Businesses, artists, thespians, chefs, theatre companies, musicians, humanitarians, environmental groups, media: They’re all recognized as the town’s best hot shots in encore’s annual reader’s poll—a poll that has been taking place well over 25 years in Wilmington. To put it simply: We hold the official “Best Of” moniker.
In 2015, we culled over 20,000 voices to weigh in on their thoughts about the Best Of Wilmington. Nominations opened in mid-November and closed in mid-December 2014, before final voting opened mid-December and closed mid-January 2015. All voting was done by the community-at-large through our online voting system, featuring over 130 categories. We try to be as fair as possible, and while we encourage local businesses and groups to campaign so their patrons/fans 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 fundraiser. This year’s event was held at Brooklyn Arts Center on February 28 and benefitted DREAMS of Wilmington—a local nonprofit and multidisciplinary arts program for at-risk youth (see our cover story from encore’s February 26 edition for full info on DREAMS; www.dreamsofwilmingon.org). Thanks to 550 tickets sold, numerous raffles, a Best Of Battle of the Bands, and a live text-to-donate program, DREAMS raised more than $11,000 and will take in $7,200 after expenses. This money allows them to accept 45 students into their three-week summer intensive arts program.
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—all set to a “Back to the ‘80s” theme. Aside from nailing spot-on impressions of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures,” they ensured audiences were rolling in laughter during their “Flashdance” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” interpretive dance numbers. And a bonus: Those funny Pineapple kids also got to know DREAMS’ students via videos they made for the show. More so, they will be volunteering with DREAMS this summer!
We laughed a ton and stuffed ourselves silly, thanks to food passed around throughout the evening—all provided from our numerous nominees in the food and beverage categories. We danced the night away with DJ KB spinning everything from “Under Pressure” to “Rich Girl,” and especially to the bands L Shape Lot and The Midatlantic, who were duking it out for final votes during the ceremony as Best Band. While L Shape Lot came out on top, it did not deter the camaraderie between these Americana/bluegrass acts. They closed out the night in a finale together with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” As well, DREAMS music teacher Laura McLean and her band the New Riders of Calamity took the stage and killed it, especially with a smokin’ rendition of “She Bop.”
Blueberry Creative caught all the fun on film! (So be sure to check out the pictures in the next four editions of encore, wherein we announce all winners.) Folks were dressed to the nines in ‘80s gear, including our crowned king and queen—as picked by TJ Dunn, founder of Wilmington Fashion Week, and judged by audience applause. Christian Podgaysky as Boy George and Stacia Sylvester donned all the right classics from the era, acid-wash jeans and fanny pack included.
Welcome, Best Of Wilmington class of 2015!
Goods & Services
PLACE TO BUY A NEW CAR
With 16 wins to their name, Stevenson Automotive once again prevailed as the best local biz to buy a new car. The Stevenson family found their footing in 1932, and their passion has carried over throughout the decades, as they’ve sent numerous folks off with a new set of wheels. With so many websites dedicated to helping buyers find the right car, general manager for 20-plus years Pat Koballa maintains keeping up with the times and having well-informed staff has been key to their continued success.“We know we have done our job when we exceed our clients expectations,” Koballa declares.
Hondas, Acuras, Chevorlets, and more, line their lots, and each car has a lifetime warranty at no additional cost. As well, the first tank of gas is on the house. They offer loaner cars or shuttle services when someone’s car is in for maintenance, and pick-up and delivery services for people with tight schedules. Customers also can bring their car in for service, whereupon they will receive a free exterior wash every time. Shoppers in the military receive a 10-percent discount, and all customizable accessories also come at 10-percent off for everyone.
He hints that 2015 will be a huge year for the dealership, partially because of Wilmington’s ever-growing community and the sheer volume of new technologies found in cars these days. “Technology on four wheels,” Koballa says.
Though success has found Koballa, he still retains gratitude and humility from his supportive of Port City residents. “It is great to be part of a thriving community, and it is rewarding when our local community chooses us a their auto dealer,” he concludes.
Bob King GMC and Capital Ford revved their engines into second and third.
Receiving four nods for outstanding service is extraordinary. Tattooer and owner of Artfuel Inc.—winner of Best Tattoo Parlor—Sarah Peacock has been honing her trade since 1995. During the mid-’90s, tattooing was a lesser-known art form (shows like “LA Ink” had yet to hit airwaves). What started as a desire to be self-employed turned into a multiple-decade, highly rewarding venture into body art. “I’ve grown more passionate as I’ve watched [my business] grow,” Peacock says. “It’s been great to be a part of that.”
Peacock takes painstaking efforts to ensure her clients get what they want; after all, the ink is permanent. However, this is no problem for a seasoned vet like Peacock.
“We have expanded the size of our studio to accommodate the growing number of clients,” she details. “We are mindful of the atmosphere to fit our diverse clientele.”
Plus, Artfuel Inc. dabbles in other visual arts, as they open the shop up to double as an art gallery. “We’ve gathered several great artists to be featured in our art shows,” Peacock says. “We keep our standards high, as well as being of service to our community.”
With every show Artfuel Inc. displays, they make sure to donate proceeds to a local charity. They’re long-standing supporters of Surfers Healing, an organization that uses riding waves as a therapeutic tool for persons with autism, and the local YMCA. Wilmington Plastic Surgery also refers clients in need of reconstructive tattooing, esepcially female cancer patients, to Peacock. “I feel very grateful that the community is so supportive of us,” she concludes. “It justifies our efforts and intentions that we put forth.”
Jade Monkey Tattoo Studio and New Union Tattoo poked their way into second and third.
