When restaurateurs open a new business, most are focused on simply making it through the first or second year. Once momentum builds, maybe the owner/chef/manager/ bartender/anything-else-they-need-to-be eventually can start cutting down their hours from 60 to 40 a week … maybe. Then there are those who actually open a second, third or even fourth location. Well, readers, meet a few industrious individuals who are right here in the Cape Fear, throwing all their energy into feeding the masses and loving every minute of it.
Cape Fear Seafood Company
5226 S. College Rd. #5, Monkey Junction • 910-799-7077
140 Hays Lane Unit 140, Porters Neck • 910-681-1140
For almost a decade, Cape Fear Seafood Company has been serving up fresh catches at their Monkey Junction location. They’ve won multiple awards, including encore’s Best Seafood and StarNews’ Shore Picks. Their reputation precedes them, and they’ve continued to gain popularity from word-of-mouth and serving good food.
“It speaks volumes for the strength of our business,” owner Evans Trawick says, as we sit down in his Porters Neck restaurant. Like the space, Trawick gives a calm, friendly vibe as we chat at a table in the bright and open dining room. “We’re not just about tourists; we’re a locals’ business. I mean, we have an awful lot of tourists come through as well, but we’re here every day, all year for the locals.”
When Trawick opened his second spot, he hoped for half the business the original locale did in the first year. However, it’s exceeded his expectations since opening in November 2015.
“I set really low expectations, generally,” he quips. “Sometimes people in business get overly optimistic and then they’re disappointed. I would rather be overly pessimistic and then be pleasantly surprised. . . . In reality, we’re gonna do about the same amount of business that Monkey Junction does—that’s significant.”
Trawick always wanted Cape Fear Seafood Company (CFSC) to grow beyond its first home in Monkey Junction. He had Porters Neck in mind—16 miles away from the original CFSC in Monkey Junction. He didn’t want to lure away regulars from areas like Landfall, Porters Neck, and Topsail.
“I just assumed we’d see a sales dip [at Monkey Junction],” he tells. “But we were always at capacity there, so even if we took some customers away, there was always somebody standing in line behind them. . . . [Porters Neck] is really a completely different market from [the flagship] store.”
Cape Fear Seafood’s core menu is the same at both locations. While each site has its own set of daily specials, such as a catch-of-the-day, soups and chowders, for the most part, Trawick wants customers to have the same experience wherever they go.
“If you love shrimp and grits and you go to Monkey Junction, and that’s the best shrimp and grits you’ve ever eaten, I want you to come to Porters Neck and find it is also the best shrimp and grits you’ve ever eaten,” he says. “Consistency is huge for us.”
With his wife Nikki and two small children, the youngest born with a heart defect, Trawick’s growing family helped him move forward with his expansion plans in ways. It also helped him back away from some of the responsibilities he didn’t necessarily need to oversee anymore.
“You hear the expression, ‘Can’t see the forest for the trees,’ all the time,” he tells. “Well, that’s what it’s like with a business; when you’re just doing the day-to-day grind, it’s really hard to peek your head out and see the bigger picture. I was forced to hire chefs and managers.”
While Trawick goes back and forth between restaurants, and is currently in the planning stages of a third in Leland, he’s been able to rely on a quality staff. As with most new businesses, perhaps especially with restaurants, Trawick admits the early years were a struggle. He was the chef for several years and continued to take the reins in the kitchen periodically; however, Trawick is now most comfortable out of the kitchen.
“It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of hours, a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” he lists. “But now the company has grown large enough to where I have great staff at all levels. We’ve got great line cooks, we’ve got great chefs at both restaurants—very creative guys but also good on consistency and quality that they put out on a daily basis—and management as well. It really comes back to those guys.”
Ricky Martin, who helped open Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, co-operates the Monkey Junction kitchen with Chris Estelle, who has experience with Cajun and Asian cooking. Matt Wivell, formerly of Oceanic and Bluewater restaurants, is the head chef at Porters Neck. “So we’ve got some experience all the way around,” Trawick adds. “A lot of what I do now is that side of the business: working with vendors and suppliers to make sure we have enough product.”
Between both restaurants, Trawick estimates they go through 300 pounds or more fresh fish each week—a number that excludes shrimp, scallops and oysters. Trawick’s main seafood purveyor includes Steve Strause of Steve’s Seafood in Brunswick County, who provides the majority of CFSC’s fin fish.
