Above the Bottom Line

by Simon Gonzalez
June 2018

It doesn't look like the ideal business model: Open a restaurant in an area historically plagued with poverty and crime, staff it with unemployable young people, and serve inexpensive food.

"I say it's the best worst thing I've ever done," Rachel Bodkin-Fox says with a laugh.

Rachel and her husband, Randy, are co-owners of The Foxes Boxes, founded in March 2016 and opened that fall.

Rachel and Randy are the Foxes. Their meals are served in boxes. But that's about the only thing that's logical.

The restaurant is located at 622 N. Fourth Street. The north end of Wilmington's downtown is showing signs of a renaissance, with new businesses and residential properties. But it's also in one of the poorest ZIP codes in the city.

The food is sourced from local farms and urban gardens, but the Foxes don't charge typical farm-to-table prices. The menu starts at $6, and stops at $12.

The food and the prices stem from the time when Randy and Rachel had three young children. The goal is for a family of five to all find something they like, and to get out the door spending less than $40.

"The menu is inspired by what our kids ate growing up," Rachel says.

Many of the employees are low-skilled workers with no experience, who literally couldn't get a job anywhere else. They are 17- to 24-year-olds who have some kind of hardship or obstacle -- high school dropouts, criminal background, low literacy rates.

Randy and Rachel see the establishment as not merely a restaurant, but a social enterprise providing workforce development for marginalized populations.

"We saw a need in downtown Wilmington," Rachel says. "There are tons of job openings in the food service industry, but people weren't qualified. What if we created a space that could be a job-training program?"

Workers participate in an eight-week, 240-hour program, learning skills and gaining experience. The Foxes work with local nonprofits to find their employee pool. Financial assistance is provided by the state's NextGen Youth Program.

This wasn't Plan A when the couple moved to Wilmington. Randy had more than 25 years in the corporate restaurant world. Rachel was an RN back home in Indiana and was pursuing a master's degree in public administration at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she learned about local nonprofits and needs through her involvement with the school's Building a Better Wilmington campaign.

Their combined talents and passions evolved into The Foxes Boxes. It's not a nonprofit, but a for-profit with a focus on people, not the bottom line.

The Foxes do have something in common with owners of traditional start-ups: It is hard work.

"We're here 80 hours a week," Rachel says.

But when someone graduates from the program to a permanent job, it's well worth it.

 


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