PLACE FOR ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE
For the past 15 years, winner of Best Place For Alternative Medicine, McKay Healing Arts, has been offering excellence in alternative approaches to health and healing. Whether patients face fertility issues, which can be aided through a mind-and-body approach through acupuncture and massage, or need urgent care for acute pain, McKay offers an array of safe, natural solutions.
They encourage all clients to share their experiences and success with their physicians. Slowly but surely, more local knowledge about alternative healing is spreading throughout the community: Local M.D.s are even giving direct referrals nowadays to help patients with a collaborative approach to combatting various ailments.
“Many people come to us after they have exhausted traditional approaches to illness or pain,” owner Leon McKay details. “It is extremely gratifying to see them achieve results when nothing else has helped. It excites us to be able to introduce people to therapies that utilize the body’s natural healing ability—an ability that has been de-emphasized in our current culture.”
McCay Healing Arts has online scheduling, adding to the convenience for customers. Saturday massage hours have been a popular service, so much so, they added acupuncture hours every other Saturday as well. Their manual lymph-drainage massage therapy has become a much-sought-after practice. Looking toward 2015, they will be focusing more on their garden-studio space, which is utilized for workshops and educational programs. “[It will] include reiki training in various levels where practitioners can obtain CEUs for their licensing,” McKay informs.
They’re also hosting a film presentation of “Ballets Russes” on March 19. Speaker and accomplished portrait painter, landscape artist, couturier, photographer, fencer, and tattooist John Bowlt will give a talk on April 2.
Praise from the community keeps the McKay staff focused and encouraged to continue making Wilmington a healthier place to live. “Acknowledgement from locals is what matters most,” McKay says. “They are the people we serve. In the past when clients have seen our encore awards displayed, their choice in coming to us for service has been re-inforced, increasing their trust. We actually picked up a couple of clients from the Best Of publication released last year.”
Healing Wilmingtonians in the number two and three spots are Infinity Acupuncture and Carolina Beach Acupuncture.
PLACE TO BUY MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
“Music! It’s what drives people,” Bobby Hamelburg, owner of Finkelstein’s, muses.
Dating back to 1906, Finkelstein’s has been established in Wilmington for over 100 years, and they’ve amassed 12 Best Place to Buy Musical Instruments awards over the last few years. “The people are our passion,” Hamelburg adds. “Listening to their stories day in and day out is pure inspiration.”
Armed with a well-educated crew, Finkelstein’s is a one-stop shop for instrument maintenance and new purchases. The locale comes equipped with guitar, speakers, band instruments, and drum technicians. They also have teachers on hand to give lessons. Plus, they go to painstaking lengths to research and become familiar with all brands they carry.
“How and where [our vendors] create their products, treat their employees, and stand behind their products are important factors in what we are representing,” Hamelburg elaborates.
Though they keep up with the latest trends in music, they also keep it old-school by placing emphasis on the instrument and its owner or soon-to-be owner. “Some things never change,” Hamelburg professes. “Simply talking to people and having a hands on experience with what you are buying is important to us. You cannot get that through a computer.”
However, come this spring, Finkelstein’s will be launching a new website.
“Wilmington and the surrounding area is amazing,” Hamelburg tells. “The growth over the years is astonishing. We are looking forward to growing with Wilmington and helping the community as much as we can. Locals are the best. We love the locals. Without them we would be lost. You know who you are, thank y’all for your support!”
Tuning instruments in second and third are Guitar Pickers and Music Loft.
“Never become complacent,” Mary Ann Masucci, owner of Blue Moon Gift Shops, declares. “A business is ever-changing and always growing, and your customers always come first!”
With an attitude like that, it’s no surprise her gift shop on Racine Drive has been thriving for 15 years. 2015 marks their seventh win on our reader’s poll.
When Blue Moon opened, there was no precedence for such an establishment locally: a place that houses multiple arts and business vendors, so shoppers get an immersion iintohandcrafted items. Essentially, Blue Moon is like Etsy but live, with personal service, and even more localized items, thanks to the numerous crafts-people who showcase their work. Blue Moon’s 8,500 square-feet are stocked with jewelry and furniture from purveyors like Coasts Boutique, Marlene McDonald Jewelry, Sinead’s Cottage, and Old School Wood Works.
A host of always current and trending items, and diligent customer service, have been the number one consistencies that keep folks coming through their doors. “We pride ourselves on customer service,” Masucci says. “For example, we have never charged for gift wrapping. We provide it free all year long. We listen to our customers’ needs and strive to accommodate their requests.”
As well, Blue Moon Gift Shops also comes complete with a gallery, dubbed “Eclipse.” Containing locally made goods, like sculptures, paintings, pottery, and more, it took home the gold for Best Art Gallery in 2014. “The support of our customers is what continues to drive us,” Masucci concludes. “We are honored and humbled each year that we have won.”
Second and third goes to Crabby Chic and Dragonflies.
PLACE TO BUY A USED CAR
From Audi to Ford, from sedan to SUV, Wilmingon’s spoken and the Best Place To Buy a Used Car moniker goes to Auto Wholesale. Open since 2003, owner and gnarl manager Paul Tracy upstarted the biz with the mindset to make buying a car enjoyable. Marred by stereotypes of pushy salespeople and “lemons,” it is Tracy’s goal to ensure that’s not the experience for folks buying a preowned car at his establishment. Acknowledgement for the service obviously means a great deal to Tracy and validates the hard work he puts into pleasing customers.
“Doing things right and hard work really pays off,” Tracy says. “You need to stay updated on new technology, social media, [and] what the customers want.”
With financing available as low as 1.9 percent, rolling off the lot in that gently used car won’t break the bank. As well, they offer an ASE certified tire and service center to ensure their cars stay in tiptop shape. They assist with oil changes, alignments, 30k-, 60k-, and 90k-mile services, A/C work, and NC state inspections. As well, having great deals for just-like-new cars and treating customers right doesn’t hurt either.
