1618 Concepts — the inevitable empire

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Nick Wilson and George Neal didn’t set out to build an empire.

Truth be told, they don’t like it when people refer to their restaurant group, 1618 Concepts, as an “empire,” or even, really, a “restaurant group.”

They really do think of it as a family.

Between the flagship spot, 1618 Seafood Grille, and the downtown and Midtown locations, Wilson and Neal have more than 70 employees, some of whom have been around since 2004, when the Seafood Grille opened, and both readily admit their brand wouldn’t be possible without them.

It all started at the intersection of Friendly and Radiance, where in 2004 the 1618 Seafood Grille took root, coming along at a time when most seafood options in town involved cornmeal and a deep fryer. 1618 took a different approach, more banquet than fish-fry, with sophisticated table service, signature cocktails and a deep wine cellar. Now, Wilson says, “it’s our most traditional restaurant.”

1618 Midtown came along in 2011, a reflection of the team’s growing development that sought new forms of expression. Midtown is a fancy hangout that began as more bar than restaurant, but where the food eventually crept into the spotlight, with a crowd that appreciates the curated wines and spirits, and the raft of small plates that change with the seasons. “It’s a fun evolution of what our customers were looking for,” Wilson says.

1618 Downtown has the look and feel of a boutique restaurant in Uptown Manhattan, with a long bar and a narrow dining room filled most nights with small and large plates, and exciting chatter.

“I believe in downtown Greensboro,” Wilson says. “It’s really amazing, the last 10 or 12 years, people have been starting to see the bigger picture. They’re starting to get it.”

Wilson, who came to Greensboro to attend UNCG and never looked back, wanted to contribute to the urbanization of the city.

“The Elm Street restaurant has a kind of central, downtown, big-city feel,” Wilson says. “It’s the kind of place where you can push the envelope a little more because it’s not as much of a commitment. If you want to try something different you don’t have to get a full entrée that’s out of your comfort zone.”

The downtown establishment quickly became the spot for power lunches on South Elm Street; a glance through the picture window at noon might reveal city council members, developers and custodians of the culture.

And with 1618 On Location, a catering arm of the group, the 1618 experience becomes a moveable feast.

The common thread, Wilson says, is the staff — hand-picked, highly trained and prized for their knowledge.

“The whole reason for our growth is our staff,” Wilson says. “With every new concept we wanted to launch, we were fortunate enough to have a strong talent pool and people on the team who were idle enough to take it on.”

This is more than an empty sentiment; Wilson says he and Neal eventually plan to incorporate long-term employees into ownership positions, much in the way another successful restaurant group, Quaintance Weaver, did with its employees at Lucky 32 and the O Henry and Proximity hotels.

For Wilson and Neal, who started in the organization as employees before buying the original Seafood Grille, it’s just the right thing to do.

“I’m not a big believer in the legacy thing,” Wilson says. “It’s not like you just get this golden ticket and you keep it for the rest of your life.”

1618 Seafood Grille
1618 W. Friendly Ave. GSO 1618seafoodgrille.com

1618 Downtown
312 S. Elm St. GSO 1618downtown.com

1618 Midtown
1724 Battleground Ave.

1618 On Location
1618concepts.com

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