If Fork N’ Cork Owner James Smith’s story were made into an episode of Friends, it might be titled “The One Where a Girlfriend and a Hurricane Make a Burger.”
In late-summer 2005, Smith’s then-girlfriend was poised to relocate from San Antonio and join him in New Orleans, where he was working as a bartender.
“We had a whole plan,” Smith recalls. “I had rented the truck and everything. Then, Mother Nature came and said, ‘Eh. Maybe not right now.’”
Like it did for so many in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina drastically changed the trajectory of Smith’s life.
“She didn’t love New Orleans the way I did, and she didn’t want to deal with the (post-Katrina) mess,” Smith said. “She had spent a lot of time in North Carolina, so, we decided on Wilmington.
“We moved here, she stayed eight weeks, and then she moved back to Texas.”
With the ink barely dry on the home lease he had signed and nothing to return to in New Orleans, Smith decided to give things a go in the Port City. Along with bartending stints at Caprice Bistro and Ruth’s Chris Steak House downtown, he also worked as the managing partner at Delancey’s in The Forum on Military Cutoff Road.
Then, in 2011, with some financial help from a friend, he began to gain notoriety, satisfying late-night cravings downtown with one of Wilmington’s first food trucks, the Patty Wagon.
At the time, Wilmington had little to no experience in regulating food trucks, so the Patty Wagon also brought Smith notoriety with local officials.
“I was operating downtown for a year-and-a-half when they came to me and said, ‘Hey, you can’t do this,’ just out of nowhere,” recalls Smith. “I spent eight months arguing with city council. They were actually super nice.”
Smith parked the food truck for good in late 2013 and focused on taking the Patty Wagon’s beloved burgers and other offerings indoors. In 2014, with Slice of Life Pizzeria moving from its longtime location at 122 Market St., Smith had his ideal location, and Fork N’ Cork was born.
Next came rave reviews – Best New Restaurant. Best Mac n’ Cheese.
“With only 40 seats, we were busy. Really busy,” Smith said.
Then, it was Guy Fieri and his popular Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Fieri’s visit in early 2018 coincided with Smith’s foray into a second location: a new concept in Riverlights’ Marina Village that he called Smoke on the Water.
“Smoke was supposed to be a Fork, but it just didn’t work out that way, which was fine” Smith said. “We had this big meeting with developers – people in control of millions of dollars. I looked at the plans, and the cook line was only 10 feet, whereas downtown we have 14 feet. With all of the fresh-cooked food and heavy-prep stuff, there was no way that I could put 120 seats with a 10- foot cook line and do the Fork N’ Cork menu.”
The developers began to thank Smith and business partner Alan Middleton for their time, until Smith spoke up.
“I was like, ‘Hang on. Give me the weekend. I’ll call you on Monday with a different concept. It will be fine,’” he recalled.
So, the Texas native set out to design a concept suitable for the space and location but that stayed true to the food he had become known for with Fork N’ Cork.
“I wanted to incorporate more barbecue stuff and some seafood,” he said. “Plus, it’s gorgeous there being right on the river.”
Smith’s passion for cooking goes back to childhood.
“I always say, ‘I learned how to cook because of my mother,’ and people will say, ‘Oh, that’s sweet,’” Smith joked. “Then I go, ‘Oh, no. She couldn’t cook to save her life.’
“Don’t get me wrong, she had some go-tos that I still make from time to time, but she was in school, she was a nurse and taught childbirth classes for most of my childhood, so quick and easy was the plan.
“We had cookbooks at home. She would come home, and the entire kitchen would be destroyed. Destroyed. And I would be in front of the TV watching The A-Team eating chicken parmesan.”
When he set his sights on opening a second Fork N’ Cork location, Smith decided on Carolina Beach. The building’s construction was delayed by Hurricane Florence, pushing the opening from spring to fall 2019. Then, after a brief soft opening in September 2019, Hurricane Dorian delayed things further.
“We got through the winter, and we had some local love,” Smith said. “Then, all of a sudden, spring was coming and then – St. Patty’s Day (and COVID). It was tough. I’ve been in some weird situations in my life. Katrina and this, that and the other. I lived in D.C. for 9/11. But the COVID shutdown was probably one of the scariest things I ever went through because my entire livelihood just went, ‘ploop.’
“Trust me. The restaurant-owner handbook did not have this chapter.”
On Nov. 20, Smith announced on Facebook that he was closing one of his restaurants – Bone & Bean, a barbecue restaurant on Carolina Beach Road – after taking it over in early 2018.
“This was a very difficult decision to make but the last year has been tough for a variety of reasons,” he wrote.
Smith’s brother Dustin will move with some of Bone & Bean’s dishes to Fork N’ Cork’s Carolina Beach location.
But no matter the hurdles over the years, Wilmington can thank one of Smith’s life changes, that ex-girlfriend, for his concepts gracing its culinary scene.
“Her name was Heather,” Smith joked. “We’re actually still great friends.”
(Photo by Aris Harding)