While traveling to Denver, Colorado, local restaurateur Billy Mellon truly began to understand the advantages of chefs joining forces in solidarity. Over drinks and a big pot of jambalaya, Mellon witnessed the reverie of 35 food pros, who came together to discuss ideas, help each other and share information within their field.
“There’s this idea that it’s dog-eat-dog,” said the owner of Manna restaurant in downtown Wilmington. Really, it’s a stereotype that should be dispelled and replaced with the belief of strength in numbers.
“That’s the way it should be,” Mellon continued.
So Mellon set out to make it happen. He gathered a group of like-minded restaurateurs and chefs based in Wilmington to form 40 Eats. The group’s name is a take on the highway that brings so many visitors to town. Right now, it includes Mellon, Catch’s Keith Rhodes, Dean Neff of PinPoint, Port Land Grille’s Anne Steketee and Shawn Wellersdick, James Doss of Pembroke’s and Rx, and Tommy Mills of Little Pond Catering (read Mills’ chef profile on pages 6-7.
“We all have the same philosophy about sustainability,” Mellon said—“about what we want to do and how we do it.”
The group meets every month or so at Folks Cafe to discuss a handful of initiative and priorities. Among them is the goal to gain more attention for the Wilmington’s food scene. Of course, the area already draws people with its beautiful beaches, historic homes and tourist attractions. Somehow, it’s Charleston, Asheville, Raleigh, and Kinston that have become the go-to foodie destinations.
“We have a ton of great restaurants here,” Mellon said. “We can take the Wilmington food scene to the next level.”
The bonus is that marketing the city will benefit the many businesses that rely on tourism dollars. According to Steketee, the first step is to establish the 40 Eats name and mission.
“One way is to start creating events that we all participate in—think dinner fundraisers—as a way to show our solidarity in all things ‘food’ in Wilmington,” she noted.
The group is planning on one such event each quarter, with the first planned for about 100 guests to take place July 17 at Bakery 105.
The chefs in 40 Eats are excited about other possible advantages of their restaurant collective, too. They can work together to increase their buying power, share larger purchases and resources, and benefit from teamwork.
“It’s always a good thing to collaborate,” Neff said. His experience in the Charleston food scene helped him understand how important collusion can be. “Chefs all worked together there, and it helped everyone. It has a way of opening doors.”
Although there is a belief that a competitive attitude prevails in the food business, the people in it often have much in common. “There is something so similar in those who choose to do this work,” Neff enlightened. “I love talking food with people.”
Steketee agrees. “We like-minded restaurateurs relish and appreciate any opportunity to spend time together to discuss ideas, issues, sources, resources, and promotion,” she said.
The group made an appearance at the Wilmington Wine and Food Festival in May and has begun distributing bumper stickers and T-shirts with a distinctive highway sign-inspired logo—one based on Mellon’s early thoughts about the group. That’s just the beginning though, he said. Mellon sees 40 Eats as a long-term presence in the local food scene and they’ve made plans for that. The current members are part of a seven-person board that will rotate duties and positions. Eventually, they’ll add other members, who will be added via nomination and votes from current members.
“We don’t want anyone to misunderstand,” Mellon said. “We are very appreciative of the great group of people who are already supporting our restaurants. But there so much happening all around us, and I think we can grab some of that spotlight. That’s the goal.”
To find out more about 40 Eats, contact Billy Mellon at Manna, (910) 763-5252.