BEST OF WILMINGTON: RECOGNIZING THE GREATS ACROSS OUR SOUTHEASTERN LOCALE

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It’s the time of year when Wilmington starts singing the praises of its locals. Businesses, theatre companies, artists, thespians, musicians, humanitarians, volunteers, media, bloggers … they’re all recognized as the crème de la crème in encore’s annual reader’s poll—a poll which has been taking place well over 25 years in Wilmington. We hold the official Best Of moniker.

 

In 2014, between nominations and final votes, we culminated over 20,000 voices to crown the winners. Nominations opened in mid-November 2013 and closed in early December, before final voting opened mid-December and closed mid-January 2014. All voting was done by encore readers through our online voting system, featuring 136 categories. We try to be as fair as possible, and while we encourage local businesses and groups to campaign so their patrons/fans to vote for them, we do lay a few ground rules in campaigning practices:

 

1) No stuffing the ballot box! That means you can’t vote under multiple email addresses or encourage customers and employees to do so.

2) No voting on someone else’s behalf. If you have a list of email addresses that don’t belong to you, please, don’t fill out ballots in their names.

3) Do not entice patrons/fans into voting for you by offering specials, discounts or prizes in exchange for votes.

 

After voting closes, we throw our annual Best Of Party and Fund-raiser. This year’s event was held at Brooklyn Arts Center on February 8th. The masquearde ball benefitted Kids Making It—a wonderful local nonprofit, which teaches woodworking skills to at-risk youth (see our cover story from encore’s February 12th edition for full info on KMI). Thanks to 600 tickets sold, numerous raffles, T-shirt, hoodie, and masquerade-mask sales, as well as monies raised during our Best Of Battle of the Bands, KMI raised $7,223 and took home $5,000 after expenses.

 

Our Best Of hosts, comedy troupe Pineapple-Shaped Lamps (this week’s dashing cover models), entertained with a plethora of sketches across every category of award-winners. Their impeccable organization and outstanding massive team of members ensured audiences were never bored—especially with the Phantom of the Opera lurking about and haunting the room throughout the night.

 

We laughed a ton, but we ate even more, thanks to a monster-load of food passed throughout the evening—and provided from our numerous nominees in food and beverage (thank you, all!). And we danced to music from DJ Magic Marker and our Best Of band nominees.

 

Speaking of which: 2014 saw a six-way tie for Best Band! No Dollar Shoes, L-Shaped Lot, Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine, Mike Blair and the Stonewalls, the Bibis Ellison Band and Machine Gun all received equal votes. Because of previous engagements, only three bands were able to play the ceremony. No Dollar Shoes, Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine, and Mike Blair and the Stonewalls churned out a lovely mix of Americana, bluegrass and indie-rock. They each played two songs and allowed the audience to vote on the winner with dollars donated to KMI. No Dollar Shoes came out on top!

 

Just so you can see the fabulosity of the attendees who dressed to the nines, as well as the run-down of winners and a whole lotta pictures of the evening (thanks to Sean Carr Photography and Holland Dotts Photography), flip through the next four editions of encore, wherein we’ll be announcing and writing about every winner.

 

Welcome the Best Of Wilmington class of 2014—winning looks great on them!

 

best of winners

 

Goods & Services

CONSIGNMENT/VINTAGE STORE (CLOTHING)

Dressing for success can come in all styles and costs. At Wilmington’s Best Vintage/Consignment Store (Clothing), THE FAIRY CIRCLE ensures customers receive a variety of trends without breaking the bank

 

fairy circle

FAIRIES OF A FEATHER STICK TOGETHER: Stephanie Denning (left) showcases the award for her store, Fairy Circle, at the encore Masquerade Ball and Fund-raiser for Kids Making It. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

Winning the award for the last 10 years, owner Stephanie Denning and her two consignment shops get a plethora of intakes a day, only choosing the best in designer ware and in quality. Her desire to became a small business owner from being a single mom and wanting to bring her daughter to work during her child’s formative years. Since she always loved fashion and a good deal, combining the two felt right.

 

For 11 years now, Denning packs a clearance rack for only $2 and she also makes sure her consignors get the most for their items. “We offer 50/50 where most other stores only give you 40 percent,” she says. “We have over 11,000 consignors adding a few more everyday.”

 

Running her store and overseeing a loyal staff remains high priority to Denning. “It feels like we are a family!” she excites. “I still look forward to going in everyday and seeing what kind of treasures are going to come in.”

 

What started as a 600-square foot store next to Jim’s Barber, Denning moved into the old Chameleon Company Wrighstville Avenue store before making the move to her current College Road location. “A few years ago we opened a second location and then moved it and recently expanded it to double its size,” she explains of the Monkey Junction store. “We’re always changing and evolving to give you the best stores possible. We have recently gotten into a lot of handmade gifts and jewelry such as North Carolina stickers and necklaces.”

 

Currently, a few of The Fairy Circle’s best sellers include clothes by Coach, Lilly Pulitzer, Kate Spade and Michael Kors. She also says the NC necklaces, which have a heart over Wilmington, fly off the shelves. “We love giving the gift of home to our shoppers.”

 

Fully dressing the category is Clothes Mentor in second and Plato’s Closet in third.

 

PLACE FOR ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE

Dealing with health issues and pain, or even working to better the human spirit, can be a tremendous undertaking. The folks at MCKAY HEALING ARTS have a strong desire to offer patients a hopeful mindset to create health instead of treating an illness.

 

“Many people come to us after they have exhausted traditional approaches to illness or pain,” co-owner Debra Collins says. “At McKay Healing Arts, we all work as an integrated team. We rely on each other’s knowledge and skill to create a high rate of success for our clients who take advantage of our complementary disciplines.

 

They offer acupuncture, hypnotherapy, massage and bodywork, as well as classes and workshops in yoga, meditation and stress-reduction. They have expanded into providing Saturday appointments, too, for acupuncture and massage. “We provide acupuncture to clients of PACE Elderhaus at their site and continue to explore ways to support their hardworking staff,” Collins notes.

 

They also welcome guest lecturers and healers to their oasis off Wrightsville Avenue, including Larry White and Lynn Blackwelder, who will return February 21st through the 23rd for private spiritual energy sessions. It all adds up to the business motto: “Think with your heart; feel with your head.”

