Sunday, June 16, 2024

Star chef Vivian Howard heads for neglected Wilmington warehouse district

Chef Vivian Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, will open a pizza restaurant, Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, in the area this fall. 

By Kevin Maurer

Wilmington developers are hoping chef Vivian Howard’s star power will anchor development of a neglected part of the Port City’s downtown. “Wilmington hasn’t had a warehouse district like Raleigh or Asheville,” says Terry Espy, president of MoMentum Cos. The local real-estate company is developing the property with owner Tribute Investment & Development, also based in Wilmington. “We’re carefully putting the puzzle together.”

The district is wedged between the state port and downtown restaurants and bars near the Cape Fear River. South Front Apartments, a former public-housing project that was renovated in 2012, and the Satellite Bar, a pub that opened in 2009, were the first signs of development in the area.

Howard’s new restaurant, Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, is slated to open in the fall, eventually followed by other restaurants, offices and about 27,000 square feet of retail space. Howard, best known for her Chef & the Farmer restaurant in Kinston, will focus on Italian staples at the 3,700-square-foot site. She and husband Ben Knight started the Kinston restaurant in 2006, leading to A Chef’s Life, a national public-television documentary series focused on the business that is now in its fifth season. In 2013, they opened the Boiler Room, an oyster bar in downtown Kinston.

“We were really lucky when we contacted Ben and Vivian,” Espy says. “They wanted to go into an emerging environment.” Wilmington is 90 miles south of Kinston.

More than 100 new apartments and lofts are being developed at the site, previously home to the Wilmington Printing Co. and later the Block Shirt Co., which closed in the 1990s. Plans for the district include a pastry shop, a Latin American-themed restaurant and a “chef-driven street food spot with a butcher shop,” according to Espy. Fortunate Glass — a wine bar in downtown Wilmington — will open a second location called The Second Glass next year.

Espy foresees a max of six restaurants in the district, along with a funky eyeglass frame shop and other boutique retail, office space and, of course, a yoga center.

The goal is to expand Wilmington’s downtown footprint from the Brooklyn Arts District and northern waterfront and create demand for housing and workspaces.

“It is really creating a warehouse, urban environment that the millennials love,” she says. “No one has done loft, urban lifestyle in Wilmington.”

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