Photo of James Smith by Chris Brehmer
By Jason Frye
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, wiping clean parts of Mississippi and flooding New Orleans in 2005, James Smith — the 43-year-old owner of Wilmington restaurants The Fork ’n Cork, Smoke on the Water and Bone & Bean — decided it was time to move. The Texas native left his bartending job in the Big Easy and landed in Wilmington, rejoining the restaurant world behind the bar at Ruth’s Chris Steak House at the downtown Hilton.
A few years of pouring drinks there left him wanting, and in 2011 he launched The Patty Wagon, a food truck that sold the “Best Burger Ever!!!!” as one customer declared via a yellow Post-it note review. That Post-it was enshrined in packing tape on the side of the truck like a badge of honor.
But after two-and-a-half years, the grind of slinging drinks during the day and burgers late at night in downtown bar parking lots had taken its toll.
“I was tired of ending my workday at 4 a.m., so when I heard [local pizzeria] Slice of Life was moving to a larger location across Market Street, I knew I had an opportunity to get out of the truck and into a kitchen,” says Smith, who has been in the hospitality business since helping out at his grandfather’s Oklahoma diner when he was young.
Initially borrowing money from family and friends, Smith sold the truck and opened The Fork ’n Cork, a 40-seat restaurant where burgers rule the day. The portions are hearty, with a menu that blends Smith’s food-truck experience with his Texas roots — smoked brisket; heavy, sweet Texas-style barbecue sauce; and plenty of chipotle, jalapeño and habanero peppers.
“On the food truck, I’d do brisket sandwiches, but people here like their barbecue a certain way, so it took a little time to catch on.” The move to sell this barbecue rarity here in pulled-pork country was a risky one, but the numbers tell the tale. Sales at both The Fork ’n Cork and at Smoke on the Water — a riverside restaurant a few miles from downtown that specializes in smoked meats and seats as many as 120 — are each surpassing $1.2 million annually. His other venture, a 50-seat Texas barbecue joint called Bone & Bean, which is operated by his brother, Dustin Smith, is climbing steadily above break-even numbers since Smith purchased it from the original owners and reopened it earlier this year. All told, Smith employs more than 50 people seasonally with a year-round core of 42.
Like any true entrepreneur, Smith is looking to the future. He’s building a second Fork ’n Cork in nearby Carolina Beach that is expected to open by April. This iteration will allow him to design a kitchen from scratch, with seating for as many as 120.
“Ideally, this setup will serve as a model for potential franchising of Fork ’n Cork,” Smith says, adding that he sees an opportunity for 10 to 15 locations across the South.
Smith says his restaurants have helped fill a void in Wilmington — quality dining at reasonable prices that doesn’t have to be reserved for special occasions. Fork ’n Cork is a burger bar, but customers use nice, heavy silverware and cloth napkins. Servers have backgrounds in corporate and fine dining, so they know how to please customers and work with the back-of-house staff to create a great experience.
“I’ve worked in dive bars and corporate restaurants, and I’ve learned valuable lessons from each. I try to incorporate the best elements into what we do here.”
His faith is driven by his success in Wilmington, but also a mantra he discoverd in a cheeky comment to a customer: “You only remember a person for one of two reasons. Which one are you?”
Smith says, “It’s a throwaway bit of bartender’s wisdom that you use to remind one of your patrons to be cool. But it translates to restaurants, too. Come in and have a drink, a meal. When you leave, you’ll remember us for the right reasons.”