 

“The evolution of alternative medicine to complementary and integrative medicine is probably the wave we want to catch right now,” Collins explains. We increasingly work with clients who are under the care of local M.D.’s and have more direct referrals from them now than in the past, but we are far from the mark on being recognized as legitimate adjuncts to treatment, let alone working together to achieve results.”

 

The slow inclusion of holistic medicine recognized as complementary treatments by Western and mainstream medicine still presents a challenge. However, the folks at McKay ask their clients to inform their doctors what’s working and the results they’re having to help bridge the gap toward better health care.

 

“Acknowledgement from locals is all that matters!” Collins states. “Ninety percent of our referrals are person-to-person! When clients see our encore awards, it increases their trust like an immediate track record.”

 

Infinity Acupuncture and Carolina Beach Community Acupuncture round out second and third.

 

PERSONAL TRAINER

For year six as Best Trainer, LAMAINE WILLIAMS says the recognition never gets old. In fact, he hopes to score the best for the next decade should the people allow it. “This is my city,” he says. “I feel like its my job to educate my city when it comes to exercise.”

 

With a love for working out and keeping fit and healthy, Williams started his business, “Fitness for Everybody,” which eventually evolved into “Train With LaMaine” because that’s how the public referred to him. The word-of-mouth advertisement stuck and ended up on his brochures and commercials. Essentially, it’s appropriate he wins the reader’s poll annually.

 

“All I do is train and study ways to get stronger, and more flexible,” he says. “It’s my hobby, my obsession, so my clients benefit from my knowledge and hard work. I believe in pushing myself in order to push others.”

 

Williams’ training style has evolved over the last few years. As well, he has noticed an older clientele, too; thus, he focuses on ROM and flexibility as to ensure the body moves correctly with age. “I put a lot of time and practice in teaching range of motion,” Williams says. “A tool I have introduced this year is the Indian Clubs. I have found these to be the best for shoulder mobility.”

 

The bowling-pin-type clubs consist of varying weights and choreographed routines. The new goals and moves help his clients to keep reaching for the best in physicality and keep Williams challenged toward doing what he loves best. “Taking care of my clients is number one,” he notes. “Many businesses are more focused on getting new people versus doing the most for there current clients.

 

While a trend toward boot camps and other group training remains present in fitness, Williams sticks to one-on-one, personalized service. “That’s all I do,” he states. “I can address an individual’s weaknesses and bring out their strength.”

 

Anita Harrell and Monty Miller weigh out the runners-up.

 

CONSIGNMENT (HOME DECOR) * ANTIQUES

Around the 3000 block of Market Street, four buildings stand full of treasures and unique finds in furniture, stemware, china, plant and garden finds, and so much more. For over a decade now THE IVY COTTAGE easily runs our Best Consignment for Home Decor and Best Antique Shop categories. When previous owner Sam Dunn retired last year, she sold the shop to a gentleman who had been working with her for 14 years, Andrew Keller. Keller continues to carry forth Dunn’s vision of being the largest furniture consignment store in the Southeast, especially since her passing in January 2014.

 

“We have the best employees and reputation in Wilmington and the East Coast,” Keller beams. By staying honest and passionate with customers, Keller ensures The Ivy Cottage reaps great rewards in loyalty and trustworthiness. Whether folks are constantly asking for reclaimed wood furniture (“We can’t get enough of it!”) or Davenport desks or age-old drop-leaf dining tables or milk glass, items move and sell daily.

 

In fact, The Ivy Cottage’s merchandise which isn’t sold from consignors gets marked down 15 percent at 45 and 90 days during the 120-day run period. Consignors can remove any items before markdown dates.

 

“We keep the classic styles while also consigned to newest styles,” Keller notes. “I attend trade shows to keep up with the trends.”

 

Keller is constantly remodeling the four buildings—one dedicated to garden items, one to their warehouse and two others full of furniture and accessories. He does whatever it takes to remain top-of-mind on the local market.

 

“It feels great knowing locals voted us the best!” he says. “There is a lot of competition out there, and we strive to be the best.”

 

Runners-up include Home Again Fine Consignments and The Eclectic Etc. in the consignment category, with Michael Moore Antiques and The Eclectic Etc. taking second and third in antiques.

 

BOOKSTORE

In 1982 downtown Front Street hosted a store front filled to the brim with old books. Ran by Mr. Daughtry, the bookstore continued to thrive until the mid-2000’s, when the owner wanted to retire. He approached a family of dedicated bookworms and customers about the possibility of taking over OLD BOOKS ON FRONT STREET and continuing a passion toward literacy and learning. Diane and Lloyd Rohler found the shop a perfect fit for their highly read daughter, Gwenyfar. And so the family bookstore began anew.

 

“It is exactly what I am perfect for,” Gwenyfar, managing partner, says. “I cannot imagine anything else. I have been groomed almost my whole life for it: I grew up in one of the largest privately owned libraries (not part of a university) in the state. Literature is alive and it flows through my veins.”

GWEN & JOCK

LIVE LOCAL, HONDO! Gwenyfar Rohler—owner of Old Books on Front, who took home the award for Best Bookstore—poses with her love, Jock Brandis, nominee for Best Humanitarian. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

 

The bookstore’s original locale at 22 N. Front Street has moved quite a few blocks to 249 N. Front Street (basically because the old building dilapadated in 2010). With it has come increased inventory (2 miles of books) as well as the evolution of becoming a cultural center. Old Books now hosts poetry readings, Sunday piano concerts with James Jarvis, monthly storytelling competitions, a.k.a SpeakEasy, book clubs, author signings and more! Their café sells non-alcoholic beverages, as well as beer or wine. And the beer even has its own literary slant, consisting of The Shakespeare Rogue Stout, Oberon Ale, Mad Hatter, Poet Stout and the Miller Family for Arthur and Henry.

 

“Where else can you get a Beowolf coloring book, a local author’s work, a cup of coffee, join a poetry reading, and have a beer while playing with Shakespeare paperdolls and listening to live piano music?” Gwenyfar asks.

 

Yes, that’s right: Old Books sells paperdolls, in all varities, too, from Betty Page to the Dali Lama.

