Devour features a lot of restaurateurs each year. Whether they’re cooking up new twists on Southern fare, using seasonal produce or going off script in the kitchen every day, there is one thread tying them together: passion. While still in the early years of their businesses, the winter 2017-18 edition of Devour features two couples who have been serving Wilmington passion on a plate since recently opening their doors at Cast Iron Kitchen and Spoonfed Kitchen & Bake Shop.
Josh and Drea Petty
Cast Iron Kitchen
8024 Market St., Unit 6 • (910) 821-8461
As Chef Josh Petty, his wife, Drea, and I settle down at one of Cast Iron Kitchen’s (CIK) dining room tables, I promise to get Josh back into the kitchen. Josh, a seasoned chef from the Culinary Institute of Charleston, has worked in ILM kitchens for years and enjoys taking pause to absorb the “hum” of his own restaurant during a Wednesday lunch hour.
The last time he and I chatted was a little over a year ago, when I stopped by for photos for a review Cast Iron received in our sister publication, encore magazine. CIK’s take on Southern breakfast and lunch cuisines—from chicken and waffles to the “Dirty South Biscuit” (cover photo)—have continued to impress local and out-of-town diners. They were dubbed “Best New Restaurant” in encore’s Best Of readers’ poll in 2017, and they were named one of the top eight mouthwatering restaurants in North Carolina by Only In Your State. While a lot has changed for Cast Iron and the couple, much has remained as well.
“It’s still very busy,” Drea notes.
“Yeah, it just kept getting busier and busier since last year,” Josh adds. “Even through the holidays and into January, February and March … and it just kept going.”
Business continues to pick up overall. Their to-go orders have risen, the deli counter is popular, and while the wine-pairing dinners have been a great success, they’ve decided to replace them with a more simplified concept: “brinner.”
“I think we’d like to try a pop-up breakfast for dinner,” Josh divulges. “It’s not on our normal menu; the kids could come in with you and have a pancake and waffle, but we could do more of our weekend blackboard specials where we have different Benedicts and still appeal to ‘foodies.’”
The idea is to create another following as they have with the wine dinners, where people know they can come in on a certain day to get a special meal.
Catering is another area in demand from CIK. While they do some orders and events, they avoid overloading their kitchen with them. The exception comes with holiday meals and sides.
“People really liked that last year,” Drea says. “It makes things more simple for people, and I think this year we have decided to do the whole deal.”
“Yep, the whole package,” Josh agrees. “You can get a turkey breast or ham; all I did last year was just sides.”
While Josh isn’t one to change his set menu often, he wants to continue to find ways to keep customers excited for new food. Aside from a special weekend menu, he relies heavily on his giant blackboard (lining the left wall as folks walk in) to host daily ideas.
“There are other ways to keep people coming in,” Josh continues, “like when you can come in on a Wednesday and get a burger and a beer for 10 bucks. It may not sound like a bargain to some, but it is when it’s fresh and local.”
As the weather chills and folks come in to warm up, Josh is preparing to supply stick-to-your-bones hearty meals. Current regulars aren’t necessarily looking to the menu anymore, he says—they’re going straight for the specials.
“I don’t know where else you can go today to get an octopus frittata,” he quips of what’s on the menu during our meeting. “We bring in cod, we bring in soft shells and oysters.”
“I feel like our specials board is more of our ‘fine-dining board,’” Drea observes. “You don’t have to get dressed up [to dine with us, [and] that fits more with this town because a lot of people are laid back and don’t want to get dressed up.”
But don’t mistake the less-frills dress code with less frills on the plate. The chef takes pride in being unique with his fare while remaining dedicated to his Southern roots.
“That was my whole thing when I got started with this,” Josh notes. “I wanted everyone in Wilmington to be a little more adventurous with their food . . . and I think food trucks have helped with that, too.”
Cast Iron’s homey atmosphere is not unlike the Petty’s own living room. Drea, who owns a hair salon in the same business complex, calls it “our house.” There, everyone is family—from customers to employees. Both are quick to cite their CIK team as ones who collectively keep the restaurant a down-home hot spot.
“[Our employees are] the backbone of everything,” Josh says. “They would do anything for me, and I would do anything for them. They understand the importance of quality work, but if something were to go wrong, they know I’ve got their back.”
“It kind of surprised me the family unit this has become,” Drea admits. “The closeness here and how much they appreciate us makes me feel like we’re doing something right.”
Kim and Matt Lennert
Spoonfed Kitchen & Bake Shop
1930 Eastwood Rd., #105 • (910) 679-8881
Spoonfed’s Kim and Matt Lennert are both veterans of the food industry; it’s how the couple met in 1990. Kim was the catering director at boutique cafe in Chicago and Matt had started his first cooking job at 19 years old.
“That’s when we got together and sort of had this whirlwind romance,” Matt recalls. “We’ve just been in it ever since.”
Their shared passion inevitably led them to open their first restaurant in 1999 called “Moveable Feast.” The couple remained there until 2011, when they sold their first business to longtime employees.
“It’s still there,” Matt notes. “The girl who owns it used to work for us when she was in high school.”
“My sister still works there, my niece still works there,” Kim adds.
