Wooden Nickel partners

From left, Dean James, Chef John Horn, and Matt Fox are partners running the Wooden Nickel in Hillsborough. The popular restaurant recently confirmed plans to open a location on Clay Street in Mebane.

Locally, it might have been one of the worst-kept secrets, but the speed and distance at which news travelled that Hillsborough-based Wooden Nickel would officially open its second location in downtown Mebane only emphasized the town’s hunger for quality dining options.

In Sept. 2021, the News of Orange County confirmed that Nickel owner Matt Fox and two partners were eyeing a space previously occupied by Dick & Jane’s Tapas & Martini Bar. About a month ago, a sign appeared on the window of the building on Clay Street in Mebane, announcing the plans for the Wooden Nickel.

“Getting through the end of last year while the labor market was still really in question, Covid was going crazy still in December and January, there were still a lot of unknowns in terms of the future,” Fox said. “We didn’t even have people to open the restaurant we had (in enough Hillsborough), so we were kind of in a place where we asked, ‘Is this the time to start construction on a new place?’ In early spring, we kind of saw things leveling out. Mebane’s a place we’ve wanted to be for years. I’ve been waiting for the right location and we had that in place. As the climate started to change, we started to put our foot on the gas and get our plans put together and focus on getting open as soon as possible.”

 

The Wooden Nickel has been one of — if not the — most popular restaurant in Hillsborough for many of its 18-year run, and is buoyed by a strong partnership between Fox, Dean James, and Chef John Horn. The restaurant has established a culture and a brand they believe will fit naturally in Mebane, and help it to expand the restaurant’s fanbase. 

The business emphasizes the farm-to-table strategy using Fox’s Wooden Nickel Farms to supply the restaurant with produce and meats. The location in Mebane would benefit from the same set up.

“We found a formula that works pretty well,” said Fox. “Over the years, we’ve played around and had a lot of fun with a bunch of different concepts, and we had great success with a lot of it, but we feel like — especially tying in the farm — we’ve got a model that we can keep. You can do really nice, locally grown food, most of which we’re growing and raising ourselves at a price point that people can enjoy multiple times, and enjoy the quality local side of things without it being a fine-dining, special-occasion restaurant. 

“Chef John is one of the owners and rocks of this place. Getting where it is he’s done such a great job of using those products in a way that is not breaking the bank for anybody in the community and keep the quality at a sky-high level,” Fox said.

“We’re taking the concept that we cultivated here (in Hillsborough) and transferring it over to Mebane,” said Chef John Horn. “I’ll be a big part of bringing that culture over there, and trying to do the same things using Wooden Nickel Farms for a majority of what we do. The products are great, keeps it fresh, interesting, always trying to figure out new ways to use it, and getting everybody interested in it. My cooks are awesome at coming up with ideas, and I think that’s what keeps everything fresh and fun.”

As with many local business — and restaurants in particular — the pandemic created unstable footing and cloudy futures, especially when considering plans for growth or expansion. The Wooden Nickel was not immune. The James Pharmacy, a restaurant under the Wooden Nickel umbrella, closed early on in the pandemic. While, for about a year, the Wooden Nickel’s core leadership tapped the brakes on opening in Mebane, they also saw the Covid shutdowns as a gut-check that provided an opportunity to reassess priorities.

“For years and years, we were seven days a week, from you know lunch till 2:30 a.m., bartenders leaving as the prep crews were coming in in the morning,” Fox said. “I think the pandemic taught us that it was just a little bit too much. Stepping back and actually having the place closed for a day, not being open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. It’s so much better on our team. We were able to improve everybody’s quality of life, which makes a big, big difference.”

 

“We’ve got long term goals and we think ahead a lot,” said Dean James, who handles the day-to-day operations and more for Wooden Nickel. “We also have an amazing track record with our crew of folks who have professionally worked with us for a really, really long time. Some in the double digits of years, which is amazing and you don’t get that stuff by accident. We value that incredibly highly. Some of these moves we’ve made have been to ensure quality of life for our crew as well. We offer paid time off two times a year. One in the summer and one in the winter. That’s something we want to continue that was born out of the pandemic, but also it was one of those things where we were, like, this is how we need to run our businesses from now on, and not something we would have gotten to before. The pandemic taught us a lot of really incredible things in a strange way and thankful for that because it probably wouldn’t have changed our model had that not happened.”

But even the Wooden Nickel’s reputation for success was knocked a bit off balance in the early days of the uncertainties surrounding Covid-19, which led to the swift shutting down of restaurants. Even as restrictions provided narrow opportunities for restaurants to serve food, establishments without well-seasoned to-go operations were more likely to take a longer break, or close for good.

“[Closing the James Pharmacy] sort of led us to start consolidating all of our chips and taking a step back and looking at what was most important to us,” said James. “Every business we’ve been part of or added to our collective company has started with the Wooden Nickel first, including with Wooden Nickel Farms. Obviously, we knew that was sort of a home base and the brand that we were most proud of. So, instead of branching off to other ventures, see what it would be like if we could expand Wooden Nickel from the middle out. The farm is a big piece of that. When the pandemic hit, we folded every employee we had into Wooden Nickel, and we tried to make this brand as strong as possible so we could survive the pandemic. We were in that mode for a year and a half, and still are to an extent. With taking the space over next door and extending the Wooden Nickel here in Hillsborough to provide patio seating when all we could provide was patio seating. And then eventually adding layers like the Bake Shop and the bottle shop to help provide more of those things that the community was asking us for, all borne out of the pandemic.”

“It felt like during the shutdown when we strictly went to take out and did our drive-thru takeout, we did what we could to help the community,” Horn added. “It feels like everybody’s paying this back for that now. That feels good that people really trust what we do.”

Fox said he expects the Mebane location will require adding at least 20 employees, depending on the mix of full-and part-time employees. Finding workers is now almost the biggest challenge for restaurants — including at the newly-opened Crafted: The Art of the Taco a few doors away from where the new Wooden Nickel will open. Fox is hopeful the proximity to the flagship Wooden Nickel will provide an advantage for bringing on new hires.

“We’ve worked really hard over years, to take care of our people and have developed a good reputation on that front, and hopefully that carries over and helps us with building a team from beginning,” he said. “I think also having an established location that’s so close will allow us to use this place to help train people and get people ready to go when we when we do the Mebane place.”

Converting the former Dick & Jane’s into the Wooden Nickel will require a lot of work and renovation of the current space to set it up specifically tailored to how the Nickel runs its operations. When will the new location open? 

“Before Christmas,” Fox said, “I just don’t know what year (laughs).”

Opening dates for new restaurants are a slippery moving target as construction labor and supplies continue to adjust to post-pandemic demands. But one thing that isn’t in short supply is the excitement the Wooden Nickel partners have for its foray into Mebane.

“We always loved how charming downtown Mebane has been and how it’s been growing,” James said. “So many of our regulars and so much of our base here (in Hillsborough), has either migrated from Hillsborough to Mebane or started in Mebane and over here. Some of our best regulars. We’ve had huge, strong connections for a long time, and we feel super-confident about our ability to do what we do here. To translate that into such a similar community to Hillsborough. At this moment, we have zero interest in heading east to do something in Durham or Raleigh, or anywhere like that, because we’re small-community-minded people in that and we have a like minded community that wants to grow and do interesting things.”