 

They’ll be launching their two-day poetry event, Couplet, in April. Plus, their annual Bloomsday celebration in June, commemorating the life of Irish writer James Joyce, will include a marionette show. It’s part of the give-back to the community the family adores and supports tenfold. Winning the annual Best Of truly means the world to them.

 

“I slept with the award under my pillow the night we won it—I am not kidding,” Gwenyfar tells. “This means so much to all of us. The staff really tries hard to make this a great place to be and to provide service that is personal and fun. Books should be fun. It is really a vote for them and what they do. But, also, everyday someone walks in and tells us that bookstores are dying. Winning this is a little way to fight back; it’s the community saying, ‘No, they’re not!’”

 

Other bookstores ranking on our reader’s poll are Barnes and Noble and Pomegranate Books. —Shea Carver

 

MOTORCYCLE SHOP

The roar of a Harley-Davidson constitutes an American tradition: the open road, freedom, and most importantly the culture that revolves around it. Wilmington’s Best Motorcycle Shop, CAROLINA COAST HARLEY DAVIDSON, has been meeting Wilmington’s motorcycle needs since 1991. Their 22-year-career thrives due to their passion.

 

When a new customer purchases a bike, the deal isn’t simply solidified with a signed document and handshake. Carolina Coast posts a picture of them with their hog on their Facebook page with a caption reading, “Welcome to the Family!”

 

“We create special relationships with customers, and always try to understand their needs and wants,” Ashley Vereyeken, marketing director, explains.

 

Though Harley-Davidson is a brand name, the Wilmington chapter still operates like a small, local business. “Receiving recognition always gives our dealership a great sense of community pride,” Vereyeken notes.

 

Their local efforts have transcended the traditional notion of a biker—the older male—and grown to include younger adults, females, and different ethnicities. They continue to usher in a new market for smaller, urban bikes, such as the H-D Street 750 and 500—which will debut this spring.

 

“These bikes feature the all-new Revolution X Engine, [which is] liquid-cooled for more urban areas, and a frame and suspension made perfect for Wilmington,” Vereyeken titillates.

 

For the more traditional biker, their touring models like the H-D Street Glide remain a hot commodity. The bike-shop doesn’t just deal in new and used bikes, their interior features anything a biker would ever need—including in-house financing and insurance. As well, they boast a wide selection of accessories, parts and services.

 

In the coming year, Carolina Coast H-D hopes to induct new members into the family. “There is nothing like the adventure of the open road on an H-D,” Vereyeken reminds.

 

Roaring into second and third place is Performance Cycles and Revolution Motorsports respectively.

 

KIDS’ CLOTHING

For 20 years, Wilmington’s Best Kids’ Clothing Store ONCE UPON A CHILD has been meeting the needs of port city youth. With reasonable prices and up-to-date clothing, they ensure one’s child can have a back-to-school ready look or a special-occasion outfit.

 

As well, they afford families the option to recycle old clothes for new clothes through their cash-on-the-spot program or by trading out. Owners Sherry and Terry Talbott acknowledge their success—which spans over four consecutive Best of awards from 2011 to 2014 and a win in 2009—stems directly from the loyal customers they’ve procured.

 

“Seeing a family able to purchase items for their children that they may not have otherwise been able to afford gives us joy,” the Talbotts excite.

 

The couple has received the unique opportunity to see hundreds of children grow up and eventually return with their own children. Their multi-generational patronage comes as no surprise with the excellent care they provide customers.

 

Customers receive a friendly smile when entering the store, and their well-trained staff proves vital in ensuring families leave satisfied. A “can-do” attitude is a must for all staff members. Store cleanliness remains key in ensuring families can browse their selections without losing the attention span of their rugrats.

 

The Talbotts also provide critical information on their website and Facebook page—an essential in a technology based world. Not only do they announce store deals and contests, but they take it a step further by informing on safety and product recalls on children’s items.

 

Recently, the children’s clothing retailers have remodeled to augment the work they already do. Their newly created spacious environment allows not only for more customers, but also fosters a kid-friendly, parent-appreciated floor plan. “Our philosophy is take care of customers and they’ll take care of you,” the Talbotts proclaim.

 

Other stores hanging their honorable menion hats on Best Of 2014 include Memories of a Child and Kid 2 Kid.

 

CAR WASH

From the sea-salt air, to the wind-blown sand, to the unexpected bouts with ice, coastal dwelling takes its toll on cars. Luckily, Wilmington’s Best Car Wash, CRUISERS CAR WASH AND DETAIL continues to serve the port city since opening in 1998, keeping cars looking showroom new.

 

Cruisers Car Wash

RIDING HIGH: The crew of Cruisers Car Wash beam upon their upteenth “e” award for Best Car Wash. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

With two locations—College Road and Oleander Drive—Cruisers offers convenience. They offer a full range of cleaning options and even give customers the opportunity to email vehicle cleaning questions. They boast a dozen Best Car Wash awards and their prioritization of customer happiness gives their wins merit.

 

“Vehicles are typically the second or the most expensive investment for people. My team and I love making our customers feel good about protecting their investment,” Clayton Gsell, Cruisers’ president, enthuses.

 

Maintaining constant communication and figuring out how they can improve proves vital for competing with other Wilmington car washes. They have routine employee training on how to provide attentive customer service.

 

“Service, service, service,” Gsell elaborates on Cruisers’ motto.

 

Winning the coveted Best of for Best Car Wash only spurs the humbled car cleaners to do better. It reminds them that their contribution to the community has an impact and that customers appreciate their efforts.

 

“We take good care of our customers and we make sure they are happy before they leave because we want to build long-term relationships with our customers,” Gsell explains.

 

Rounding out the competition for Best Car Wash are Coastal Car Wash and Mister Sudzy Car Wash & Detail.

 

PLACE TO BOARD A PET

Furry friends play an important part in all pet owners’ lives. Their safety and well-being, especially when placing them in the hands of strangers, constitutes a priority. Wilmington’s Best Place to Board a Pet, PAW BEACH, offers the perfect pet escape.

 

Having opened in 2011, they’ve since built relationships with owners and pets alike. “These relationships enhance my business and my life,” owner Karen Simmons excites.

 

Unlike many pet boarding businesses, animals aren’t holed up in a kennel with only a few intermittent breaks. They offer customizable options to fit individual pet needs, such as one-on-one play time or specialized treats. With pet fitness garnering media attention, they’ve included physical activities for pets. Their facility features an in-ground 7,000 gallon salt-water swimming pool for dogs and they offer group play for the water-shy pets.

