It’s the downtown restaurant hub that attracts those on a lunch break, families eating out, date nights, and one looking for a tasty drink. Located just above the intersection of West King Street and Churton Street sits the hot spot of three restaurants all managed by a partnership called First We Eat: Bona Fide Sandwich Co., LaPlace Louisiana Cookery, and The Wooden Nickel.
The Wooden Nickel functions as the living room of Hillsborough, a community space, where one can grab wings and a beer at lunchtime, or gather with friends, bumping elbows and sharing laughs in the small wood-paneled room in the evening.
LaPlace is an experience as well, pulling influences from co-owner Joe Tullos and his LaPlace, Louisiana roots, but also bringing in coastal North Carolina culture and ingredients from local Hillsborough farmers and businesses – all paired with background jazz and big band tunes, chalkboard specials, and the potential for a romantic date or casual dinner with family.
Sitting directly across the street is the sandwich monopoly of Hillsborough: Bona Fide Sandwich Co. With a rotating board of new and eclectic sandwiches, there is always have something new to try – or can you stick with a classic favorite. They do it all, and they do it well, as most days the line stretches out the door around noon.
It’s a feat to own and manage a single restaurant with so many cohesive details, much less three, but First We Eat does it all, and they are having fun with it too.
First We Eat is a partnership between Matt Fox, Dean James, and John Horn.
The ownership stands where Fox owns the Nickel and co-owns LaPlace with co-owner Tullos. Fox and Dean own Bona Fide, and the other partner, Horn, is a chef at all three spots.
Though ownership overlaps, the restaurant group came together to make life easier, as the group manages all of the restaurants – though in some situations they are technically contracting to themselves, the partnership makes it possible to flow easier between all the places, as the ownership structure doesn’t matter as they sit under the same umbrella, James said.
Though the partnership officially began when Bona Fide opened, the relationships and ideas were in the works for years prior.
The genesis was when Fox and James met while Fox was opening Hillsborough BBQ Company five years ago, which he passed off to another owner and management eventually.
After the opening, James and Fox kept in touch, and when Fox began setting up LaPlace three years back, he invited James in to set up the bar program, and after, they saw the opportunity to continue working together.
LaPlace was a creative outlet for James regarding cocktails, and also in terms of food, using local produce and focusing on sustainability.
The focus became to tell a story, combining all the pieces, details, to create a colorful and cohesive experience for each customer.
The bar program aimed to have unique drinks, with house-made infusions and spirits, rather than buying those items and “just having a bar that sells alcohol,” James said.
“[This idea for LaPlace] was far different than the Wooden Nickel was, at least at that point in time,” James said. “But I think [the partnership] really started the day when we decided we wanted to make the Wooden Nickel everything it could be but wasn’t quite yet, and we wanted to make sure LaPlace stayed as this really cool small thing, to do all the little things just right.”
Passion from youth
Their love for creativity in cooking, cocktails, and restaurant experience has its roots years ago, with the passions all three partners held when they were younger.
Fox recalled a moment in junior high when he was required to write a report on what he wanted to be – in which he wrote on being a chef.
He enjoyed cooking, the restaurant atmosphere, and started working in restaurants right after high school and said he “fell in love with it,” and has been in the business ever since.
When he moved to Hillsborough in 2001, he worked under Matt Carroll who owned Tupelo Tavern – now The Wooden Nickel – who mentored Fox and taught him not only cooking, but the restaurant business as well.
Eventually, Carroll offered the spot to him, and Fox eagerly accepted his first restaurant ownership.
James’ childhood was steeped in food stemming from his family and rich cultures: raised in California, his grandparents owned a restaurant, so he was familiar with the inner workings of a restaurant from a young age, and he grew up in particular area where there were “a lot of immigrants and a lot of culture, so it was a lot of cultures mashing up.
“I got very used to the idea that if you wanted bread you went to the french bakery, if you wanted dumplings you went to the asian market, and you could shop everywhere in between and get different things from different people,” he said. “I was always sort of raised this way, to find the specialist rather than just going to the supermarket, to instead go seek these things out,” he continued.
James came to the game mainly from the bartending angle, as he spent years as a child behind the bar at his grandparents’ restaurants, making Shirley Temples and messing around with drink concoctions with the established bartenders.
“I’ve always liked to sort of put two disparate things together to see if you can make something better out of it, just in general, but you really get to do that in bartending,” James said. “Especially with cocktails, it’s about enhancing flavors, and so flavors and flavor profiles have always been really exciting for me.”
Caring for the details
“Being in this great little local town, the community sort of depends on places like this, like Cup-A-Joe, the Wooden Nickel, to be the community gathering places,” James said. “We take that really seriously, so everything we do is with one mind on some of the things we like or want to do, but also what this town needs and wants, or what we feel this town could be doing better.”
First We Eat drives to create a relationship with the community, where in the end, their restaurant displays Hillsborough influence, grounded in a community for a lasting time.
“If you use better ingredients, you’re way ahead of the curve in terms of being able to make better things, and if you understand those ingredients more, you have more ways to use them,” James said. “I think for us, it’s all about taking it down to those basic levels and growing some produce, or raising livestock ourselves when we can, talking to local farmers and being excited about what they are doing, the soil they are using, and why those soils are churning out these vegetables that taste a certain way.
“So bringing that into a kitchen, you already have a story halfway told and then it’s, let’s make something relatively simple that showcases how good this thing already is,” James said. “We have a rule where we look at something and we’re like, ‘Try not to [screw] it up.’
“It’s already beautiful, so give it a simple platform to present itself really well, but don't pile too many things in there where it loses the context of what it actually is,” he continued. “We sort of treat everything like that, and I think you get better results that way. Just make sure everything is good.”
What’s cooking now?
As the Wooden Nickel prepares to move just a few spots down the street to a bigger spot, Fox said they have the design generally set, they are just working on getting permits.
They plan to keep the same Hillsborough living room vibe, but expand options on all fronts, especially with the kitchen and outdoor seating areas as the parking spots along Churton in front of downtown restaurants are to be removed and the sidewalk expanded.
They hope to begin building in 6-8 weeks and open in about 7 months.
“People can spend their money in lots of different ways, but they are going to come to a place that means something to them,” James said. “In the end it’s supply and demand, it’s about people paying you for something. We want to make that more about the global experience about what that means because it’s hard earned dollars we’re spending and it’s whether it’s your lunch break at Bonafide or a dinner with your family or an intimate dinner at LaPlace, whatever it is, it is an experience, and we want you to walk away thinking about the fact that you just had a meal but that you had this thing, this experience, happen.”