It isn’t unusual for local restaurants to take time in the slower winter months to close for renovations and repairs.
But this January and February, some changes are taking on added significance for chefs and restaurateurs.
There are promising signs that business is improving. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the easing of restrictions for restaurants and bars last week as cases of COVID-19 decline. And across the county, restaurant sales are projected to climb more than 10% this year, according to the National Restaurant Association.
It isn’t quite enough to cover from the pandemic, though, the group said. Instead, 2021 will be a year of transition and rebuilding for the industry. In these cases, that’s in a literal and not just figurative sense.
Pepperoni Grill at the Beach in Oak Island, for example, closed in early January to expand its production capabilities.
“The kitchen was already small,” said Ian Hunting, who owns the restaurant and Pepperoni Grill at Boiling Spring Lakes with brother-in-law Scott Seigler.
When indoor dining was restricted in 2020, the kitchen and prep space gradually expanded into other areas of the restaurant.
The renovation makes that move official. Now, the former dining room is part of the kitchen, and an area devoted to staff two take-out windows. Plus, they’re improving phone and internet service and adding equipment so that orders can be made faster.
They’ve added an outdoor waiting area near the windows, and are creating a backyard dining area.
“We want to make it as comfortable and cool as we can,” Hunting said. “We want to have a fire pit, corn hole. We will be celebrating our eighth season on March 8 there. We absolutely hope to be open by then.”
Elsewhere, in the Porters Neck area of Wilmington, 8207 NOMA also closed so owners could refocus on a different kind of future.
“We were a full service restaurant and wine market before COVID,” said Jenny Luper, who bought the business with her husband, Allen, in 2018. “Since the spring, we obviously had to depend on take out for revenue. We continued with this even when limited seating was allowed, due to our small size.”
At the time, they had a small gourmet-foods-to-go case that they slowly expanded due to demand and revenue went up as a result. They completely transitioned to take out only when they re-opened mid-February.
“It was absolutely a business decision.”
While those two restaurants are opting out dining in, others are focused on outdoor dining.
Cast Iron Kitchen on Market St. near Porters Neck and Seaview Crab Company Kitchen on Marstellar St. are both expanding those options. Cast Iron Kitchen is adding a deck, and Seaview has created space for picnic tables.
And The Cheese Board, which opened in downtown Wilmington in the Old Wilmington City Market in November, is working on permitting to expand their kitchen, renovate the building to include an operational garage door, and adding sidewalk tables.
“It will essentially allow us to turn our 28 seat bar into a 50 seat restaurant,” said owner David Rishel. The business that serves cheese, charcuterie, snacks and wine can also offer more menu items, like soups and breads.
In some cases, the renovations were unexpected or part of the normal routine, but business owners are making the most of them.
A ceiling collapse at Pine Valley Market was a chance to update the look of the café and create a larger, roomier kitchen. Fishy Fishy Café in Southport needed to repair its flooring after Hurricane Isaias, and while doing so expanded a section of the pier to add more outdoor tables, said manager Brittany Chirico.
The changes can be a little scary in an uncertain future, but for these businesses, it makes sense.
“We decided to do it and we haven’t looked back,” Luper said. “A few people have expressed sadness that they can’t dine in. We miss it, too, because that’s how we got to know our customers. But they are still supportive. It’s worked out really well.”
Rishel, too, said he has moments of uncertainty but thinks this is the right move.
“We have to continue to move forward,” he said. “I like to stay busy. What else am I going to do?”