 

As well, they offer luxury accommodations for lodging cats and dogs. Boarding comprises only half of their services as they also groom and train animals. Having partnered with Salty Paws Obedience, they currently offer puppy classes and group classes. Owners wishing to keep an eye on their pet can check out the live webcams found on the Paws Beach website.

 

The pet resort also features a members-only dog park, Bark Park. Open only to patrons of Paw Beach, it offers a relaxing environment to play with your dog and allow them to socialize with other dogs.

 

In the coming year, they look forward to purveying more pet classes. As well, they hope to continue expanding their training programs to accommodate dogs of all temperaments.

 

Passion for pet care radiates from Simmons as she proclaims her business philosophy encompasses the old adage: “Do what you love, love what you do.”

 

Paw Beach edges out Pups Play and Stay and Atlantic Animal Hospital and Pet Care Resort for Best Place to Board a Pet.

—Christian Podgaysky

 

Arts, Media & Entertainment

NEWSCASTER

In the field of journalism, providing up-to-date news with integrity and passion creates a dedicated and trustworthy partnership between viewer and newscaster. Readers welcome new blood in the Best Newscaster category, which has been held by WECT’s Frances Weller over the past decade or more. ASHLEA KOSIKOWSKI joins the Best Of ranks for her first win.

 

“I’m incredibly honored,” Kosikowski says. “I’m extremely lucky to work in a field I love and at a station I love. And to have my work recognized by members of our community, that just makes it all the better. Fran and John [Evans] were also nominated in this category. So, I felt that no matter whose name ended up on the plaque, it was a win. They make me a better journalist.”

 

A graduate from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Kosikowski took her first gig at WTOV in her hometown of Steubenville, Ohio. As a child, she realized she wanted to be a journalist after meeting local anchorman Red Donley at a local Christmas parade. Eventually, she went on to work in Charlotte for four years before moving to Wilmington, NC.

 

“I love so many things about this community,” she says. “I love the friendships we’ve forged here. I love living just a short drive away from the beach, our city’s restaurants, and the generosity and kindness of those who live here. I love our rich history in the film industry: how we can tell people everything from ‘Dawson’s Creek’ to ‘Sleepy Hollow’ to ‘Blue Velvet’ were filmed in our backyard.” Kosikowski even covered the “Iron Man 3” Hollywood premiere. She and photographer Ryan Koresko made a sign and flashed on the red carpet: “Here all the way from Wilmington, NC.”

 

“When Robert Downey, Jr., Don Cheadle and Gwyneth Paltrow spotted [it], you could see their faces light up, and they came right over to talk to us,” she says. “They all had such positive experiences while filming here. It was a thrill to land the big interviews.”

 

Kosikowski’s broadcast training today reaches beyond the newsroom, where she hosts WECT News at 5:30 p.m. and FOX Wilmington News at 10 p.m. With social media and online news taking front and center in everyone’s lives, Kosikowski welcomes the challenge of a changing field. “We have to be everywhere: on air, online and on mobile,” she says.

 

THEATRE COMPANY

Cashing in on seven Best Of wins throughout the years, THALIAN ASSOCIATION once again takes Best Theatre Company for 2014. It could be because of their long-standing tradition of being the oldest theatre company in NC, founded in 1788 to be exact. Or it could be because their artistic director Tom Briggs strives to debut shows in Wilmington that normally aren’t staged. Last year alone saw the premieres of “Xanadu,” “Other Desert Cities,” and “Willy Wonka.”

TROY & KATHERINE

DRAMATIC EFFECTS: Local thespians Troy and Katherine Rudeseal represented Thalian Association for Best Theatre Company 2014. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

 

“We are passionate about community theater and providing arts education to the Cape Fear region,” Susan Habas, executive director, says. “It brings joy to our audiences and makes huge contributions to our culture.”

 

The 2014 season already has kicked off with rave reviews for “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It acted as the association’s official show for Black History Month. Aside from hiring stellar local thespians, costumers, set-designers, musicians and the like to pull together top-notch entertainment, the association adds variety to the bill, whether for family outings, date nights or adult entertainment.

 

In fact, the re-opening of Red Barn Studio under Thalian Association’s direction allows the group a chance to tackle edgier and more intimate dramas in their space off Third Street. Last November’s debut of “Other Desert Cities” garnered recognition at the Wilmington Theatrer Awards in January and was touted Best Drama in 2014 by encore reviewer Gwenyfar Rohler.

 

Thalian Association presents a multitude of youth outreach opportunities through TACT (Thalian Association Children’s Theater) Academy, too. They hold ongoing residencies in vocal ensemble, musical comedy and characters, as well as acting for TV and film, among other subjects. Plus, they hold children’s productions throughout the year, including “Seussical Jr,” which continues this weekend, the 21st through 23rd.

 

“It feels incredible to be embraced by the community,” Habas exclaims. “The Best Of Wilmington acknowledgement makes us dream bigger, try harder. A groupd that been around for 225 years doesn’t follow trends. We stay true to our mission and our audience.”

 

Other theatre companies taking the lead in nominations include Opera House Theatre Company and Big Dawg Productions.

 

THEATER VENUE

With the grandiose historic structure that is Thalian Hall gracing Wilmington, it makes sense for NC’s official and oldest theater to win Best Theater Venue. The space has been operating since 1858 and remains the epicenter of culture and politics in Wilmington.

 

THALIAN HALL CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS as an organization was chartered in 1963,” Gary Tucker, marketing director, says, “and charged with preserving and restoring this beautiful building and growing the local arts community.”

 

Overseen by executive director and local thespian Tony Rivenbark, the amount of shows touring through Thalian, whether local, national or international in nature, tops out easily over 300. Their passion continues to evolve as they work with schools, nonprofits, artists, patrons and more.

 

“The love and support that comes from our local community is outstanding and constantly pushes our organization to improve to make sure that this continues to be a place to community can enjoy and know that they are a part of,” Tucker iterates.

 

Thalian most recently went massive renovations in 2010 to continue preserving the historic site and propelling forth grave attention to detail and improvement of community. In fact, all team members who work toward making Thalian shine share a commonality in motto: “Make sure that your expectations of yourself and your organization are higher than what could ever be expected of you,” Tucker exclaims.