Staying with the times, Internet has proved crucial in heightening their business’s growth. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding: Their easy-to-navigate website boasts a complete list of their cars, with an easy to use search bar. “It is the best way to advertise and stay active on what is sold and what has just arrived,” Tracy tells.
Improving their already solid status and possibly expanding their business will be on the agenda for 2015. “I Love Wilmington, NC,” Tracy says. “We live in a great city, and it continues to grow! Word of mouth and our reputation are really paying off greatly for Auto Wholesale.”
Rolling off lots in second and third are Bob King GMC and Capital Ford.
Completing over 3,000 moves, with over 15 trucks in 2014, certainly stands as tribute to Two Men and a Truck’s win as Best Moving Company—something they’ve won for nine years in a row now. The company has been serving Wilmington and Jacksonville businesses and citizens for 17 years. Todd and Kendra Eberhardt began Two Men and a Truck of Wilmington in 1998, and in 2012 they partnered with Nathan Bocock. “Our commitment is to continuously strive to exceed our customers’ expectations in value and high standards,” office manager Nicole Utz says.
The moving company offers packing and unpacking options, as well as partial moves for big items. They also provide storage options.
This year they will open another office closer to Jacksonville to better serve the area. As well, they champion the diversity of the community. They continuously give back to places and organizations like Junior League of Wilmington, Children’s Baptist Homes, The Carousel Center, Pine Valley Methodist Church, and Veterans Affairs. Plus, the local franchise has participated in a nationwide collection for Movers for Moms, a nonprofit that aids women who are victims of domestic violence.
“The collection starts at the end of March, and through the first week of May the donations are delivered to local women’s and family shelters for Mother’s Day,” Utz tells. “Last year Movers for Moms collected 220,000 items for hundreds of shelters across the U.S. Our goal this year is to collect 250,000 items. . . . Our success comes from our customers. We are very grateful for their support.”
Doing the heavy lifting in second and third are Few Moves and Miracle Moves.
HEALTH FOOD STORE
For Whole Foods Market, the link between health and food is clear, especially considering that numerous chronic diseases in America are diet-related.
“In most cases, these diseases can be prevented, reduced and often times reversed by eating the right foods,” says Erin McNally, marketing team leader at the Oleander Drive store. “Our goal is to inspire long-term, healthy eating habits that will ultimately be part of the solution to our nation’s obesity and health crisis. Be mindful that food is more than fuel and every bite counts. Know more about what you eat—it’s one of the most important decisions we should make each day.”
Founded in 1980, Whole Foods leads the way in natural and organic foods. They search and sell foods in or as close to their natural state, free of artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, preservatives, and hydrogenated fats. Yet, the team of Whole Foods wants to educate shoppers, as well.
“We want to equip our shoppers with the tools needed to make long-term healthy choices beyond just the shopping list,” McNally notes. The store not only has a large selection vegan and vegetarian options, they cater to gluten-free, non-dairy and sugar-free diets. They host numerous in-store events and share cooking tips and recipe ideas. They also team up with nonprofits throughout Wilmington to ensure their impact on a local level is far-reaching.
“We provide food donations daily to our established local food banks and shelters, like the Good Shepherd picks up six days a week, and each month we provide in-kind donations to local non-profits,” McNally says.
They’ve held food drives for Feed4More campaign to raise funds to stock a pantry/backpack for hundreds of students served through NourishNC (winner of encore’s Best Nonprofit, 2015).”
They also host “5% Days” wherein they donted 5 percent of net proceeds from sales to local non-profits (Best Of beneficiary DREAMS of Wilmington even benefitted in January).
They also partner with local food artisans and growers throughout the South. Thus, much of what folks buy from their local Whole Foods will have been regionally sourced.
“We believe in the importance of supporting local and helping make the connection between customers and the people who grow our food,” McNally notes. “We continuously add new local suppliers.”
Most recently, they’ve added Sea Love, The Coastal Succulent, and Island Roast Coffee, all Wilmington-based businesses. “We take pride in satisfying and delighting our customers each and every day,” McNally says. “We love being a part of creating a healthy vibrant community here in Wilmington.”
Need to know about unconditional love and compassion? Get yourself a dog. At least that’s what Von Barkee’s owner and pet stylist extraordinnaire Nikki Beall says. “My connection with dogs in particular has been a life-long one and has driven every aspect of my business,” Beall notes.
What started as an apprenticeship in 1993 in Seattle has grown over 20 years into a small business, a dog spa and bakery, located at 215 South Water Street, suite 105, downtown Wilmington. The demanding work isn’t always an easy one, but it’s rewarding regardless.
“Sometimes you get bit, you always leave smelling like a wet dog,” Beall quips, “but, really, it’s a small price to pay for getting to be creative and work with animals as a career! And working for myself is really the icing on the cake.”
Von Barkee’s will reach their two-year anniversary in June. During that time frame, she’s already endured a business move and increased clientele, but most importantly has secured a safe haven for animals. “I started Von Barkee’s with the intention to provide a better atmosphere for dogs (and cats)—less stressful, more relaxed and fun,” she says. “My goal was to create a place dogs would enjoy coming.”
The spa offers bathing, nail trims, nail paintings, feather extensions, home pet-care services (downtown only), a self-service dog wash, and more, with prices ranging from as low as $5 and up to $50. They also host the Atlantic School of Grooming, allowing interested parties to become properly trained and certified within the pet-grooming field.
“Opening a business is a scary thing and hard work,” Beall says. “But the community has been extremely supportive and wonderful and winning best groomer is reflective of that! Wilmington is the most dog-friendly city I have ever seen! On sunny days, I have sat at The George on the river and counted as many as 22 dogs walk by one afternoon! That tells me as a business owner that caters to the dogs that I am in the right spot.”
