaurant will open at 3500 N. Kerr Ave., Erik Romero said.
“My mom, this has always been her dream,” Romero said of the restaurant.
“Initially, she wanted a food truck,” Romero added, but her culinary desires outgrew the two trucks the Romeros run in Wilmington and Rocky Point.
The mobile units will continue to operate when Taqueria La Bella Airosa debuts, Romero said.
While Smith and Romero agreed a market exists for food trucks, Smith thinks Wilmington residents overall favor traditional restaurant atmospheres. Plus, Wilmington lacks the large pockets of foot traffic that bolster food trucks in larger cities. Still, Smith said, food trucks like La Bella Airosa find their markets.
Smith also pointed to well-known Wilmington chef Keith Rhodes’ continued development of food trucks, the latest being a pending chicken venture named Wing Star.
Rhodes’ Catch restaurant is among established restaurants, including Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn and P.T.’s Olde Fashioned Grill, that started food trucks, mainly for catering and by-appointment runs.
Gould thinks that adventurous diners and creative chefs with shoestring budgets will fuel more pop-ups. He noted the new Port City Pop-ups that Bluewater Grill executive chef Jeffrey Porter presented recently at downtown’s Dixie Grill.
“I wouldn’t count them out,” Gould said of future Wilmington pop-ups. “Not at all.”
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