 

Though the building’s age pre-dates our technological advancement, its system of ticketing and operating remains current with the times. They continue striving to communicate with their public in web presence, social media, email and, of course, the age-old paper and ink through advertising their ongoing shows.

 

“2014 is set to be one of the busiest years in the history of Thalian Hall,” Tucker notes. “In fact we are expecting to be the host of more than 550 public events, meetings, performances etc. and see more than 120,000 people come through our doors.”

 

They also listen to their customers’ and dedicated patrons’ wants and needs. Many are asking for earlier shows. “We are looking at progressing to earlier start times for many and adding some weekday matinees in our main attractions season,” Tucker notes.

 

For their full schedule throughout the 2014 year, check out their site, www.thalianhall.org. Other venues to highlight for the Best of include TheatreNOW and City Stage.

 

RADIO STATION

Local triple-A radio station The Penguin 98.3 launched a decade ago to provide Wilmington some of the most interesting run of tunes heard on radio. Packed between Tom Waits and The White Stripes would be Johnny Cash and REM, Grateful Dead and Miles Davis, Ray Charles and Widespread Panic. Today, the station still prides its eclectic span of music.

 

Now owned and operated by Hometown Media, THE PENUIN 98.3’S general manager, Beau Gunn, joined the station’s ranks shortly after it was founded by DJs Mark Keefe and Jerry Gerard. Today, Gunn carries forth their original mission: to play real music, the kind made in garages and dorm rooms and played across smaller and larger venues nationwide. On the Penguin, folks often hear the early stages of artists before they go on to “hit it big.”

 

“We listen to hundreds of records every week to find the coolest sound and the next groundbreaking artists,” Gunn states. “We are providing [music from] bands and artists they otherwise would not find on the radio in this area.”

 

Aside from streaming live online, Gunn and company are constantly looking to increase their reach into the community, too. That includes a boost in signal power, plus they’ve recently added local news updates from their online paper, PortCityDaily.com.

 

“We are setting a trend of returning broadcasting to a local community-focused model,” he says. “Most stations in the area and in the country for that matter, air syndicated shows or pre-recorded DJ’s from a different city. That’s not the way radio should be in our opinion.”

 

Perhaps one of the best perks of having the station around comes with their large array of concerts hosted locally annually. Gunn says they have big news coming about who will be gracing local stages in 2014. Stay tuned…

 

Other stations dialing in include z107.5 and WHQR 91.3.

 

THESPIAN

After beginning to act in high school, AMY TIPTON got serious about it as a professional career once she took the stage in 2000’s City Stage production “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” The creation of new characters, all blended from folks she’d known or interacted with, became a fascinating experience. It also became one of great success.

 

Since, Tipton’s gone on to do a multitude of stage, film and TV gigs, including 2013’s horror darling, locally filmed “The Conjuring,” where she appears in the opening scenes. She also landed a role in Showtime’s “Homeland,” starring Claire Daines.

Still, locals can see her off screen and onstage, too. Just last year she let her moves shine in musicals “The Great American Trailer Park” and “The Rocky Horror Show.” “It was truly an incredible year!” she tells.

 

Whether engaging new directors or revising old characters, the challenges are rewarding and riveting, according to the actress. She focuses on letting go and putting it all out for the audience to absorb.

 

Aside from her favorite role, playing Kate in “The Wild Party,” Tipton is prepping for her greatest moniker of all: mom. She’s having a baby boy this summer. Thus, she’ll be on hiatus for a bit to tend to familial duties.

 

“It’s really hard to turn down a show—even if you are exhausted from a busy work schedule and grueling rehearsal schedule,” Tipton notes. “I tend to play an ingenue or the like. [Kate] was terrifying, but it was empowering to portray someone so vulnerable and tragic while also trying to find the humor in the role. Every moment of [‘The Wild Party’] was raw and intense and is something I will not soon forget.”

 

Wilmington has provided the thespian a lot to work with thanks to talent galore from its burgeoning theatre scene and film industry. Getting to know so many directors, actors, stage hands, wardrobe assistants, and the like has given her a sense of pride. “I love this town,” she says. “I’d have to attribute my success to those who keep casting me and letting me work! It is truly humbling [to win Best Thespian]. Wilmington is an amazing place filled with amazing people, and I hope I get the chance to keep performing for all of them.”

 

Other thespians from the nominee list are Brendan Carter and Mary Beth Redman.

—Shea Carver

 

FILM

Among the numerous projects churned out by UNC Wilmington’s esteemed film program came Wilmington’s Best Independent Film “CHILDREN OF SALT.” The project truly stands out—having garnered the attention of everything from Wilma magazine to The Hollywood News. The triptych film—which means it’s projected on three screens—tells the story of a decaying relationship.

CHILDREN OF SALT

SALTY SWEET: Filmmaker Caleb Ward (middle) beams over his first Best Of win, taking Best Local Independent Film 2014. Joining him are the Cucalorus Film Fest kids, Ryan Jaccard and Ash McGuire. Courtesy Sean Carr Photohraphy

 

Director Caleb Andrew Ward—who found his footing as a filmmaker at the age of 13, when a friend gave him a job as a betadubber—maintains that he always aims for providing an authentic experience. “I really love creating an atmosphere in which actors are able to flesh out their characters themselves,” he states. “I can only provide a shell, but they have to fill it.”

 

“Children of Salt” was featured at Annex Surf and Supply, immersing attendees in the intimate, improved performances of cast members Jacob Keohane and Ashleigh Lineberry. As well, the film was brought to life by producer James Martin, a Cucalorus volunteer, and cinematographer Ethan M. Sigmon, a local freelance photographer.

 

The trio of filmmakers, all of whom became close friends through UNCW’s film department, found inspiration through Robert Bresson’s and John Cassavetes’ approach. They grounded the filmmaking in realism rather than heavy manipulation.

 

The film’s tendency to cultivate creative fluidity among crew members and actors stems directly from the filmmakers’ experiences in Wilmington, which fosters a true sense of community.