The bakery side of the business provides all kinds of unique treats and products for pet owners. Whether looking for puppy pastries, doggie birthday cakes, and even dog beer and wine, Von Barkee’s offers quite the selection.
“We also host pub crawls to some of the local dog friendly bars,” Beall tells. “It’s a fun way to bring dog people together and show support to bars that are dog-friendly.”
Animals paw over to Sea Peace and Atlantic Animal Hospital, according to our 2015 reader’s poll, as well.—Shea Carver
Arts, Media, and Entertianment
In 1986 the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher began opening eyes to the wondrous world beneath the sea’s murky waters. Interactive experiences, like being able to touch the sea star or rays or talking to a diver, create a personal touch that stays with folks long after.
“[The] aquarium staff believes in the mission of inspiring appreciation and conservation of aquatic environments here in North Carolina and around the world,” Robin Nalepa, head of public relations for the aquarium, details.
Over the years, behind-the-scenes tours, daily dive shows and the Adventure Reef Playground have added to the engagement patrons have. “Visitors want to see and do more than ever before,” Nalepa says. “This is why we create beautiful, engaging exhibits and activities.”
They will be premiering a new syngnathid exhibit that will showcase sea horses, pipe fish, razor fish, sea moths, and more. Also debuting this spring will be a seasonal exhibit that runs through September, called “Lorikeet Landing.” “This interactive exhibit features more than 50 colorful, tropical birds that guests can feed,” Nalepa tells.
Involving the community in special events, too, proves a key component to the aquarium’s success. Folks can hold weddings there, and they also have been involved with various local programs like DREAMS of Wilmington. They also hold Trick or Treat Under the Sea on Halloween, summer camps, the annual Alligator Egg Hunt, and the upcoming 5k Race for the Planet, which is held in April.
“Knowing the local community cares and values the Aquarium confirms the work we do each and every day,” Nalepa says. “It is our pleasure and honor to serve not just as an attraction but also as a community partner providing programs and fun throughout the year…”
Piquing the curiosity of locals in the second and third spot are USS North Carolina Battleship and Wrightsville Beach.
From hosting Cinematique to their main attractions series, local theatre productions and numerous special events, Thalian Hall Center for Performing Arts has made quite a name for itself as one of Wilmington’s premier cultural hubs. It’s no wonder they were crowned encore’s Best Of winner for Best Theatre Venue.
Opening its doors in 1858 by the City of Wilmington, Thalian Hall took over management of it in 1973. Offering a home for the community’s abundance of talent, the organization has strived to preserve the historic building.
“What makes Thalian Hall special is attention to detail,” marketing director Gary Tucker details. “All our staff and volunteers try to be attentive to patron needs and quickly fix any issues. You can also see the attention to detail in the building itself. Any upgrades done to the building are always done with the idea of making the venue comfortable and usable in mind.”
Tucker cites renovations of its black box studio, now named the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre. The organization installed new stadium seating, as well as light sound and film upgrades. As such, it’s turned into one of the city’s cushiest spots to see a production.
Staying with the times, Thalian is effectively utilizing social media and electronic communication to continue their outreach. In 2015 Thalian will be unveiling a new concept, with online ticket sales and mobile-app ticket sharing, powered by Vendini. The program, “Walletini,” will provide locals with convenient purchasing options.
“However, we have made it a priority to make individual connections as often as possible by calling patrons at random to thank them for coming and ask about their experience—always being prompt in responding to patron correspondence and having an open door policy,” Tucker tells.
Ultimately, the community’s support and loyal patronage continues to be the helm of the venue’s driving force. Second and third goes to City Stage and TheatreNOW.—Christian Podgaysky
RADIO PERSONALITY and MORNING SHOW
As a child Jason Fosdick, a.k.a. Foz, was fascinated by local radio. He witnessed the impact it had on his hometown community and knew he wanted to be a part of it.
“I knew I wanted to be part of something ‘like that’ when I grew up!” he excites. “And I wanted to do something fun first and foremost.”
For the past 11 years, he has remained one of Sunrise Broadcasting’s most beloved hosts, as heard on his popular morning show, Foz and Laura in the Morning on Z107.5.
“I’ve always loved top 40 stations and pop music,” Foz admits. “But I’m not too busy to listen to lot of stuff from the ‘60s, plus any Etta James, Sinatra—love old crooners!”
The morning show runs from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. where he and Laura entertain guests with all sorts of shenanigans. They talk celebrity gossip, trivia, and of course make listeners laugh whether with gags or jokes.
“I love my time with Laura,” Foz says. “What is fun about the show is we have created a space for people to ‘hang out with us’ on the radio. It’s always interesting fun!”
Though new platforms are introducing themselves in the Digital Age to reach listeners, Foz sees it as a benefit to local radio. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—social media in general makes it easier to get their message out and reach the people.
“Radio professional have had to make many adjustments and constant education of all the latest technologies,” he says, “and learn how to use them to their advantage. As far as Z107.5, we’ve seen tons of growth in the past 10 years in both ratings and earnings.”
One thing is for sure: Foz’s popularity isn’t slowing down. This marks the hosts ninth year in a row. “It is a major honor and I will work hard to try to win another,” he promises.
Jackie Jordan (WGNI) and Sheila Brothers (Sunny 104.5) take radio personality nods, too, while The Penguin’s Morning Chill and WGNI’s Bob and Sheri Mornings also top the list for Best Morning Show.—Shea Carver
Food & Beverage
Whether craving an 8-ounce filet mignon, a 14-ounce New York strip or a 12-ounce sirloin, Port City Chop House covers all the bases. It’s no wonder their exclusively center-cut Angus Beef has landed them the the Best Steak moniker in encore’s Best Of.
