What does it take to make a success in the Wilmington’s food and beverage business? Culinary skill, business expertise, an appreciation for customer service? Sure, they are undoubtedly a part of the recipe. But there’s something else successful entrepreneur/restaurateurs have: vision. Maybe that’s why local eaters will be seeing more of them, if Slice of Life owner Ray Worrell and Apple Annie’s Bakeshop and The Wine Sampler owner Rob Cooley have anything to say about it.
Slice of Life
1437 Military Cutoff Rd.• (910) 256-2229
125 Market St. • (910) 251-9444
3715 Patriot Way #101 • (910) 799-1399
Ray Worrell aspired to open a pizza place in downtown Wilmington for years when he was still slinging drinks and managing bars. He even had the name picked out, and was a little jealous of Ian Moseley when he opened Slice of Life Pizzeria and Pub in 1999. Eventually, though, Worrell’s bartending skills brought him to Slice, a late-night establishment. It put Worrell’s plans in motion: extend the reach of Slice of Life throughout the area.
Worrell came to Wilmington, by way of New Jersey, to attend the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He had worked a few kitchen jobs, as a dishwasher and prep cook, in his teenage years. Once here, he moved to shucking oysters and bartending at Hieronymus. Over the years, and after graduating, he worked at a few other Wilmington institutions: Elijah’s, Reel Cafe and Caprice Bistro. Worrell still looks back fondly on his time behind the bar.
“That time and work really molded me into being a better restaurateur,” he said. “I have no regrets.”
Especially when he thinks about the work that it took to get him where he is today—as the owner of three Slice locations, with a project underway to build a new one (along with a new development) in Porters Neck. He was bartending weekends at Slice of Life and working other nights at Caprice Bistro.
“I’d heard Ian might be thinking about selling,” he remembers. As it turned out, Moseley wasn’t yet ready for that step—but he was ready to start another business with Worrell: Port City Amusements. They leased pool tables and video games to local bars.
Eventually, though, fate had its way and Worrell bought Slice. For a few months, he tried to keep it all going, and he was especially interested in maintaining a ground-level connection to the restaurant he now owned, so he kept bartending. But responsibilities and time became too great, so Worrell sold Port City Amusements and decided to concentrate solely on being a restaurateur.
He has an early Slice menu in his office/man cave above the downtown location. Located at the corner of Market and 2nd streets—across from where the original location once stood at Fork n Cork (122 Market St.)—it’s basically an entertainment center, with jukebox, conference table and memorabilia from the pizzeria.
The offerings at his restaurant have remained much the same, though Worrell has refined them. One of his first tasks was perfecting and standardizing his dough recipe, down to measuring quantities for water and ice—an important step when considering the output Slice does. On a busy day the staff might make 400 pounds or so of it. Over the years, he’s taken steps to offer the best quality ingredients. He sampled and tasted multiple gluten-free crusts and vegan cheeses, for example, for his customers with food allergies and sensitivities.
“I want to have products I’m proud to serve,” he tells.
In the decade-plus of owning the restaurant, the expansion has followed a predictable schedule, he said. It was after about three years when Worrell opened a location on Military Cutoff. After another few, it was the Fulton Station site in Pine Valley. Now the time has come again. The Porters Neck expansion came because Worrell couldn’t find the space he wanted—which led to plans for a multi-unit space on Porters Neck Road, with a large stand-alone building for the new Slice of Life. Two-to-four other businesses will surround him. Worrell’s plans include indoor seating for the restaurant and a covered outdoor area, as well as garage doors that can open on warm, sunny days. Between the buildings, he’s planned a space for tables, fire pits and communal seating to grab a self-service bite. Construction could begin as early as August, with an opening date planned for next year.
In addition to his current plans, Worrell is using his success to give back to the community. He’s helped a number of nonprofits over the years and is now playing an important role in Nourish NC, which provides healthy food (via boxes or backpacks) to hungry children. They now feed more than 700 kids each week.
“This is a program that is dear to my heart,” he explains. “Feeding children right here in our community.”
He’s also thinking ahead toward the next project, for when the Porters Neck location is established. He can easily envision it from his office at 125 Market Street: to extend to the lot next door, with an outdoor seating area for Slice on the first floor and more offices and living spaces above.