 

Director Ward hopes to complete “Children of Salt” by March, before turning his eye toward the festival circuit. In the mean time, he celebrates having recently directed the highly acclaimed “Gallery” at the Browncoat Pub and Theatre. The director also lends his hand to Graham Patterson’s “The Disposable Generation” and Chandler Baucom’s “Pistil.” When he has free time, he works on two novels and is even writing his own play. “Growing and growing,” War says, “I do what I have to do to do what I need to do, in order to do what I want to do.”

 

Other films reeling in votes include “Bound by Sea” by Nate Daniel and “Pieces of Talent” by Joe Stauffer.

 

WRITER

Over the course of CELIA RIVENBARK’s career, which began at age 19, she’s climbed her way up the ranks from newspaper reporter for The Enterprise in Wallace, NC, to copy editor, to syndicated columnist to book author. She’s also taken Best Writer in encore’s annual Best Of for the last three or more years now.

 

“When I first started out as a wee reporter I was terrified of just about everything and everybody,” Rivenbark informs. “Time and experience fixed that.”

 

Wilmington’s close-knit, supportive group of writers, and her loyal readership aided her growth as an author. She’s eternally grateful.

With such titles as “Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank” (proclaimed 2006’s best title by Entertainment Weekly) and her most recent “Rude Bitches Make Me Tired,” which came out in October and constituted her first venture into a single-subject book, her expansive career has seen her transform into a brazen woman typified by Southern charm and fierce humor. Her latter book is even becoming a production at TheatreNOW this spring.

 

Though she’s never lived more than 35 miles from Wilmington, Rivenbark has garnered nationwide attention. ”You Don’t Sweat Much for a Fat Girl: Observations on Life from the Shallow End of the Pool” became a New York Times Best Seller.

 

Currently, the prolific writer turns her attention to her eighth book—that is, when she’s not embarking on a speaking gig. She hopes to partner with a viral video company, which will jump-kick a new wave of her career. Though her writing remains grounded in wit, she maintains that one should be biting but never mean-spirited.

 

“I think people can relate to my take on things because I’m just saying what they think and, hopefully, saying it in a way that gets a laugh,” Rivenbark explains.

 

The national acclaim she’s received never goes to her head, though she does lament not being able to make an ass out of herself in public. “If I do, someone will say: “That’s that woman in the newspaper showing her ass over there at the service counter,” Rivenbark quips.

 

Other recognized writers in the category include encore’s own Live Local columnist Gwenyfar Rohler and filmmaker, writer and DJ Keith Welborn.

 

FILMMAKER

Wilmington’s Best Local Filmmaker, KEITH WELBORN, first started working in film when he was 10 years-old, shooting his brothers and sisters doing funny kid-antics. Once the camera’s magic entered his psyche, there was no turning back.

 

A jack of all trades, the DJ and aspiring filmmaker immersed himself in film, music and people throughout Wilmington, seeing where it would lead him.

 

“[Wilmington’s] a place full of dreamers and believers,” Welborn praises.

 

His explorations culminated in assembling a group of filmmakers to begin a production company wherein they upload their short films and sketches to Vimeo, donning it ScrewUp TV. Their productions range in everything from psychological thriller to a series of interview with struggling artists. The team will celebrate their fifth year this May. They’ve managed to garner loyal followers from the community. The venture also allowed Welborn to work with PJ Barnes, who helped create the company and forever left his mark on the young filmmaker.

 

Remaining in touch with his formative years, Welborn cites God and his family as sources of inspiration and largely responsible for the success he’s found.

 

“They are my number one fans and I’m theirs as well,” he beams.

 

The artist moved to Los Angeles in a two-day drive across country two weeks ago, where he plans to expand ScrewUp TV. He’s already in talks with producers and directors to back his projects. As well, he hopes ScrewUp TV can create more sketches, merchandise and launch a cell phone app. He also purchased some new cameras and film equipment to utilize in the next chapter of his life.

 

“Strength is in numbers and the undying support from the east coast community will surely be felt and honored on the west [coast],” Welborn says.

 

Rounding out the category are Brannigan Carter and Joe Stauffer.

 

DJ

Wilmington’s Best Local DJ, DJ BATTLE, keeps the dance floors in Wilmington on fire with his wide range of music to groove to. From hip-hop, to EDM, to reggae, to funk, to R&B, he does it all. Currently, the beat-dropper works at Level 5 every Friday and Saturday. As well, he spins at Fibbers on Sundays.

 

“I enjoy it all and love the challenge of preparing for different environments,” he proclaims. “I play to people from all backgrounds, different walks of life, [and] fans of different kinds of music.”

 

DJ Battle first cultivated a passion for mixing in high school. Being musically inclined since childhood, it was no surprise he took his interest a step further in college after meeting some professional DJs. They showed him the ropes and the rest is history. Now, DJ Battle continues to embark on a career that spans across many port city venues—too many to even count, he notes.

 

The DJ notes opening for Kanye West at UNCW marks one of the high points of his expansive career. As well, he’s gotten the opportunity to meet inspirations such as Chuck D and Big Daddy Kane. DJ Battle has even showcased his talent on Coast 97.3.

 

When he’s not busy filling nightclubs with pulsating beats, he works at Big Notes Studio on his own productions and remixes. He also has begun recording his second album with rapper Fuzz Jackson. He hopes to incorporate his creations in his sets this coming year.

 

“It truly is an honor [to win],” DJ Battle beams. “I’m humbled by the number of people that vote for me every year.”

 

DJs also spinning the 2014 polls include DJ Keybo and DJ Time.

 

BEST THING TO HAPPEN TO ILM IN 2013

From the many independent projects, to Screen Gem Studios, to the productions that can be seen on Primetime, THE FILM INDUSTRY’S SUCCESS proves itself to be the Best Thing to Happen to Wilmington in 2013. With a gorgeous coastline, plenty of wilderness and a quaint urban sprawl the port city allures filmmakers to the east’s answer to Hollywood. Wilmington’s dedicated crew and the state’s current incentive augment our attributes, signifying a whole package.

 

“Many of our competitors exceed very well in one or two areas, but we are known for all four,” Wilmington Regional Film Commission director Johnny Griffin edifies. “Other locales wish they could duplicate our success.”

 

In 2014 Griffin projects that five confirmed big projects will be coming to the area. The second season of “Under the Dome” and “Sleepy Hollow” are slated to shoot here, along with three pilots, “Secrets and Lies,” “Red Zone” and “How and Why,” that could potentially call Wilmington home. In addition, several feature films have shown interest, though nothing’s solidified.