“Winning always feels great but doing so by being voted on or judged by your peers and community adds a special touch,” general manager Brian Nave admonishes. “People say all the time, ‘I see you won best steak again.’ Nothing beats word of mouth.”
The local haunt for a prime cut of beef has been in operation for 18-plus years. Over the years, they’ve added more incentives to fill bellies, like their special-priced appetizers at the bar, weekend music, and their lunch and dinner for two programs.
“Appetizer specials are extremely hot, and with the craft-beer room, people are looking for local, tasty beers,” Nave declares. He goes on to say the restaurant thrives on, “building friendships with our guests and seeing smiling faces when people walk in and out our door.”
Each meal at Port City Chop House is inspected twice: once by the chef and again by the executive manager. This evidences just a small facet of the hard work and dedication that goes into their steaks. Consistency in their efforts embody their goals for 2015. For Port City Chop House, it’s all about serving the community that supports them.
“I always say that Wilmington is large enough to have many options and small enough to feel like a community,” Nave tells. “We will continue to be involved not just with in-house service but with our neighbors.”
Searing specially prepared meat onto plates in the number and two and three spot for Best Steak are Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Texas Roadhouse.
BREWERY, APPETIZERS and RIBS
“We make our food and beer from scratch,” says Ellie Craig, sales and public-relations head of Front Street Brewery. “Working with our hands to make something everyday gives us pride in what we do, and every brewer, chef and line cook takes that very seriously. We love Wilmington, and we are proud to represent the Cape Fear region through our food and our craft beer.”
Winner of Best Ribs, Best Appetizers (which they’ve now won for three consecutive years) and Best Brewery, Front Street Brewery’s walls are adorned with even more accolades than the ones already displayed. Yet, Craig and company aren’t letting that go their (frothy) head.
“We are truly humbled,” she says. “With the rise of the craft-beer scene in Wilmington this year, the number of quality craft breweries that have opened, and the amount of good beer that is now available in Wilmington, it’s reassuring to know that all of the hard work that we all do, day in and day out, is appreciated. We celebrate this award as evidence of that hard work, but we acknowledge that we couldn’t have this award without the hard work that others have put into their beer. That makes this award so much more meaningful to us.”
Having opened in 1995, this marks Front Streey Brewery’s 20th year of service. Experimenting with beer proves a passion for current head brewmaster, Kelsie Cole. Their Wort Shops and Single Hop series mark their more adventurous endeavors. IPAs and Sours also have seen a dramatic increase during the past couple years; Front Street Brewery always works to keep up with local palates.
“For the last 20 years, we’ve been the only kids in the sandbox,” Craig notes. “Now we have some awesome new breweries out there, with which we are excited to collaborate beer recipes, create new events and educate the Cape Fear region about one thing we all love: beer! Brewery tourism is also on the rise and through our combined efforts, we can all tap into that.”
Their desire for evolution shines through in their food as well. Though they have their mainstays—like their award-winning ribs—daily specials feature seasonal ingredients. And all the food perfectly complements the beer. “We train our staff to be knowledgeable about our beer, bourbon and food and provide the type of service we can be proud of,” Craig exacts.
Community is big for the brewery, too, as seen through their generous give-backs. They raise funds for programs like Battleship Capital Campaign, The Cape Fear Raptor Center, the local chapter of UsTOO International, and Ales for ALS through their beer sales Plus, they’re involved with organizations like Downtown Business Alliance, Wilmington Downtown Inc., and other community-building nonprofits.
Looking toward 2015, they already have plans to celebrate their big 2-0. “We will be releasing the beer that started it all in 1995, our Lumina Lager,” Craig informs. “We have had people from all over the South ask us to bring it back and we’ve listened. It won’t last long, but it will be on tap later this year. Also, watch out for an announcement about our 20th anniversary party soon! “
Brewing into second and third are Flytrap Brewing Wilmington Brewing Company, while the appetizer category welcomes Circa 1922 and Carolina Ale House. Best Ribs’ nods also go to Chili’s and Texas Roadhouse.
WRITE-IN CATEGORY: BEST DONUTS AT WAKE ‘N’ BAKE
Waking and baking is a favorite pastime of many college students, but local proprietor Danny Tangredi has put a new spin on the phrase. What started with an affinity toward Krispy Kreme donuts (paired with coffee, of course) in college led to his successful brick-and-mortar, Wake N Bake Donuts.
“As I got older and in a better position to actually start the business, I wanted the shop to be a bit more on the edgy side of the donut world—more like a Voodoo Doughnut [well-known in Portland, Oregon] than a traditional donut shop,” Tangredi says—“something where I could use my creativity and push the limits. I also enjoy making people smile and it’s very hard not to smile when you come into Wake N Bake Donuts.”
Only open for six months, the business has captured the hearts and stomachs of locals who venture into the Carolina Beach shop. Among favorite selections are the traditional glazed (can’t go wrong with a classic) and the Wake N Bacon, which is topped with a maple glaze and bacon crumbles. However, the stuffed donuts—loaded with ingredients like Pop Tarts, candy bars, oatmeal cream pies, and other sweet-tooth sating selections—quickly are gaining popularity.
“We love operating in Carolina Beach,” Tangredi says of the quaint coastal abode. “The support of everyone local and in the surrounding areas is tremendous. We donate to several non-profits and feature local artwork in our shop.” The spot will don a new menu come early April that will push their creative imagination to the limits.
Other honorable mentions for Write-In Category are Best Music Education at Steele Music Studios and Best Esthetician, which went to Marcella Hardy at Tanglez.
