What started small has grown into a sprawling neighborhood where small businesses can shine
By Emory Rakestraw » Photos by Abigail Whitehurst
The Cargo District started with a simple idea: Businesses located in shipping containers. Eco-friendly, highly versatile, and equipped with an industrial-grade steel exterior, shipping containers are a low-cost investment for small business owners wanting to test their vision before the construction or commitment of a traditional brick-and-mortar. Located just a stone’s throw from downtown, between Castle St. and Wooster St., spanning S 16th and S. 17th street, this small idea has grown to an entire neighborhood with its own atmosphere and vibe.
There are businesses here to accommodate one’s needs from morning to night, while highlighting one of Wilmington’s great qualities—an abundance of entrepreneurs. To date, the Cargo District is home to over 50 businesses ranging from hair salons to bottle shops, jewelers, photography studios, a coworking space, clothing stores and more.
A Place to Start and A Space to Grow
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, Sarah Mertz was working on a passion project that involved sourcing plants and selling them via Instagram with no-contact drop-off. Its popularity made her believe she was onto something and it’s safe to say she was. Today her business, The Plant Outpost, has seemingly grown alongside the Cargo District. Mertz is now in her third location, the largest to date, but has continued to stay loyal to the neighborhood when it came time to move shop.
“When I first started The Plant Outpost, I only intended to do pop-ups and weekly deliveries. I had a friend who was involved in the early stages of The Cargo District development, who had been a big motivator in pushing my plant business. He told me I should open a shop and I just kind of laughed. One day I met him over in the District to see what this place was and jokingly said, ‘What if I had a plant shop in a shipping container?’”
In 2020, Mertz opened The Plant Outpost in a 20-foot shipping container. Her location beside Queen Street Tattoo, and across from Mess Hall restaurant and Alcove Beer Garden, lent plenty of foot traffic. Yet in just two years, plenty has changed.
Mess Hall recently moved to a brick-and-mortar on Wrightsville Ave. with True Blue brand, Beat Street, taking its place in the shared space with Alcove. Cheesesmith traded their food truck for four walls, opening their brick-and-mortar in July of 2021. Owners Molly and Brendan Curnyn recently announced their expansion into soft serve with plans to utilize their vacant space between Cheesesmith and The Plant Outpost for Molly’s Soft Serve, which is opening this spring. Across the street, Raleigh-based Bull City Cider Works opened in the fall of 2022.
“I have seen so many changes,” says Mertz. “From actual parking lots and sidewalks being put in, buildings changing, lots of new businesses, markets and more. There are just a lot more opportunities for small business owners and it’s a unique area that tends to draw people in. I think the Cargo District will continue to get bigger and have more to offer the community.”
When Steve and Kristen Gibbs were forced to relocate their Ogden bottleshop, Fermental Beer & Wine, the Cargo District came as a beacon of hope after an exhaustive search.
“After searching continuously for over a year, we found this little corner in the Cargo District to be the perfect space for our relocation. Other options in our region were limited to shopping plazas, large land purchases or locations that simply didn't feel right to us,” says Steve Gibbs. “This old service station seemed to have just the right amount of interior space and a spacious outdoor area that is becoming increasingly difficult to find in our quickly growing town. The option to be beside several fellow small businesses that all seem to share a creative energy was a final decision-making point in our search.”
A Day in the District
If you’re new to the Wilmington area or haven’t had a chance to venture to the Cargo District yet, it’s easy to spend a whole day here. Start off with coffee from Blue Cup Roastery then head to Crafted Outpost, which features a curated selection of jewelry, apothecary, wellness goods and home décor from over 20 Wilmington makers.
Bookworm Poetry boasts handcrafted ceramics (that make fabulous gifts) while Auggie & Zo is a great spot for affordable yet stylish clothing. Your four-legged friend can have an afternoon playdate at Ruff Draft dog bar or get a new toy to take home from Bones pet store. Of course, a browse through The Plant Outpost is a must.
Featured on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” the Buffalo Baby (with a side of beer cheese fries) is a longtime favorite at Cheesesmith. To walk it off, head down Castle St. to Wilmington’s first distillery, End of Days. A rotating cocktail menu features their signature Port of Entry vodka, gin, or rum, as well as their Survivor’s Cut Series bourbon. Craft cocktails like the End of Days Elixir make for a refreshing afternoon sipper.
The perfect evening spot, Fermental, hosts live music and food trucks throughout the weekend. Their ample beer garden is outfitted with fire pits and picnic tables, or patrons can cozy up at the inside bar while attempting to envision how this decidedly modern, yet eclectic space was once an auto service and gas station. The luxe Starling Whiskey and Wine Bar makes for a cozy nightcap where whiskey enthusiasts can get their hands on rare selections like the 1979 Jim Beam “Owl.”
What’s Next for the Cargo District?
Long-term Wilmington locals remember the early days of the Cargo District. Mess Hall was the perfect spot to grab a burger while washing it down with a beer from Alcove. The first businesses here, including The Plant Outpost, facilitated the blueprint for what was possible.
Creativity had no limits besides the walls of a shipping container. Business owners were able to leave a relatively low-cost mark imprinting their subjective vision through the scale, shape and ambiance of their container. Alcove showed what was possible when calling on a bit of imagination, stacking containers as stairs and seating, and structuring separate containers to provide small spaces for other businesses within the larger whole. For Gibbs, the Cargo District’s growth was a key selling point.
“The Cargo District is a growing community of its own; outside of downtown and with its own unique footprint of businesses and residences and with many more on the way. It reminds me of the early days of the NoDa district in Charlotte, which has a similar history and is now a flourishing neighborhood for art, food, drink and more,” says Gibbs. “Repurposing and preserving existing buildings and welcoming small businesses is what we need more of in Wilmington and that is what the Cargo District offers: A diverse and welcoming place to live, eat, drink and shop.”