 

“I believe our community is very proud of this high-profile and positive industry,” Griffin explains. “I believe residents of this area feel a sense of ownership and connection.

 

Head of the commission for almost 15 years, Griffin’s seen the rises and falls of the industry, but notes that once the incentives program started in the mid-aughts, business skyrocketed by 2011.

 

However, the recent political debates regarding incentives has put our desirability in jeopardy. Undeterred, the local film community has rallied in support of the benefits this industry brings to Wilmington annually. Bumper stickers that proclaim “Film = Jobs,” and grassroots organizations have appeared all throughout the state.

 

In terms of the outlook, Griffin remains cautiously optimistic. “We plan to demonstrate the effectiveness of the film incentive in creating [and] maintaining jobs, creating tax revenue and creating a wide-spread economic benefit,” Griffins states.

 

Coming in as runners-up are local music venue Ziggy’s opening last summer and Pipeline Events’ fall concert, California Roots: The Carolina Sessions.

—Christian Podgaysky

 

 

Food & Beverage

MEDITERRANEAN FOOD

They opened two years ago downtown at 124 Princess Place and expanded in 2013 into Beau Rivage Shopping Center at 5916 Carolina Beach Road. It seems things for THE GREEKS‘ general manager and chef, Yanni Papanikolaou—who works under owner and executive chef Georgios Papanikolaou—are looking really good. In fact, it’s a perfect set-up to usher in their first win on the encore Best Of poll as Best Mediterranean Restaurant.

 

“We are very lucky!” Yanni exacts. “If I had to describe [the win:] It is very humbling, incredible and amazing. Thank you. One thank you is not enough. Wow!”

 

The demand for an authentic Greek restaurant stuck with the family of restaurateurs based on the pride they have for their heritage. They wanted to represent the best Mediterranean cuisine in Wilmington. “Our passion stems from the fact that we are representing our culture,” Yanni explains. “We hope to bring authenticity to the table (pun intended).”

 

The business remains an extension of each family member. They treat customers as they would their own nearest and dearest. It’s in their mind-set, Yanni says, to not look at it as customer service as much as anticipating and reacting to others the way he wishes to be treated. “People are able to differentiate when you do something just to do it, and when you love doing something,” he says. His family adores the industry for its fluidity and ever-changing challenges.

 

“We evolve by listening to our customers,” he asserts. “We try to be as interactive with them as possible. Social media has definitely changed the game. Rest assured when they talk, we listen and respond.”

 

While The Greeks have more in the works, they’re remaining mum on the details until the timing is right and the ink is dry. Yanni says. “We want to move forward when it makes sense and not just move forward for the sake of ‘expanding.’”

 

For now, folks can enjoy the fact that the family chooses fresh, local ingredients to cultivate a menu of favorites, including souvlaki, gyros, falafel, kabobs, tabouli, hummus and so much more. “Our pillars of philosophy and work ethic are grounded on buy local meat and produce, pick the best, and serve the best to the customer,” Yanni promises. “It is actually something that was instilled on us from a very young age.”

 

Olympia and Sahara Pita and Subs top off second and third places.

 

GOURMET STORE

In 2003 Kathy Webb and Christi Ferretti bought PINE VALLEY MARKET and turned the gourmet store into a haven on local food. Always a dream, opening the store has provided the ladies not only a thriving business but a way to bring people together and create a Wilmington foodie family, where providing excellent customer service and great products remains at its core.

 

“We focus on only local and regional products when it comes to our retail selections,” Ferretti says. “All of our foods are made in-house daily from fresh ingredients. We know our customers by name and many of them are considered family. We truly value each customer who walks in the door and do all that we can to make them feel special and ‘at home.’”

 

Three years ago, the women transformed the gourmet food store into more of a restaurant where breakfast and lunch can be enjoyed on the premises. They constantly update their menu, whether providing oatmeal pancakes for a healthier breakfast item or topping their famed burger with a multitude of items, like thick bacon and homemade pimento cheese. Yet, they’re ninth Best Gourmet Store win comes with greater services, from catering to take-home meals, great wine and beer, as well as an on-premise butcher shop, with the freshest meats cut to order.

 

“We are now a café and catering company where you can also pickup some great things for dinner, prepared foods, wine, cheese and the best steak around,” Ferretti says.“With all of the competition around us, especially the big chains, it is even more of an honor to receive this award than ever before.”

 

By concentrating on the customer, they promise to always push, change, and strive to better the PVM experience day by day. “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse,” Ferretti says. “We will continue to seek out new local products and hope to bring back the spring/summer produce stand out front on Saturdays. Let’s hope that supporting local isn’t a trend but a lifestyle change that affects all for the better.”

 

Winning a Best Of means a lot to the entrepreneurs. They recognize first-hand the marketing it provides as invaluable word-of-mouth advertising. “Anytime we visit a city we look to this type of reader/local voted best of awards to determine our foodie stops,” Ferretti says. “There is credibility in being voted best by the people and it helps those businesses immensely.”

 

Taste the Olive and Temptations Everyday Gourmet round out the nominees.

 

WINE AND BEER SHOP

Celebrating year 16 at LIGHTHOUSE BEER AND WINE means owner Jason Adams will be bringing a lot more to the libation table. For one, he can fill growlers (64 ounces) and half-growlers (32 ounces) nowadays after adding a six-keg draft system to the 220 Causeway Drive store. While they’ve been known to help cater private events, now Lighthouse will offer a private beer or wine tasting for any party or corporate function.

lighthouse beer and wine

GROWLING for SUCCESS: The Lighthouse Beer and Wine crew now serve growlers in 64 or 32 ounce sizes—only one reason that makes them Best Beer and Wine Shop in Wilmington. Courtesy Sean Carr Photohraphy

 

“We are also hosting a smaller event the night before our annual Lighthouse Beer Festival (held the third Saturday in October),” he says of the annual fund-raiser for The Carousel Center for Abused Children. “This event will take place Friday, October 17th, and it is designed for the true beer aficionado. The difference between this event and the larger Saturday festival, is that the beers poured on Friday are all extremely rare, hard to find, and most likely they have never been in the state before.”