SPORTS BAR and WAITSTAFF
Amid the hustle and bustle of downtown Wilmington, there’s a quaint little bar with decor that harkens the days of yesteryear. Outfitted in furniture and hangings that seem straight out of the days of the American Revolution, Copper Penny has been serving up drinks and food for 12 years now. Since opening they’ve gained quite a stellar reputation, as they’ve earned Best Waitstaff for several years now, and this year they’ve added Best Sports Bar to the list. “Our love for great food and Philadelphia sports created a unique opportunity for the area,” owner Andrew Devoid says.
With dim lighting and a spacious dining area, the bar creates a perfect atmosphere to watch the game on one of their high-def TVs over a brew. Copper Penny is the hot spot to go during the sports season’s Philly Eagles and Philadelphia Phillies’ games. The bar has not been immune to the steadily growing craft-beer craze either. Never short on pours, the bar serves an abundance of North Carolina-based ales, including Oskar Blues, Beer Army, and Southern Appalachian, among others. Their drafts hit the spot, alongside a meaty Southwest Burger.
Plus, their gourmet pub fare is filled with classics like a to-die-for Philly (new category for 2016, perhaps?), piled-high Reuben, or the Lady Liberty portabella sandwich, served up by some of Wilmington’s friendliest faces. The Copper Penny simply has a winning recipe for success. “We aim to hire people who work hard and reprepresent our business in an upbeat, friendly and professional manner,” Devoid says.
On any trip to the Copper Penny, diners find that no matter how busy it is, the waitstaff maintains excellence in service. They ensure drinks are never empty, customers are engaged and appetites are always fulfilled.
“We the love the community of people and businesses that support encore, and knowing they love us just as much is wonderful,” Devoid says. “Wilmington is growing in a positive direction, and we look forward in our continual support of all the great organizations and people that make it happen.”
BAR (OVERALL), NEIGHBORHOOD BAR and BEER LIST
The sounds of banjo pickin’ and bluegrass singin’ beckons a stop from passersby of the recipient of encore’s Best Bar (Overall), Best Neighborhood Bar and Best Beer List: Satellite Bar and Lounge. Decked out in mismatched, eclectic furniture and antiques, with friendly faces behind the bar, the establishment has been slinging drinks since December 2009.
“[We] strive to give our customers a clean, warm atmosphere and a great product selection,” owner Dustin Ricks says. “We try our best to be a positive part of our community. It is an honor to know so many people think we are doing such.”
Their weekly concerts and multiple fundraisers they hold throughout the year show off their efforts. From rock to Americana, Satellite hosts all sounds from local and touring musicians. As well, they boast two outdoor areas: one hosts films on the lawn, as well as games, while the other opens by way of two garage doors to their main indoor space.
Constant upgrades (too many to even count, according to Ricks) and the ongoing boom in the craft-beer scene have aided Satellite’s continued success. Whether your poison of choice is IPAs, lagers, stouts, or even Bloody Marys, they’ve got you covered.
And the pet-friendly business welcomes all four-legged companions to take in the quaint atmosphere. “Anyone who has frequented our establishment has noticed our constant growth to make our cutomers’ experience here more enjoyable,” Ricks tells. “Surprises are to be be unveiled in 2015!”
Flowing from the taps in the second and third spot for Beet List is Bombers Bev. Co. and Cape Fear Wine and Beer. Cape Fear Wine and Beer and The Blind Elephant round out the Best Bar (Overall) category, and Goat and Compass and Duck and Dive represent their locales as second and third in Best Neighborhood Bar. —Christian Podgaysky
Shawn Wellersdick (chef) and Anne Steketee (front-of-house operator) are making their debut on encore’s Best Of list despite having won numerous accolades nationally. They’ve taken the prestigious DiRoNA Award for Excellence in Food and Wine, Sante Award for Best Fine Dining in the Southeast and consistently top lists in Wine Spectator. Now, they can add encore’s Best Fine Dining, something they’ve been nominated for since 2000 when they opened their white-tableclothed restaurant, Port Land Grille, in Lumina Station.
“Fifteen years ago, there really wasn’t a place in town that focused on all the components of ‘fine dining,’” Steketee remembers. She and her husband—who graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI—wanted their restaurant to focus on locally sourced ingredients, like soft shell crabs, as well as artisanal products worldwide, whether sourcing Alaskan halibut, Sonoma cheese or the finest Japanese Kobe beef. But where the Port Land Grille experience excels is in their stellar table service, given by an impeccably trained staff who know how to make diners feel especially refined.
“It’s even more validation [to win this] for our hard-working staff,” Steketee says. “It makes them feel proud, and that translates into an even better ‘job well done’ attitude and pride for the future. Consistency is key. We’ve really never wavered from above. We are able to maintain the focus of these qualities but still keep customers’ wants/needs in mind.”
In fact, when the economy went south five or more years ago, Port Land Grille followed the market. They created a “Simple Grille” menu, offering entrees for under $20, which allowed diners to still get a taste of sophistication without a hefty price tag. It has been successful, so much so it’s a part of their menu today.
“We still are very well-priced, but we have re-introduced higher-priced entrees into the mix,,” Steketee says. “We also offer a lot of flexibility as far as preparations go.”
For instance, diners can order pan-seared diver scallops with sticky rice and baby bok choy, smothered in a Hong Kong sauce; or with blue crabmeat, English peas, pancetta risotto and buttered spinach, in a San Marzano tomato, basil, melted onion fondue. Six styles make up Chef Wellersdick’s preparation techniques.
“Higher-end, quality products are coming back in vogue as the economy continues to improve,” Steketee says. She notices diners ordering items like aged bone-in steaks, bourbon and wine more often. And Port Land’s wine list never disappoints. All-American, it consists of more than 500 bottles, with five champagnes, a slew of red and whites, and over 20 ports and dessert wines.
