This edition’s restaurateurs have a few things in common: All are UNCW graduates—and a couple even majored in business and finance. They all are invested in their alma mater and communities, and they each have palpable passion for their restaurants and products. But that’s about as far as similarities go. Their restaurants and menus are like night and day … fire and ice … powdered protein and powdered sugar. Munchies and Clean Eatz are feeding Port City diners on very different spectrums of the indulgence scale.
Ellis and Mark Haroldson
419 S. College Rd. #35• (910) 798-4999
Speed and quality are main ingredients for business at Munchies. However, fried everything—mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders, French fries—along with toppings like chili, cheese, and more, make up their various “fat sandwiches.” Take The Fat Johnny, for example: A beefed up version of the Italian club, but also stacked with chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks and French fries … and cheesesteak.
Fat sandwiches, towering burgers, loaded hot dogs, milkshakes packed with childhood memories, and fried desserts literally is a 10-year-old’s dream day at the carnival—or, in this case, the Jersey Shore.
Founded by brothers Ellis and Mark Haroldson, originally from New Jersey, both graduated from UNCW in 2014 and opened Munchies at University Commons about three months later. Both sport UNCW caps one late Wednesday afternoon. It’s pretty quiet as the last lunch stragglers mosey out with their to-go orders. Their late hours—from about 2 a.m. to 2:45 a.m. before closing at 3 o’clock in the morning—tend to be their busiest time thanks to their location next door to UNCW.
“The later we go the busier we get,” Ellis and Mark say in tandem.
“That also says we’re not just reaching one market,” Mark adds. “Even with late-night deliveries, we get older couples, grandparents with their kids…”
A unique aspect of their business plan, “fat sandwiches,” wasn’t the only item they wanted to bring to ILM. They also hoped to fill the delivery void in a market that craved it. “Especially with all the students and people being up late,” Ellis says. “Delivery was kind of a no-brainer at that point.”
While their menu is kind to student budgets, Munchies started the tradition of offering free fried Oreos after home basketball games. If the Seahawks score 90, students (or anyone with a ticket stub) who come in after the game can claim a free fried treat.
“If you ever want to come into a madhouse, come in here after the Seahawks score 90,” Ellis says with a chuckle. “The line is out the door.”
“That was one of our brilliant ideas where we said we would figure it out as we go,” Mark admits. “We didn’t even realize there was a home game the first time it happened. . . . I had to run to the store and buy Oreos, while we’re trying to cook, take orders and deliveries, and give away free Oreos at the same time.”
These two alum even had a specialty Fat Keatts sandwich, named after coach Kevin Keatts for a while. Though Keatts has since moved on to NC State, they have kept their Oreo tradition, and they’re still connected to UNCW in other ways. They donate to sorority and fraternity fundraisers—Mark was a Pi Kappa Alpha—and host events. They’ve also continued to cultivate their business relationship with UNCW. They hope to soon accept student OneCard dollars as payment at Munchies.
“If we can actually connect on that, I think it’s going to be a boon for business and a great advantage to the students,” Ellis observes. “Being we are alumni of the school, and we have passion for the school, it’s definitely something we would love to do, and they’ve responded positively to the idea.”
Mark and Ellis didn’t always have their sights set on opening a restaurant. Ellis graduated with his degree in political science with a philosophy minor, and Mark in business and finance. Prior to Munchies, neither had any experience in the industry—not so much as busing tables.
“We came up with it in about a month,” Ellis admits. “It was actually a month before we were about to graduate that [Mark] went up to New Jersey to visit his girlfriend at the time, and he had a burst of inspiration.”
Fat sandwiches are a part of life in New Jersey, especially for college students. It was a fact Mark contemplated as he flew back to NC a month before graduation.
“I was just like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do!’” he recalls. “I’ve got my management degree—I didn’t have any jobs lined up—and I just came up with the idea of Munchies. I called [Ellis] right away and he said OK.”
That very night they started working on a menu, business plan and survey to distribute around campus to gauge their future dining base. Today, they continue to build their brand for franchising opportunities. They’ve already reached out to the Charlotte Hornets about putting a Munchies vending station at Spectrum Center.
“In our mind, we’re already a franchise—we just don’t have the other stores yet,” Mark says. “Our logo, our branding, our menu design, everything made is on that track.”
“There’s a couple of locations we’re looking to expand,” Ellis adds. “I think we’ll be doing that in the next couple of years.”
Now in their third year at University Commons, they’ve learned how important planning can be. Not having restaurant or culinary backgrounds seems to work in their favor, in terms of just diving into ideas. They don’t spend weeks or months meticulously picking apart recipes or sifting through vendors.