“We’re always trying to balance good quality and price,” he says. “I would say seafood is one of the toughest submarkets of restaurants; you’re always dealing with supply issues. There’s an oil spill in the Gulf or there’s a hurricane off of the East Coast. There’s always something that seems to affect supply or price or both. It’s a constant battle, especially as we’ve grown.”
In fact, CFSC gets fresh fish delivered five or six days a week. Oysters and the like come in three times a week. They generally keep enough on hand for a day and a half to ensure fresh seafood is served at every table.
Trawick, originally from Pender County, wanted to open his original 2,300-square-foot restaurant because he saw seafood as a niche market at the time. He envisioned filling a need for a seafood dining that went beyond Calabash and was at first geared more toward fine dining.
“I think Cape Fear Seafood Company is now upscale-casual dining,” he describes. “We’re not the chains, but you can come in here in shorts and a T-shirt, and we’re not going to look at you funny either. Business is about your customers, and I think people in the restaurant business tend to forget that sometimes and just do what they want to do. They have a vision when the reality is, you pay your bills and continue to grow.”
They’ve kept some successful concepts from early on, while also offering made-to-order Calabash-style favorites. “It’s not like going to the fish house when you were a kid, and they fry up a bunch of shrimp and flounder and put it under a heat lamp,” Trawick continues. “We do large parties here, where one person is having fish and chips, another is having filet, and another is having our special—which is typically a high-end fish dish. We have a very diverse menu and we appeal to a large group of people.”
Trawick hopes to open his third Cape Fear Seafood Company site in Leland’s Waterford area in May of 2017. Like its predecessors, it will have a familiar menu but also include new and different specials unique to the location.
Scott and Shari Clemons
Hibachi To Go
15248 Highway 17 N., Hampstead • 910-270-9200
6932 Market St., Ogden • 910-791-7800
894 S. Kerr Ave., Crossroads Plaza • 910-833-8841
Owners Scott and Shari Clemons first opened their 600-square-foot Hibachi To Go in Hampstead in 2011. It wasn’t long before they opened their second Ogden locale on Market Street in 2012. Their latest midtown location at Crossroads Center is still in its first year of operation. Formerly an ink-cartridge store, the Clemons completely redesigned the inside of their Crossroads Center space with sleek and modern decor. Light-weight wooden tabletops and metal chairs from East Coast Chair and Barstool—also used by Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible”—fill the dining area.
“We knew we wanted a counter up in the front of the window looking out,” Shari explains of the new space. “We did a lot of carpentry work with our friend Billy [Collins]; I just found a lot on Pinterest and said ‘can you build this?’”
Makeover notwithstanding, the Clemons know it’s not likely folks will come to their restaurants for an anniversary dinner or “fancy night out.” And they’re OK with that.
“We’re not at that level of ‘pretty food’ thing,” Scott says. “We’re just inexpensive, fresh and cooked to order.”
“We know who we are,” Shari adds, “and our competition is us.”
Like many homegrown-small businesses, the Clemons have made theirs a family affair. All three of their children are now old enough to run a restaurant by themselves … and they essentially do. Emmy, 24, mans the Ogden HTG. Jacob, 20, helps his dad run the newest midtown kitchen. Though Abi, 22, is still finishing up college at East Carolina University, she continues to help out whenever she’s in town.
Though Abi, 22, is still finishing up college at East Carolina University, she continues to help out whenever she’s in town.
“We should have done a sitcom,” Scott quips of the first years in Hampstead. “Because there’s five us and we’re all chiefs and no Indians. So, five of us in a 600-square-foot building, and busy … it was very interesting.”
The Clemons have long-term employees who are more like family at this stage. “Justin Gains has been one of our cooks almost since the beginning,” Shari recalls.
“This is a family business,” Scott quickly reaffirms.
Hibachi To Go’s staff mostly consists of high-school and college-level students. “We hire these kids and teach them how to use a knife, how to work in the kitchen, how to handle money, talk to guests, wait on tables … here, you learn and do everything. And they work hard.”
Scott and Shari have been married for 25 years, and even with the last six of them spent as co-owners of three restaurants, they agree their dynamic hasn’t changed much—if at all. The real difference comes with the amount of time spent at each location. Having more than one restaurant, Shari says, may actually make running them easier on the couple. They’re able to take the lead at their own locale.