 

In fact, the rarities and hard-to-come-bys make Adams all the more enthused by his job. When he started Wilmington’s Best Wine and Beer Store, NC shops couldn’t sell alcohol with more than 6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Today more than half the beers in his store are over 6 percent.

 

“We try to stay ahead of the curve and on top of our game,” he says. “We get the newest and most exciting beers in every week, and the craft industry just continues to grow.”

 

By staying on point with new trends and beverages from NC, Adams constantly changes the inventory at Lighthouse. Plus, he hand-picks every bottle of wine sold.

 

“We take the time to get to know our customers, and in turn we know what they like,” Adams notes. “This kind of attention to detail and personal taste allows us to turn them on to new items.”

 

While their beer garden certainly attracts the summertime crowd at Wrightsville Beach, they’re also reaching beyond in this growing market. “There is at least one new beer that comes to the store every week, often even more than three new beers per week,” he promises. “We are utilizing our new draft system to bring in the really special stuff that may not be available in bottles. We then give our customers the option to drink them here, or take a growler home.”

 

Cape Fear Wine and Beer and Fermental also tap the category’s runners-up.

—Shea Carver

 

BREAKFAST * DINER

Comfort food runs rampant in the south, and hearty fixins’ hold a special place in perpetuating this reputation. Harkening the quaintness of yesteryear with a vibe that makes one question if they’ve wandered off Market Street and entered Mayberry, Wilmington’s Best Breakfast and Best Diner can be found at THE DIXIE GRILL.

DIXIE GRILL

GRILLED FOR BEST DINER AND BREAKFAST: Co-owner Allen Quigley accepts on Dixie Grill’s belhalf at the 2014 Masquerade Ball held at Brooklyn Arts Center. Courtesy Sean Carr Photohraphy

 

Though the restaurant has been a fixture in Wilmington since 1906, it wasn’t until 13 years ago that Brian Marberry purchased the establishment and became partners with Allen Quigley. Since the two have nurtured an eatery that celebrates old favorites while keeping in touch with current culinary developments.

 

From their classic breakfast favorite steak n’ eggs, to their Louisiana Hash—which boasts Cajun fried potatoes fused with Andouille sausage, peppers and onions with a hearty helping of Cheddar jack cheese, served with two eggs and toast—the aroma of their menu permeates their entire block.

 

As well, their lunch and dinner menu boasts favorites such as the corned-beef Reuben or the healthy twist of the turkey meatloaf, which forgoes the traditional ground beef for a lighter, healthier option.

 

Though their breakfast menu features a host of meat filled options, they also have expanded with a number of vegetarian options such as the South Western themed Huevos Verduras. The vegan black bean burger called the Treehugger, also satisfies the appetites of local discriminative eaters. Their ability to anticipate the needs of patrons, along with their reasonable prices keeps the business afloat. “Passion and consistency with an eye on the numbers,” Quigley attributes to the Dixie Grill’s success.

 

Though their mouth-watering dishes already combine high-quality, fresh ingredients, they hope to take this one step further by utilizing more locally grown food. They hope to tap into the burgeoning market for health conscious and local economy savvy dining.

 

Other contenders for Best Breakfast are the Sweet & Savory Bake Shop and Café and The Basics. They beat out Nick’s Diner and Jimbo’s for Best Diner.

 

COFFEE SHOP

Consecutively the Best Coffee Shop since 1998, PORT CITY JAVA continues to get mornings started for Wilmingtonians. Buying all of the coffee they serve in their cafe’s green and roasting it five days a week in their local roastery, they maintain control over their blends. Freshness proves vital to the coffeehouse as they use whole frozen fruit in their smoothies and homemade ice cream in their milkshakes. “[It] means a lot more work for us but it also means we give you a better product,” PCJ’s marketing manager, Megan Mullins, states.

 

With an ever-evolving coffee industry, Port City Java strives to keep up with their patrons’ expectations. However, they never try to shroud knowledge, instead keeping their customers aware of the latest trends in coffee through monthly public tours of their roastery led by director of roasting Scott McLean. The tours enlighten on the entire process the coffee goes through before landing in one’s Port City Java cup.

 

As well, they’ve implemented a certified barista program for employees hoping to move up in the company. The program trains employees on how to handle problems that might arise. The majority of the team’s baristas engaging in the learning experience are doing so out of curiosity, rather than certification. Thus far, they’ve certified Rita Poole, Aileen Gresham, Marine Gilette and KC Hackney.

 

Setting their sights on expansion this year, Port City Java plans to unveil a new steak & egg wrap, a Mediterranean veggie breakfast wrap, a strawberry-mango smoothie and a spinach, banana and mango infused smoothie called the Green Wave. Their Oleander Drive location will move up the road to provide more parking and a longer drive thru. This year they will send a team to Seattle for the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual trade show.

 

“The energy we get from the community here is unreal. People here know how much local businesses mean to the character of our community as well as the local economy,” Mullins enthuses about support they’ve garnered.

 

Port City Java won out over Java Dog and Starbucks.

 

 

FAST FOOD

With six locations throughout the port city, Wilmington’s Best Fast Food, CHICK-FIL-A, meets residents’ quick-eat needs. From their scrumptious chicken minis to their signature waffle fries, the establishment has built quite a reputation.

 

Originally founded out of Atlanta, Georgia, the nationwide chicken chain serves up a variety of delights, from lighter fare, like their chicken wraps, or the classic, pickled-soaked fried-chicken sandwiches. For larger groups—or big appetites—they also supply trays of sandwiches and nuggets. And to wash down the buttery-fried goodness they’ve come to master, their Southern-inspired sweet tea makes it all the tastier.

 

Aside from mouth-watering chicken, Chick-fil-A also boasts a number of philanthropic efforts, like Spirit Night. A local designated group can receive a portion of the night’s proceeds by applying. As well, the chain offers an Express Interest form on their website for local organizations to seek fund-raising help from the restaurant. Adding to their efforts, Chic-fil-a urges local organizations to send in donation requests.

 

To further a family, community-oriented atmosphere, their calendar features a Family Night that includes fun activities. Closing on Sundays, Chic-fil-A affords all of its employees a day of rest, too.

 

Chic-fil-A duked it out with Cookout and Taco Bell for Wilmington’s Best Fast Food.

—Christian Podgaysky

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