“If it doesn’t work, it’s no hit to us; we just move on to the next thing,” Ellis explains. “We’re not attached to anything. We just want to do what works and what people want, and I think that’s what served us well.”
It’s not to say it didn’t take time to find the right products: the perfect ranch dressing, the Frenchiest fry, or the exact pickle they wanted on Munchies burgers—of which have changed drastically since opening their doors. They started off with a thinner patty, more in line with a typical fast-food burger. They realized it wasn’t working. They’ve now settled on a steak and Angus-beef blend they hand press in the kitchen with house seasoning.
“And they’ve really taken off,” Ella says. “I was cooking last Saturday, and I think I cooked nothing but burgers during the entire shift.”
For every hit off their savory menu comes a heaping amount of sugar to excite the kid within—like the Fruity Pebble milkshake or even a deep-fried Oreo version, and a birthday cake milkshakes because birthdays are meant to be celebrated any time we want.
“I would say the peanut butter Oreo milkshake [is my favorite],” Ellis muses. “And I would probably go with the Fat Mataes to pair with it. You can’t go wrong with that: chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, bacon, all topped with cheese fries.”
“I would have to say the banana Nutella milkshake with a Fat Soprano,” Mark counters, “mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers, marinara sauce, and mozzarella cheese fries on top. I’m Italian, and it’s like a chicken Parm on steroids.”
Diners who want salad can get one, but it won’t be like any rabbit food they’ve ever seen or eaten before. In fact, in true Munchies fashion, they’re coming fully loaded.
“I love our Caesar salad and I think it’s one of the best in town,” Ellis reveals. “There’s something for everybody. If you want a chicken Caesar salad that’s fresh, we’ll deliver that to your house at 2:30 in the morning, too. There’s not really any limits on what we serve.”
Monkey Junction, 5916 Carolina Beach Rd.. • (910) 769-9596
203 Racine Dr. • (910) 452-3733
Milkshakes, fried Oreos, piled-high sammies might be found at Munchies, but around the corner on Racine Drive, it’s another story (or menu) at Clean Eatz. Actually, another UNCW alumni is serving up fast, healthy and tasty foods, with emphasis on method and moderation. Clean Eatz founders Don and Evonne Varady started their business in 2011. When 31-year-old Jason Nista—a triathlete and Ironman competitor—met the couple, their interests aligned right away.
“We got along immediately,” Nista says outside at a patio table in the Clean Eatz courtyard one bright summer afternoon. “This is how I eat naturally at home, so when I was able to get on board and get involved from a business perspective, it was just a natural fit.”
Nista is dedicated to Clean Eatz entirely. In fact, passion is the key ingredient to longevity in the restaurant industry. “You’ve got to like the food that you’re serving and believe in it,” he says. “For me, it’s easy to sell it, and it’s easy to come to work every day.”
Jason Nista grew up in the restaurant industry in Delaware, which started at the ripe age of 14. After he graduated with a degree in finance and accounting at UNCW in 2008, he went on to work for Citigroup banking.
“I never thought I would come back to the restaurant industry,” he divulges. “I didn’t like it growing up and I was escaping. So I got a degree [and] went into banking.”
Surprise for Nista, he was not happy in the least. “It was terrible,” he recalls. “You report to work everyday in a cubicle. I missed the bang-bang, you-just-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen-kind-of atmosphere.”
Opening Clean Eatz wasn’t the first foray into the restaurant business for Nista after bailing on banking. He and two other UNCW friends—who also decided they were not pursuing the careers they truly wanted—rallied together to open Fuzzy Peach in 2010 (just across the street in Racine Commons). Nista and company grew a chain of 17 franchises between four states before selling them in 2014.
“I left when we sold Fuzzy Peach and moved to California,” he continues. “I became a restaurant consultant, and Clean Eatz was one of my first clients.”
Nista became more involved and invested in the Clean Eatz brand when he became a chief operating officer and moved back to the Port City from San Diego. He opened Clean Eatz in Monkey Junction; then in West Virginia; most recently in Goldsboro; and he’s preparing to open shop in Jacksonville, NC, too. Raleigh, Charleston, Charlotte, Myrtle Beach, Fayetteville, Greenville all are part of a growing list of cities across the southeast to host the Clean Eatz franchise.
“There’s a lot of opportunities in the smaller cities for owner operators to run a restaurant,” Nista tells. “We’re up to 50 commitments at this point, and we’re thinking we’ll be up to 30 or 35 stores by the end of the year, and . . . have about 70 stores by the end of 2018.”