“A lot of people we hired are still working there,” Matt observes.
They had focused a lot on catering in Chicago and what they do now near Wrightsville Beach, with their specialty foods and cafe at Spoonfed, is similar. As they hone in on their retail and carry-out market, Spoonfed offers in-house dining and hospitality, too.
April will mark two years since they came down from Chi Town. The couple were already headed South; Matt is a stand-up paddleboarder and would attend annual races at Wrightsville.
“We always dreamed of living near the beach somewhere, and we are more East Coast people than West Coast,” Matt tells. “As we got to know Wilmington a little better—and we have some family here, too—we got serious about [moving].”
The community they’ve relocated to has been encouraging as well. Regular faces and names walk in for breakfast and lunch, or to pick up dinners or desserts. While the couple is cognizant of entering their first winter in a “beach town,” they are confident in repeat customers.
“We have a lot of locals and that’s really what we want,” Matt says. “Obviously, being close to the beach, we take advantage of the tourist crowd coming in to feed them. Really, our other place was a community gathering spot, and that’s really what we envisioned here.”
Spoonfed’s space, which used to be home to The Seasoned Gourmet, was like a “vanilla box” the Lennert’s converted into an open-space restaurant. Customers can easily see what’s happening in the kitchen as they sit at common tables.
“We did have to put the whole kitchen in and built a few walls,” Matt recalls, as we sat at one of the tables made of river logs pulled from the Cape Fear River. “We (my dad and I) built all the furniture, tables and everything. . . . It’s just a great sense of pride to create things yourself, and that’s how we feel about food.”
As a family-owned business, even the Lennert’s 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was able to participate in its opening. “She was in here doing demolition with me, knocking down walls,” Matt praises. “When we were hiring and training all the staff, she was there with us. So, on the first day of our soft opening, she just put on an apron and started working.”
“And she makes the best coffee,” Kim adds.
“Yeah, she makes the best cappuccino,” Matt agrees. “She’s just really into it.”
The young barista also is enjoying the social aspect of talking to customers she serves. Elizabeth is particularly interested in working with dense microfoam—almost as thick as meringue or whipped cream—for her caffeinated concoctions.
“I just got stencils for [decorating] on top,” she explains. Her preference for design and working with people are two things she hopes to marry with a career in baking and makeup artistry one day.
Spoonfed’s breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch crowds continue to grow as the business finishes in its first year. Their to-go dinners show off more culinary skills and prowess that could translate into more special events and caterings, too.
“Hopefully, people will realize, ‘Oh, they can do more than just salads and awesome grilled cheeses,’” Kim says. “These parts of the business just sort of feed off of each other, [and let] people know who we are and what we can do.”
Aside from daily dine-in, pick-up and pastry menus, their marketplace is packed with specialty wines and culinary treats. While Matt curates the wines depending on affordable price range and interesting origin stories, Kim’s keen eye for specialty foods and kitchen products is another way she expresses herself. She is often ahead of larger kitchen retail stores; they could carry up-and-coming artisan products for a year before seeing it on the shelves at Williams-Sonoma. Bee’s wax food-saving wrapping also keeps waste from getting into the environment.
“I love all that stuff,” Kim notes. “And I wish we had more.”
“It really becomes a part of the experience when people come,” Matt adds.
Bottom line: Spoonfed is stocking their shelves with items not typically found in average grocery stores throughout the seasons. While Kim and Matt share responsibilities in the kitchen and menu development, Matt is quick to cite a talented staff to execute it. He works closely with Executive Chef Paul DeLong. Everyone—and they mean everyone—their hire simply loves food. “That’s a big thing for us when we do interviews,” Matt affirms.
While working on sailboats in Europe in his younger years, Matt traversed the world and discovered new flavors and tastes that made him want to create and innovate in the kitchen. “To this day, I remember my first meal on my first night in Majorca,” he reminisces. “It was my first time in Europe; I was like 14, eating portside in this cantina.”
During the hiring process, they want to find folks who have a passion for the food like they do. “Tell me what you love about food,” Matt recites as the first question he’ll ask. “Even with people who have less cooking skills, if they are passionate about food we’d rather hire that person then someone who may have experience but no passion.”
Seeking this has led to unique ideas that perhaps Kim and Matt may not otherwise think of themselves. Whether giving a shot at pumpkin-curry soup or Tex-Mex turkey chili, Spoonfed isn’t locked into any genre of cuisine.
“Everybody’s participating and bringing things,” Matt says. “We have a really versatile kitchen as far as format, and that was a big part of our concept: We wanted people to be able to do different things.”
The culinary explorers, so to speak, are not bound to any map or rules other than everything must be handmade with the freshest local ingredients. And as the air chills and plants frost, Spoonfed diners will likely see more soups, chiles and other hearty/comfort-food-items rotate onto the menu.
They worked with Kyle Stenerson at Humble Roots Farm to source their Thanksgiving turkeys, which helped supply their holiday carry-out menus. Along with their traditional and specialty sides and desserts, they hope to alleviate some of the pressures in the kitchen for folks on Christmas and New Year’s eve, too.
“Matt makes killer gravy,” Kim notes.