DURHAM — One night in October 2010, Nick Hawthorne-Johnson went to pick up a pizza for dinner. He ended up having a random conversation that has transformed not only his life but also his city.
He started talking with Drew Brown, who managed the Sausage Wagon food truck. Brown knew that Hawthorne-Johnson owned a West Durham building and suggested that he turn it into a commissary where food trucks could store and prepare food, a health-code requirement.
Hawthorne-Johnson, 34, has never lacked for ideas maybe direction, but not ideas. Hes been a general contractor, a waiter, an acupuncturist. Hes lived in Australia and India and sailed the Caribbean. At the time of this life-changing conversation, he and his wife, Rochelle Johnson, had recently returned from a yearlong road trip to Argentina.
Before they left, Durhams food trucks had barely hit the streets. Now, they were everywhere.
This is it, he realized. Ive had 1,000 ideas. This is what I want to do.
Nick and eventually Rochelle, 29, who was pulled into the enterprise have turned that West Durham building into The Cookery, part kitchen-for-hire, part event space, part business incubator. It is a hub for food entrepreneurs who are helping turn this former tobacco town into a drinking and dining destination written up in The New York Times one week and Southern Living the next.
Hawthorne-Johnsons path to that turning point started years earlier with each decision creating the next opportunity.
Not wanting to go to college, he worked as a carpenters assistant for a high-end homebuilder in Chapel Hill. Those skills helped when he and a friend decided to refurbish a sailboat and sail around the Caribbean. He sold the boat and used the money to buy a run-down historic house in West Durham, which he renovated and sold. His renovation won an award from Durhams historic preservation society.
That success helped Hawthorne-Johnson persuade his mother to use a small inheritance to buy a series of dilapidated homes in the same neighborhood he had fallen in love with and wanted to improve. Starting a business together called Bull City Restoration, he renovated several houses and duplexes, which his mother manages as rentals. They offer about 14 rentals at below-market prices so that low-income folks can still afford to live there. They wanted to improve the neighborhood but not price longtime residents out of it.
Hettie Johnson said her son has never been deterred by a challenge. He taught himself how to tile, work with concrete, design and build out a space. He thinks he can do anything, she said. So far, hes been fairly correct in that.
When the Durham food co-op announced it was closing in late 2008, Hawthorne-Johnson and his mom made an offer on the 3,500-square-foot building.
I felt really strongly that this property was an anchor property in the neighborhood, he said. If I could get my hands on it, I had to do it. It was a responsibility.
At the time, he figured he and Rochelle would return from their road trip and then he would open an acupuncture practice in the space. Then came that fateful conversation with Drew Brown about food trucks.
Within months, Hawthorne-Johnson was turning the back half of the building into a commissary. He called in favors from his contractor friends. He scoured Craigslist for used kitchen equipment, hauling a range back from Charlotte, recycling fixtures from a Mexican restaurant going out of business in Cary. In April 2011, the kitchen opened. Eighteen months later, The Cookerys Front Room, an elegant event space, opened to host wedding receptions, business meetings, even pop-up restaurants, a limited engagement dining experience.
Love and partnership
While the business began as Hawthorne-Johnsons dream, it became his wifes as well. The couple realized that these food entrepreneurs would need much more than a kitchen and storage space. They would need help with business plans, marketing and website design. Thats where Johnson came in. After graduating from UNC with an advertising degree, she taught herself how to design websites and ran her own marketing and design firm.
Its clear the two are a team and that theirs is a labor of love. Their skills complement each other. Hes the risk taker. Shes the list maker. She is terrible at math. He keeps the books. He admits that grammar is not his best skill. She edits his emails.
The places where our abilities fall short, we fill in each others gaps really well, Hawthorne-Johnson said.
The pair met when she was a senior in college and a regular at the now-closed 3Cups coffee shop in Chapel Hill, where he was a barista.
The proprietors of 3Cups, Lex and Ann Alexander, are elder statesmen of the Triangle food scene, former owners of Wellspring natural foods stores in Durham and Chapel Hill, which were bought by Whole Foods. Ann Alexander marvels at what the young couple has been able to accomplish.
They remind me of Lex and I, 30 years ago, she said.
The next generation of foodies
Not only are the young couple entrepreneurs themselves, they are helping Durhams next generation of enterprising food professionals. A big part of Johnsons job is organizing classes and mentoring events to help The Cookerys members, as they like to call them, grow their businesses. Some current and former members include Mark Overbay of Big Spooners peanut butters; Lindsay Moriarity, who has since opened Monuts, a doughnut shop and cafe in downtown Durham; and Vanessa and Yoni Mazuz, who started The Parlour ice cream shop on a food truck.
Vanessa Mazuz said starting their business wasnt easy. Typically, food truck owners meet the commissary requirement by finding a restaurant owner or caterer willing to let them use their kitchen during off hours and share dry storage, refrigerator and freezer space. The Mazuzes needed a permanent place for their 700-pound ice cream maker and lots of freezer space both available at The Cookery, but unlikely to be found at a restaurant or catering kitchen. After almost two years on the road, the Mazuzes opened their brick-and-mortar shop in downtown Durham in April.
Without The Cookery as a launching pad, Vanessa Mazuz said, We wouldnt have been able to do it.
As their members have seen success, so have Nick and Rochelle. They have even hired two employees: a shop steward who manages the kitchen and Rochelles sister, Clay Woodward, who has taken over the office duties.
These days, Rochelle focuses on organizing special events to spotlight Cookery members and their products. On a recent Monday morning, she and the couple behind American Meltdown, a gourmet grilled cheese food truck, were hashing out the details of the upcoming Durham Cheese Festival.
During the discussion, Nick wandered in. The talk turned to décor, specifically linens.
We could go rustic and just get some burlap sacks from Counter Culture, he said, referring to a Durham-based coffee roaster.
Thats not a bad idea, his wife responded, but they wont cover the tables.
Nick leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. I love so much that you take the cockamamie ideas that come out of my mouth seriously, he said.