“We let each other do what our strengths are,” she adds. Yet, from maintaining the landscape to manning the drive-thru to cooking items to order, their hands are literally and figuratively in everything.
“I think you have to be,” Shari says. “I think it gets you that level of respect from your employees—I’m not going to ask them to do something I wouldn’t . . . and you have to fill in if someone’s ill.”
Despite common assumptions about the stresses of operating a restaurant (and multiple ones to boot), the Clemons say it’s not nearly the weight of past careers. Shari met Scott while he was working in fine-dining in Tampa, Florida. “Then I got out because of the hours and we had three kids,” Scott says. When they first moved their brood to Lenoir, North Carolina, they each had career shifts: Scott went into mortgage management and Shari acquired her real-estate license. They came to Wilmington after deciding to move back to the coast. “Sometimes what you think you want to do changes,” Shari muses. “You’re ever-changing, right?”
They came to Wilmington after deciding to move back to the coast. “Sometimes what you think you want to do changes,” Shari muses. “You’re ever-changing, right?”
They didn’t move from the mountains with opening a restaurant in mind. However, when the Clemons were ready for another career chapter, Shari remembered one drive-thru hibachi restaurant they loved in Lenoir. “I was messing around online and I saw the space in Hampstead was for rent,” she remembers. “I thought, This would make a great drive-thru hibachi.”
The original Hibachi To Go features a drive-thru and take-out only, while Ogden offers on-site seating as well. The new midtown location features both in-house seating and a drive-thru, plus a large grab-n-go cooler stocked with salads, sushi and desserts.
What Shari always loved about the Hibachi To Go concept is getting a complete meal fast and without breaking the bank. For their restaurants, the Clemons just want to be in people’s take-out “rotation.” “We also feel because we’re cooking from scratch, we’re definitely going to make it,” Shari says of their menu items. “It just elevates the food.”
Though each locale is exceptionally quick, everything is cooked to order. Using their steam table they make small batches of their meats (which are marinated for at least 24 hours) and veggie meals. “That also enables us to meet dietary restrictions for people,” Shari adds. “If you are gluten-intolerant or anything like that we can accommodate—all you have to do is speak up. Our Kikkoman is naturally brewed, and if you’re gluten intolerant, you can have it. Also, our rice is the only thing processed from where we order it.”
While they have a special purveyor who comes into town about once a month with Oriental goods, they source U.S. Foods and Carolina Farmin’ for fresh vegetables, as well as seafood from Atlantic Seafood in Hampstead. “We hand-trim all of our steak and chicken, and we peel our shrimp by hand,” Shari continues. “I don’t think a lot of people realize when you get frozen peeled shrimp in a bag, it can be chemical peeling; someone didn’t peel it for you.”
The Clemons developed their recipes by trial and error. Shari says their homemade white sauce was the hardest. They went through about eight variations before getting it right.
“A lot of restaurants I know buy [white sauce] premade,” she observes. “There’s a lot of steps to it with about 12 ingredients . . . a lot of people use ketchup and we don’t. We try to stay as fresh as possible. We get our [red hue] color from paprika and a bit of tomato paste.”
Shari also hand makes an unexpected sweet treat for their Hibachi To Go counter: cheesecakes. Blueberry, strawberry, peanut-butter cup, Key lime, and Oreo are a few. Their cheesecakes became so popular by the holidays, people were asking how much to buy them whole.
“We’ve done red-velvet cupcakes and we always have chocolate-chip cookies,” she adds. “There are banana spring rolls, too, which come with bananas, cinnamon and butter, all rolled up and homemade chocolate sauce.”
Hampstead’s HTG still has the most limited menu because of space. Ogden and midtown have much more room for creativity in the kitchen. Midtown, for example, has the sweet-and-spicy chicken daily, while it remains a lunch special saved for Thursdays in Hampstead.
While Shari’s go-to hibachi is steak, she cites the vegetable meal a must-try. “We sell a ton of [vegetable hibachi] in Hampstead,” she observes. “And our food’s a value. We’re not focused on making money on every plate we sell, it’s more about volume.”
With $4.99 rotating lunch specials from Monday through Friday, Shari and Scott thought they’d have mostly UNCW students and employees making up their clientele. “But about 80 percent of our business is the community behind us,” she gestures out to surrounding neighborhoods. “They really haven’t caught onto the drive-thru yet, but it’s awesome—especially when it’s colder. You can call and just drive right through and get your food.”