Slice Of Life Opens In New Location

By Liz Biro, posted Apr 22, 2014
(Photo by Liz Biro)
The gutted, abandoned and scarred red brick shell that just a year ago greeted visitors to historic downtown Wilmington debuted Tuesday as another unit in one of the city’s most popular restaurant companies.

At lunchtime Tuesday, Slice of Life pizzeria owner Ray Worrell unlocked the doors to his 125 Market St. store, housed in the circa 1841 Masonic Lodge building next to the welcome sign directing guests to the historic district.

With what Worrell said was a half-million-dollar-plus investment, about 25 percent over budget, he transformed the 6,500-square-foot, three-story building into an 87-seat bar and restaurant on the first floor, Worrell’s loft office on the second floor and a soon-to-be completed luxury apartment on the top floor.

“We definitely didn’t spare any expense doing this thing,” Worrell said. “I wanted to make sure what we did, we did properly.”

Copper accents inside and out, scrubbed brick interior walls, new staircases, new doors and tile floors – one replacing what was dirt when Worrell purchased the unit – mark the décor. Six-over-six wood-frame windows that more closely match original windows replace metal-frame windows.

“All walls you see downstairs, except for the brick walls, are new,” Worrell said. “This is a major, major renovation.”

The menu experienced far fewer tweaks. Wings and locally made Nye’s ice cream sandwiches are the only additions to the pizza, tacos and quesadilla mix. A full bar, semi-open kitchen and 15 televisions line the dining room. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily.

Structural changes happened with the help of Wilmington’s Constructive Building Solutions, but the new Slice remains a work in progress. Worrell plans a covered, approximately 100-seat patio, with bathrooms, to open in about a year, in the parking lot between the Masonic Building and 2nd Street. Worrell described the patio as “a restaurant in itself,” as the Slice menu and drinks could be ordered inside or outside, and the patio could remain open during late hours when the indoor dining room might be closed.

Renovations also continue on the top-floor apartment, which Worrell said he wants to market to film industry workers on a month-to-month basis. The loft apartment, with a sunken tub, black granite countertops and a kitchen island with gas range should be available in a couple of months, Worrell said.

Worrell couldn’t bring the building to its original glory. Old photographs show a brick, gothic-style structure with peaked windows. Based on his research, Worrell believes the current exterior façade was added in 1907. More modern materials were used and property records show a remodeling permit was granted that year.

Still, work on the building stirred excitement among historians, native Wilmingtonians and long-time residents, Worrell said. Many dropped by to tell Worrell about their personal experiences in the building, parts of which over the years served as a library, theater, grocery store and beauty school, according to property records at the New Hanover County Public Library.

The Masonic Lodge was the building’s original purpose. Construction began in 1841, and the building was dedicated in October 1842, property records show. In that capacity, 170 years ago this month, the third-floor lodge hosted presidential candidate Henry Clay. Daniel Webster visited in May 1847, and the 11th U.S. president, James Polk, in 1849.

Workers and Worrell found evidence of other floors’ past occupants, including old bottles, food cans left in walls and notes written on walls, one of which said “The Grocerteria, a great place to work if there’s help,” Worrell said. Grocers operated on the first floor as early as 1866, according to property records. One business, named The Grocerteria, was there in 1926. An earlier 1904 grocer advertised carrying Duplin County sausage and Pender County hams.

Worrell left notes in place, but renovation was his focus. The building most recently hosted a bar named The Rhino Club, which closed in early 2011 after its liquor license was suspended and an alleged gang leader was killed outside. The vacant building went up for sale in 2012. Worrell saw it from the window at his previous Slice of Life across the street, soon to be home to another restaurant.

When Worrell in 2003 purchased downtown’s original Slice of Life, 122 Market St., where he had worked as a bartender, his sights were not set on multiple stores or historic preservation.

“I didn’t have a future map; it just kind of expanded on its own,” Worrell said.
As market demand grew in different Wilmington neighborhoods, locations seemed to pop up, Worrell said.  He opened his second Slice in 2007 at Eastwood Drive and Military Cutoff, the third in 2011 at College Road and 17th Street, and the fourth earlier this year at Independence Mall.

The larger downtown store requires 35-40 workers, up from the previous location’s 25, bringing the Slice chain’s total number of employees to nearly 100, Worrell said.

Worrell said he’s eyeing Leland and/or Porters Neck next. Expansion may wait until the downtown patio is done, he said, quipping,  “I’m not made of money.”

Despite local success, Worrell said he has no plans to branch outside of the Wilmington area.

“I don’t really like traveling,” he said over early morning coffee today at his Masonic Building loft, which has sleeping quarters. “It was so good this morning,” Worrell said. “I woke up, and I was here.”

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