8262 Market Street, Wilmington
By JESSICA MAURER » Photos by JENNIFER SIMPSON
Robert Pickens is no stranger to weathering the tides.
He put himself through culinary school by working on towboats along the Mississippi River and sailed the world as a chef aboard private yachts, including one owned by infamous stockbroker Jordan Belfort, the subject of the 2013 Martin Scorsese film Wolf of Wall Street.
Pickens was onboard when Belfort insisted upon sailing in high winds against the advice of the captain and the vessel sank off the east coast of Sardinia. Belfort, Pickens and the rest of the crew were rescued by the Italian Navy.
After years of sailing the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, Pickens and his wife Leslie selected the Port City as the place to put down roots and raise a family. In 2007 Pickens opened Kornerstone Bistro, bringing wood-fired pizza to Porter’s Neck. With Kornerstone’s 10th anniversary approaching, Pickens reflects on the challenges of navigating the restaurant industry.
Kornerstone was one of the first restaurants in Porters Neck.
“There really wasn’t anything else like it out here at the time,” Pickens said. “The area was starting to see more development, residential growth was booming and we were counting on more residents coming into the area.”
The restaurant merges flavors of the Mediterranean with the bounty of produce and seafood found in southeastern North Carolina.
“The food of the Mediterranean focuses on fresh ingredients with simple preparations that highlight each of the ingredients,” Pickens said.
Pickens started out with a simple menu of panini’s, wood-fired pizza’s and salads. This allowed him to keep his overhead down during the crucial first year of business. The first year can often make it or break it for restaurants.
But just as the restaurant was gaining popularity and finding its identity, the economy came crashing down. Many people stopped dining out and Pickens felt the effects almost immediately.
Like many others, he found himself doing whatever it took to stay afloat.
“I had people who used to sell mortgages waiting tables at the restaurant,” Pickens said.
Despite cutbacks, Pickens was never willing to cut corners or sacrifice the quality of the food he was putting out. He put in longer hours, got by with less staff, and offered special incentives and discounts to lure diners.
Fortunately, Pickens was able to weather the storm but it was several years before the tides began to turn in his favor. People are dining out more frequently again these days. Porters Neck has experienced major residential and commercial growth of late and Pickens is pleased to see an upswing in business.
“We’re serving 250 - 260 a night now which is great, but with only five or six guys on our line, it’s very taxing for them,” Pickens said.
Pickens understands the importance of working closely with his staff and making sure their needs are met. When the kitchen is functioning well, everyone benefits. He has plans to restructure the kitchen so the layout is more efficient and update some of the equipment so his staff can better execute both prep work and service. But he has no plans to change the open kitchen.
The first thing you notice when you enter the restaurant is the smell. It’s the kind of smell that makes you hungry instantly, even if you didn’t think you were. Kornerstone’s open kitchen allows the amazing aroma of wood-fired pizza to drift throughout the dining room. Decorated in soothing earth tones with large photos of Mediterranean ports, the dining room is separated from the bar by a large stone arch. Wooden tables and a granite bar give the room a rustic elegance.
Pickens says it's always been his goal to strike the balance between a restaurant that is great for family gatherings as well as date nights. The restaurant offers special deals each night of the week, ranging from kids eat free on Monday to half-price mussels on Tuesday and half-price wine on Wednesday. There’s live music on Thursday with cocktail specials from 6:30p.m. to 9:30p.m. and a brunch buffet on Sunday from 9:30a.m. to 2p.m.
Over the years, Pickens has diversified the menu to appeal to a broader clientele and offer his regulars more variety. He began incorporating more coastal Mediterranean dishes such as pastas and seafood entrees. Today, while pizzas and panini’s are still staples on the menu, Kornerstone also serves steaks and a variety of classic Italian dishes.
The lunch menu offers a wide variety of panini’s, burgers and wraps and salads, as well as all of the appetizers, pastas and pizzas offered at dinner. The dinner menu showcases entrees such as one of Pickens’ signature dishes, Flounder Mediterranean: fresh sautéed flounder in a lemon, tomato and Kalamata olive sauce over quinoa tebbouleh and an arugula salad with feta cheese.
Twelve specialty pizzas are on the menu and of course customers can create their own. There’s also a create your own salad option.
Kornerstone may have been one of the Porters Neck area’s first restaurants, but today it’s not the only one. As the area continues to grow, diners have more options. Pickens sees the growth of residents and restaurants as a positive sign of a stronger economy.
“More restaurants in the area means more competition,” Pickens said. “But also more variety, and at the end of the day that’s better for everyone.”