NCtrend: Recipe for recovery

 In 2014-10
Chef & the Farmer in Kinston serves a sage-brined bone-in pork chop, with pickled apples, Gouda and onion pudding and collard greens, for $33. It’s fancy fare in rural Lenoir County, where nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty. “I hadn’t lived in Kinston since I was 14 and didn’t understand how economically depressed it was,” says chef Vivian Howard, who opened the downtown restaurant with husband Ben Knight in 2006. “All the buildings around it were boarded up. Everyone thought it was a bad idea.” But the restaurant gradually gained notice and inspired others to invest in downtown Kinston. “If they hadn’t taken a big leap, I don’t know if I could’ve put $5 million into downtown Kinston,” says Stephen Hill, who started Mother Earth Brewing LLC in 2009. Last year, Howard and Knight opened Boiler Room, an oyster bar, while Hill opened an Asian restaurant and music venue.

Howard’s tale makes a nice economic-development story, but traditional theory holds that restaurants don’t drive economies. “It’s called the export-based theory,” says Bill Lester, an assistant professor of city planning at UNC Chapel Hill. The $560 million investment Wichita, Kan.-based Spirit AeroSystems Inc. pledged to build airliner fuselages at North Carolina Global TransPark, an industrial park about 5 miles north of downtown, injects money into the local economy. New restaurants just take dollars from existing businesses.

But Lester says economists are coming around on comestibles, allowing that culinary centers can draw new revenue. Local officials say that’s happening in Kinston, especially after Howard and director Cynthia Hill, a Pink Hill native, launched A Chef’s Life last year. The TV show focuses on Howard and Knight’s family and the restaurant. More than 15 million people have watched the program, which started its second season last month on more than 90% of PBS’s more than 350 stations and counts the state Department of Agriculture among its sponsors. “We approached them and marketed it as an image campaign for eastern North Carolina and Kinston, especially,” Howard says. It’s also a talking point for Mark Pope, the county’s lead economic developer. “I have calls from consultants after seeing the show who want to know more about the town.”

The impact isn’t apparent in the city’s 7.8% unemployment rate, compared with the state’s 6.5%. Visitor spending increased just 0.5% last year, to $79.9 million, well below North Carolina’s 4.2% growth. Pope concedes that Kinston is a far cry from its heyday, when DuPont & Co. employed nearly 4,000 at a polyester plant there, and retailers such as Belk lured Goldsboro, New Bern and Greenville residents to the city’s “The Magic Mile” shopping district. “But we’re on our way back,” Pope says.

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