Right now, though, he’s taking it one step at a time.
Apple Annie’s Bakeshop
837 S. Kerr Ave. • (910) 799-9023
1121 Military Cutoff Rd. • (910) 265-6585
The Wine Sampler
4107 Oleander Dr., Suite C • (910) 796-9463
According to Rob Cooley, he had one major skill necessary to run the well-known local bakery Apple Annie’s Bake Shop.
“I’m an eater,” Cooley notes.
In addition, he understood management and attained organizational skills during his time in the U.S. Army and as a colonel in the National Guard. And he’s been a fan of Apple Annie’s baked goods for a long time—even longer than the shop’s 32-year history in Wilmington. He and his family knew the Longordo family from their previous bakery in Chester, New Jersey.
“They baked my going-away cake for West Point in ’85, and I think closed not long after,” he recalls.
When the Cooleys moved to southeastern NC in 1996, they quickly became loyal customers of Apple Annie’s. Cooley actually was in talks with the Longordos about buying the bakery when owner and patriarch Frank Longordo passed away. Cooley took over the business in 2013, and since he’s maintained the bakery’s traditions—and 50-year-old recipes—while still navigating Apple Annie’s into the future. There were two locations when he bought the business, and there still are, although he moved the second to The Forum shopping center on Military Cutoff Road.
In the meantime, he’s also been learning even loyal customers don’t always know all the items the bakery has to offer. “You know, we have people come in and they go right to their favorites,” he remarks. “I would say our breads, all the breads we have, are a little under the radar.”
And they are always keeping up with new products and new trends. Favorites, like cannolis and eclairs, now come in miniature sizes. They offer custom cakes and “smash” cakes specially designed for little hands to demolish. “There’s a lot we can do.”
That might be especially true with his new idea, and the partnership he has with his family in The Wine Sampler on Oleander Drive. “My father had been pouring wine there and having a great time,” he tells. It wasn’t long before he and his father, Bob, talked sister and brother-in-law (Krissy and Jamie Mingia) into moving here from Winston-Salem and owning the wine shop together.
“They know so much about wine,” Cooley notes. “Jamie and my dad are definitely the wine experts.”
Already the family has benefited from the partnership by pairing pastries and breads with beer and wine for a variety of events. The group is now bringing a combined bakery and wine shop idea to Leland.
“We’re calling it 80 Barnwell,” he said. It refers to the place where he first learned to appreciate food, where he learned to become an “eater”: his grandparents’ address in White Plains, New York. The family is planning 80 Barnwell as a sort of a choose-your-own adventure eatery. Customers can get a coffee and a croissant in the morning. They might be able to grab provisions, via quality meats, cheeses and breads on the go. They can order from what Cooley is envisioning as a simple menu—soups in bread bowls and paninis—with a beer for lunch. Or those who need a pick-me-up before the end of the day can come in for a slice of chocolate cake and a glass of red wine.
The proposal includes lots of display cases for the baked goods, specialty foods, wine and beer. There will be a consultation desk where the staff can help people design cakes and desserts for special occasions. Customers can have a seat at the tasting bar inside or enjoy the open-air area in nice weather. “There’s a lot going into the plan, including a larger production area,” Cooley says. “We’re spending a lot of time on this and really looking at ease of design. We want to make sure we do this right.”
Once he and his family are happy with the concept and have settled on a location in Leland, which could open later this year, they’ll try to expand 80 Barnwell. Perhaps first in Porters Neck—and maybe in the same development with Slice of Life. “It’s definitely something we’re thinking about,” he said. After that, who knows, perhaps Raleigh or Charlotte.
“We’d like to go west on 40 and south on 95,” he explains.
At the same time, he wants to focus on what he calls the business’ four core principals. One is community.
“I believe in supporting local businesses,” he says. “And community extends to local police, firefighters and veterans. On 9/11, we give thank-you baskets to first responders.”
The other core pillars are customer satisfaction, quality products and treating their employees well. Cooley sees these businesses as a long-term investment in his community and his family.
“In my family, we’re already starting with the next generation,” he notes. “We’re all good eaters.”