“We plan to continue to work hard to exceed expectations versus keeping up with or setting trends,” Steketee notes. “I love the independent nature of our business climate—not happy with the political climate (film = jobs). I’d say our customers are all over the spectrum and have been a pleasure to meet and maintain. We cater to them, but we don’t lose our mission in doing so.”
Other fine-dining eateries topping the list include Manna and Circa 1922.
THAI, RESTAURANT (OVERALL) and ATMOSPHERE
Solange Thompson has been a Wilmingtonian since 1975. Though she ran a few take-out restaurants in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it wasn’t until the 1950s building at 7 Wayne Drive became available for purchase in the early aughts that her dream of running an authentic Thai and Vietnamese eatery gained its footing. She wanted her restaurant, Indochine, to be a place fragrant with the smells of home: curries, Thai peppers, garlic, fresh vegetables, and avariety of seafood and meats, stewing and simmering all day to meld into the most decadent flavors.
“There were very few options for Asian cuisine in the area,” Thompson says. “I wanted to bring some of my Vietnamese culture and heritage to Wilmington. At the time, Wilmington was limited to a few Chinese buffets but nothing that featured food from Vietnam or Thailand.”
Thirteen years later, Thompson and her family run one of the most successful eateries in the greater Wilmington area—as evidenced from the overflowing parking lot of cars which fill up as soon as the doors open for lunch (Tues. – Fri.,11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sat., noon to 3 p.m.) and dinner (Mon. – Sun., 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.).
Though the food is decadent—and healthy, filled with nutritional and pharmaceutical benefits, which are high in fiber and essential minerals because of the numerous, fresh vegetables and herbs used—the space is as enticing. Thompson has collected various relics and artificats throughout the years to and from her travels to Thailand. The restaurant is adorned with buddhas of all sizes, traditional art work, antiques, and the most gorgeous outdoor garden area, peppered with hand-crafted, wooden dining cabanas. “We would love to be able to expand our beautiful garden area,” Thompson says of changes coming in 2015. As always, at front and center for all her considerations: the customer.
“My customer is king!” she states. “I strive first and foremost to make my customers happy. I really do take in feedback; some people do not like criticism, but I have always felt that by listening to what people think (both good and bad), I have the opportunity to learn and improve.”
Led by head chef Didi Snaukri, the culinary team at Indochine strives for consistency. Plus, they stay focused on dining trends and diet needs, as to appeal to everyone. “It is important to be able to maintain authenticity in the food, while being able to accommodate different needs and wants of our customer,” Thompson states. “[Currently,] I hear more people requesting gluten-free foods. We try to make adjustments to honor these requests.”
This marks the thirteenth year in a row now that Indochine has secured the coveted “e.” Such recognition from devoted and loyal diners never tires.
“I am honored and proud that the community considers us relevant and worthy of this special acknowledgement,” she says. “My family and I are absolutely thrilled. I love Wilmington. My husband and I raised our family here and I consider this place to be my home.”
Other Thai spots stacking up votes include Southern Thai and Big Thai, while Manna places second and Rx, third, in the Restaurant (Overall) category. Best Atmosphere votes also go to Manna and Aubriana’s.
For 20 years now, Port City Java has been the official stop for java heads of Wilmington. “Everyone always talks about gas prices from 10 or 20 years ago,” Megan Mullins, marketing director, says. “We thought it’d be fun to celebrate our anniversary by rolling back to prices we had when we first opened.”
That means from March 23 through the 27, guests can purchase a 12-ounce coffee for $0.85 and 16-ounce iced coffees for $1.15 each. Their win means we win!
“At Port City Java, we really try to focus on guest hospitality and product quality above all else,” Mullins notes. “Shortly after being hired, all of our baristas meet with the CEO, Steve Schnitzler, to talk about what hospitality really means to him and his expectations for taking care of guests in our cafes.”
Quality product also stays top-of-mind, as Scott McLean, director of roasting, travels extensively to coffee-growing communities to find the best beans. McLean roasts PCJ coffees five days a week and samples everything before sending it to the cafes. “We take a lot of extra steps because we care very much about doing things right,” Mullins ensures.
Though coffee remains the heart of PCJ, the cafe has introduced alternative products throughout its two-decade existence to appeal to all diners. Smoothies, breakfast wraps and grab-and-go options abound throughout their remodeled cafes, welcoming guests to work, chat with friends, hold meetings, or merely relax. Their drive-thru makes sure coffee-and-bagels on the go never miss a beat.
“We’ve won the Best Coffee Shop award every year since 1998,” Mullins tells, “but it’s a great feeling to know we’re still having fun and we’re still the one!”
They’re maintaining their relevance by continuously upgrading and evolving, including the launch of their “Reserve Program,” which highlights high-end, quality coffees, grown by farmers worldwide. “In March, we introduced the Brazil Fazenda Santa Lucia,” Mullins says. Roaster McLean visited Brazil over four days and visited seven farms and sampled over 150 different coffees from the Carmo de Minas region.
“Just like Napa Valley offers the perfect growing conditions for fine wine in our country, the Carmo de Minas region offers an ideal climate for growing specialty coffee,” Mullins tells.
The Fazenda Santa Lucia has a creamy body and sweet, fruity flavors. They’ll be sampling the product in select stores on Saturday mornings in March. They’ll also introduce a 20-year celebration beer brewed at Front Street Brewery (another 2015 Best Of winner) in June. PCJ continues to work with local nonprofits throughout Wilmington, whether making financial or in-kind donations annually.
“Wilmington has been very, very good to us and the community has been so fiercely loyal to our cafes,” Mullins excites. “It’s so incredibly rare to find a city like ours where the national brand coffeehouse is not the number one choice.”
