In the Kitchen with Wendy

The chair of this year's Beaufort Wine & Food Weekend shares the history of the Beaufort Grocery Co. and the journey that brought her to Beaufort.

If there’s one thing visitors rave about besides our beautiful stretches of beaches – it’s inevitably the vast amount of dining options they find while visiting the Crystal Coast. For more than 20 years, the options have included the Beaufort Grocery Co. on Queen Street, offering the perfect blend of casual fine dining. Lead by partners, both in business and in life, Charles and Wendy Park, the restaurant, and its second location in Morehead City, have become must-stops for many area vacationers – a status many attribute to the Park’s active role in the community and their commitment to customer satisfaction.

    “It’s funny now, but never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed that this is where I would be and this is what I would be doing,” Wendy said recently, taking advantage of the opportunity to rest her feet awhile between lunch and dinner service. “But I love it. I love every aspect of the restaurant business. I love being able to come in and create whatever I want in the kitchen. I love our staff. I love working with the community. It’s really been a perfect fit for both of us.”

    And while it’s not exactly where a young Wendy saw herself, it all happened in a perfectly natural progression – not too fast, not too slow, with plenty of experience learned along the way.

    With one sister and two brothers, Wendy grew up in Michigan. Much of her childhood was spent on a family farm, watching her mom, aunt and grandmother utilize many of the items grown in the family gardens. It was there, watching the food come from the garden to the sink, that she learned at a young age the difference between fresh foods and prepackaged options.

    With rich Italian and Polish roots, the family’s celebrations centered around food and Wendy and her sister Beth, an integral member of the Beau Gro team, spent a good amount of time in the kitchen with their mom, grandmother and aunt, learning to make ravioli and perogies and other delicacies.

    “Back in those days they never told women that they could be a doctor or a lawyer and they definitely didn’t tell them they could go to culinary school,” said Wendy. “My plans then were to open a preschool.”

    Summers were spent visiting cousins in Charlotte and it was here, thanks to their urging, that Wendy came for an extended stay when she graduated. What was intended to be a summer visit turned into three years and her first foray into the food service industry. It also led her to her soon-to-be husband.

    Wendy took a job with Eli’s Catering, where Charles was already employed. The company was getting ready to open its second restaurant, a process that laid the groundwork that unbeknownst at the time would help them in their later endeavors. When Charles left for the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Wendy returned to Michigan for a spell, but the couple was quickly engaged once he graduated.

    They returned to Charlotte briefly and Charles took advantage of a job opening at the InterContinental in Hilton Head, but they were curious about Morehead City, Atlantic Beach and Beaufort, which their cousins regularly visited.

    “As soon as we turned into town I think I said ‘we’re moving here,’” said Wendy. “It’s a lot like the town I grew up in. And the truth is we really knew we had found something special.”

    When they first arrived permanently, Charles took a job at an area bed and breakfast inn while Wendy worked for Ginny Gordon’s Gifts and Gadgets, then located in Beaufort, but she kept her eye on Owen’s Grocery and always imagined that it would make a cool location for a restaurant.

    It had been a key shop, a bicycle shop and a bus stop among other things before settling in to life as a restaurant. As soon as the site went up for sale, Wendy was ready to see their dreams come true.

    The couple travelled the state purchasing tables, linen and equipment. Working on a budget, the couple took their time and made sure everything they purchased for their new restaurant would stand the test of time.

    “And you know, 21 years later, that old mixer still serves us just fine,” Wendy said with a laugh.

    With staff in place, they trained for three weeks, she added, and had a soft opening – 87 people showed up.

    “We were really, really nervous, we just didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “We had gotten our rye and pumpernickel dough from a local bakery and I remember some of the customers complained about the bread being too hard. We were going around and explaining to customers that’s how it’s supposed to be while making a note to order some white bread. But we were just starting out and we wanted everyone to like us. We wanted this to work.”

    It’s safe to say at this point that it worked – but Wendy would quickly argue that things are never perfect.

    “There’s always room for improvement and I think you’re in trouble when you think you’re at a point where there isn’t. Nobody is perfect. But every day we strive to have excellent service,” she said. “We’re lucky to have a staff that truly cares about their customers and about the restaurant and I think with that approach our service shines every day – but it’s never perfect.”

    Charles and Wendy came through the ranks of Eli’s Catering along with David Casteel and Craig Mitchell, partners in Mitchell’s Catering and Events, one of Raleigh’s most prominent catering outfits.

    “And we all credit Karen with where we are today. She laid the groundwork for us all,” said Wendy. “Some of the best knowledge we gained along the way came from Karen. She had a big impact on us and set a great example on how to treat people, on customer service and on the ingredients we use. You never scrimp on ingredients. That was Karen. That was what she gave to us.”

    The original order of things kept Charles in the kitchen and Wendy tending to the front of the house, but as the business grew, Wendy’s responsibility grew as well, moving her into the catering side of things and later, into the kitchen, where she creates all of the restaurant’s house made desserts.

    “We’re still evolving, trying out different things and sticking with the ones that work,” she said. “And I think that’s important, too. You can’t get stuck in a rut, you have to be willing to move with the times.”

    In the past two years that has meant a new name and vision for Morehead City’s former Shepard’s Point, now Beaufort Grocery Too, and a line of prepackaged food options now available at the Emerald Isle Wine Market, aptly named Beau Gro To Go. It also meant the release of “Closed on Tuesdays,” Chef Charles Park’s first cookbook.

    Despite the decline in the economy, the Park’s have also continued to be a huge supporter of area nonprofit agencies.

    “I believe in giving back to the community – it’s an important part of doing business,” she said. “This is the community that supported us – that accepted us when we first opened our doors. It’s important that we remember that and give back.”

    This spring, giving back places Wendy in the chairman’s seat for the upcoming Beaufort Wine and Food Weekend, April 25-29. In addition to organizational duties, the Beaufort Grocery will host one of the festival’s wine dinners on April 26. For information on the Wine and Food Weekend, call 252-728-5225 or visit www.beaufortwineandfood.com.

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