No curriculum or specific class in school could have really prepare Nista for “the real world.” But college degrees—no matter how generalized—extracurriculars, campus and community organizations can span multiple disciplines and set the stage for any endeavor.
“The opportunities are there; it’s just a matter of taking those opportunities and running with it,” Nista explains, having no regrets in studying financial management and joining entrepreneurial clubs. He found opportunities to connect with more people within the campus community and Wilmington professionals at large. It’s fitting he works as a resident entrepreneur for the Entrepreneurship Club with Cameron School of Business.
“I think, even since the time I graduated, the university has become more woven into the community,” he continues. “There are a lot of professionals that are here in town, and want to take the time and help the students as well. . . . It’s about the students taking the first step, and being proactive and getting involved with community.”
What Nista has learned in his tenure is any business can start with a great idea but it’s all about execution. Key elements, like patience and human-resource management, must be factored in, too. As well, being a boss, who can do any of the jobs any of the time, helps.
“We opened a store in Goldsboro, NC, this week, and Evonne and I were there cleaning the restaurant when opening it up,” he tells. “It’s still fun to do that. We really enjoy getting involved and watching other people’s dreams come true with this franchise. We’re still very hands-on and involved in the day-to-day with the restaurants.”
Naturally, a good restaurant must dish up its success by way of taste. Despite the South’s famed relationship with fatback, butter, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, Clean Eatz is hardly having a hard time selling folks on their brand of healthy grub. Though, there is a certain stigma Clean Eatz has to overcome wherever it pops up: Dispel the myth they only serve “rabbit food,” or healthy food doesn’t taste good. A part of overcoming such assumptions is making their food relatable. They have fish, salads, flatbreads, and wraps, but Clean Eatz chefs have found ways to serve up Southern favorites, like brisket and potatoes, chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and “Good For You” nachos. The latter clocks in at 400 calories versus regular nachos, which can be upward of 2,000 calories, and is packed with sweet potato “chips,” topped with shredded beef, guacamole, salsa, peppers, and onions.
“We don’t bill our food as organic or non-GMO, and we make it very affordable for folks,” Nista continues. “So you could come here and eat a bison burger with cheese on it, and it’s still a little bit healthier for you than going to a Five Guys. It’s very relatable for the average person to come and eat here.”
Though, one Southern staple Clean Eats has yet to crack the code on: biscuits. Nista admits his guilty pleasures rear there heads on occasion. “I go to Ruth’s Kitchen more than I probably should for breakfast,” he admits with a smile. “I do love a good hot biscuit with jelly.”
Clean Eatz focuses on portion control and getting the right balance of calories between fats, proteins and carbohydrates. They’re helping some folks take the first steps toward a healthy lifestyle by taking out a lot of temptations folks may get at other restaurants. For example, there are no soft drinks but rather naturally flavored waters on tap, and fryers are non-existent.
“Dessert is not something we really talked about a lot,” Nista quips. “But it’s healthy, and people know when they walk through those doors and they order something they’re in a safe place, and that’s what’s important.”
Clean Eatz may not have desserts in way of chocolate lava cake or ice-cream sundaes, but they make cookies and brownies using protein powders. Each store offers a selection of “good for you” protein smoothies to satiate a sweet tooth without breaking the calorie bank.
“It’s just a healthier option,” Nista iterates. “We all have those cravings we need to fill late morning or late afternoon with some sort of snack, and we’d rather have you have a healthier snack than a bag of potato chips or a cookie.”
Each Clean Eatz restaurant has the freedom to set certain menu items and daily specials, as well as control meal plan options. Each weekend Clean Eatz prepares packaged meals they make available for the week. On Mondays, folks come in and pick up their meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner), which can be refrigerated for the week and microwaved when they’re ready to be eaten.
“It’s convenient, it’s cheap and an allows you to eat healthy on the go,” Nista states. “Fresh is a big piece of that.”
They continuously change their menu of fresh foods. What they have found in return is: People actually like to eat it. “We have lots of folks that come multiple times a week because they can order a different type of entrée every day and it’s always healthy,” Nista adds.
Clean Eatz has a culinary committee that meets almost weekly to analyze what is available in the market—such as seasonal vegetables—to create their menus and meal plans. It’s not always easy to work within those confines, but they do it.
“It’s about putting our heads together and making sure the product comes out to meet the macro requirements of the restaurants,” Nista says. “I think it’s important to always try to come up with something new and fun to keep people interested every week when they come in.”