Other coffee shops sipping their way onto the list include Grinders and Starbucks.
BEER AND WINE SHOP
February 28 didn’t only mark the encore Best Of awards party, it honored 17 years in business for Lighthouse Beer and Wine. “Winning the title of Best Wine and Beer Shop that night was a wonderful way to start our 18th year of business,” Anna Worobey, empress of ales and executive of happiness, says. The general manager continues driving forward owner Jason Adams’ dream of being a one-stop shop for beer and wine essentials.
“When Lighthouse opened back in 1998, it was hard to find craft beer anywhere in town,” Worobey explains. “Now the craft beer movement is growing locally and nationally, and it’s a beautiful business to be in.”
Passion for all things imbibed remains a focus of the people who run the Lighthouse operation. Located at 220 Causeway Drive in Wrightsville Beach, Worobey and Adams are excited to meet enthusiasts of their numerous products. As of late the shop has increased its number of draft beers from six to 12 for folks to try in their on-premise, dog-friendly beer garden—and they fill growlers to go. “It’s hard not to enjoy a business that profits by making people happy,” she says.
Outside of the shop, Lighthouse reaches into the community with their annual beer festival, held every October, which benefits Carousel Center for Abused Children. Since starting the event, they’ve raised over $150,000 for the nonprofit. They’re already in the planning stages for the 14th event, set for Saturday, October 24.
“We’re also working on our Third Voracious Rare Beer Festival,” Worobey tells. “This event is the night before our big beer festival, October 23, and it’s held on the deck of the USS North Carolina Battleship. It’s a smaller event for the beer enthusiasts that love to try beer they’ll likely never have again.”
Lighthouse hosts private beer or wine tastings for parties and corporate events, personalizing each one to be informative and fun. Folks can choose from their small boutique wines or rare and obscure beers, as well as macro brews.
“No matter your budget, or level of beer and wine knowledge, you can shop at Lighthouse and leave feeling confident and happy about your purchase,” Worobey says. “We get to know our regulars, and we want them to feel like they’re part of our family.”
For NC Beer Month, held in April, they have events ready to celebrate. “The people that work at our local breweries, bars and bottle shops are amazing,” Worobey hails. “The other night over 30 business owners and managers from all of our local breweries and bottle shops got together for a meeting to collaborate and develop ways to grow together. It was so cool to see such strong, like-minded people come together in the name of something we all love: craft beer. Operating a business here is awesome, and our customers are amazing.”
Other beer and wine shops corking the category include Fermental and Cape Fear Wine and Beer.—Shea Carver
Environmental & Humanitarian
Winning Best Volunteer for the second year running, Bo Dean may be one of the most generous people in Wilmington anyone could meet. His humility and gratitude radiate from within; more so, he spends so much time and energy giving back rather than taking. When it comes to health and wellness, Dean especially jumps on board to help where necessary.
“Anything that is about health and wellness speaks to me,” he says. “It is about how we rise together as a community of people and ensure that we all have what we need to be healthy and achieve.”
Dean got his first taste of volunteerism and its impact on the world in high school. On weekends, he and his Key Club would help children with cerebral palsy gain greater acruity in their muscles. “It showed me then—and continues to this day—that giving time can make a huge difference in someone’s life, in so many ways,” he says. “Spectacular rewards benefit in just being present with others and being available. I cannot imagine a life where this type of involvement is not a regular part.”
Currently, Dean serves on the board of The Miracle League of Wilmington, which welcomes all-ability sportsmen and active citizens to partake in athletic events. Dean calls the games weekly, in fact, at the Brax Stadium, PPD field. It has continued stirring passion in his fight toward acceptance for all.
“Access and inclusion speak to who we are as a culture and how we operate as a community,” he explains. “When we open ourselves to including every person, regardless of the differences in cognitive or physical disability, we see the opportunity to truly engage the best of who we are. The Miracle League does that with sports and activities in an environment which allows folks to enjoy what so many take for granted.”
Dean also has worked with Coastal Horizons Rape Crisis Center, the American Heart Association, Wilmington Housing Authority, WHAT, Carousel Center, and the Cape Fear Clinic. He will be hosting the upcoming Power of the Purse for WHAT on March 19 at the Country Club of Landfall. Plus, he will strut the runway for Wine, Women and Shoes for Make-A-Wish on March 26 at The Burney Center at UNCW, and in April he’ll walk with “Bette Midler” for the Carousel Center’s 12th Annual “Making Legends Local” gala, “Back to the ‘80s,” on April 24 at Thalian Hall.
Just last year Dean’s mother passed away, someone to whom he credits his give-back sensibilities. Watching a single mother rear two children, go back to school and get a degree in anthropology and masters in public health, all the while working to support her family, had a great impact on Dean
“She got a federal grant to set up maternal and child health clinics in southeastern Alabama and then returned to end her career in maternal and child health for the state of NC,” Dean reflects. “All along, it was about making a life for us, making the world a better place around us—understanding the different sides of issues, inquiry, questioning out loud injustice, and seeking what was right. While she never said it, it was also about using whatever gifts and privileges we had to do for others. I saw her do it her whole life. I saw her, too, break barriers as a woman and be a great person. That made me want to be of service and to be a better person, too.”
Though money certainly helps nonprofits, Dean says volunteering time is as important. He sees the world through the spectrum that every person can make a difference, no matter how large or small. “Sometimes you really have to push your way in to get involved because the staff, if there is more than one at a nonprofit, is having to deliver direct services, raise money and clean the bathrooms,” he offers. “So to volunteer, just come on and do it. And the thanks—well, let it be in the doing.”
Other volunteers ranking on our reader’s poll include Kelli Neese Russell and Connie Hall. —Shea Carver