Inside Ribeyes Steakhouse of Clinton Tuesday morning, chef Jorge Soza works to prep a sizable cut of salmon as fellow chef Benjamin Baker draws slits on a lengthy cut of maplewood that will be used to cook the fish. Soza has a friend who makes cabinets, and those clean discarded pieces will work perfectly.
Even as the two work, jalapenos are dehydrating on the roof in the summer morning sun, a process that, coupled with smoking — Baker provided the smoker — will ultimately transform them into Chipotle peppers for a different dish.
Grilled salmon on smoked maplewood, with a sweet potato puree, Triple sec Beurre blanc sauce, sauteed spinach, onions and shallots is the special for the day and it’s almost time to open the doors.
As the chefs prep, Ribeyes owners Trey and Kristen Cummings reflect on the growth of the restaurant, which underwent an inside-out revamp earlier this summer that they say establishes the eatery for years to come. When the business opened a decade ago, it was Trey and Kristen who ran the kitchen and served the food with help from just a handful of others.
“When we first started, all we served was steak, chicken and shrimp, baked potato and sweet potato,” Trey recalled. “I was the main cook and she was the main server. We had maybe five or six other people. At times we didn’t have more than 10 people on payroll.”
That was in early 2006, when Ribeyes operated six days a week for dinner only. Now the restaurant is open seven days a week, 11:30 a.m. until — never closing before 9 p.m. during the week or 10 p.m. on the weekend — and there are 30 people on staff with two accomplished chefs at the helm.
What started as a meat and potatoes endeavor has evolved into a smorgasbord of homegrown delicacies. Along with the jalapenos on the roof, lettuce, Cajun spicy peppers, Brussels sprouts, basil, rosemary and mint are all growing in a garden alongside the restaurant, located at 100 Westover Road, and there are plentiful other future ingredients growing in fields across Sampson.
“We won’t be able to grow enough tomatoes to stock our salad bar,” Trey pointed out of the restaurant’s garden, “but we can definitely grow enough tomatoes for Ben and Jorge to make some killer tomato sauce for a special.”
Trey said he stands in awe of what the two can do together with some ingredients, talent and creativity, and lauds his high-quality staff. He convinced Soza to come over from a local chain restaurant where creative freedom was stifled. Baker was recruited from Fayetteville.
“We’re not changing our base menu, but we’re creating menu options to where if you come here Sunday through Thursday every week for a month, you’re going to have 20 completely different meals focusing on what is coming out of the fields locally and what the seasons are,” said Trey. “They get to express their creativity.”
The two bounce ideas off each other all the time.
“They’re better cooks and chefs than I’ll ever be,” Trey conceded. “I’m just happy to have them on board to do some of the things we’ve talked about wanting to do for so long.”
The Cummings are trying to establish something in Clinton that will be timeless — great food in a comfortable atmosphere.
And they believe a massive renovation project, for which the business was closed for five days in early July, will put them in that position. A substantial investment was made as part of the “long-term cosmetics,” through which a private room was expanded, a salad bar overhauled and more space opened up inside the restaurant, which had the walls and floors completely re-done.
“We doubled the size of the private room, so instead of seating 28 tightly it fits 52 comfortably,” Trey said of the space, up from 400 square feet to 825. Just six seats were added to the main dining area, but the increased space in the private room allows for conference meetings, large groups and special events.
Also doubled in size is a front patio area, replacing aging, cracking tile from a McDonald’s the structure housed years ago in favor of new concrete. Several outside tables have been added, with still others to come, in an effort to transform that patio area into a pet-friendly one similar to a cafe-style seating seen in Raleigh or Wilmington.
“It’s just creating more of an environment, a social spot,” said Trey. “We’re a restaurant, but we also want to be a gathering place.”
As with the outside tile, the old McDonald’s bathrooms have similarly gone by the wayside. The wall finishing is now pallet slats and the floors have been re-done, with carpet and tile removed in favor of vinyl flooring that should last 15-20 years.
“Everything from the base trim to the wall finishings is broken-down pallets, re-claimed wood,” Trey said. “When you paint, colors get dated and walls get banged up … we’re not going to have to worry about re-doing this anytime soon.”
The facade has expanded upwards and a metal roof has been added. The interior work has produced a rustic feel, one that has its own personal touches throughout the restaurant, the Cummings said.
There are still some finishing touches to make, but the couple have been overwhelmed by the positive response from the public.
“Being in kind of a rural area, it’s great to have that look but also have a sophisticated old-timey atmosphere,” said Kristen.
“It’s a bigger footprint and more longevity,” said Trey. “We’re about to be 10 years old in February, and the goal is to make it to 25. We want to be that restaurant in a 60-mile radius that people know about and people come to town to eat at.”
People in western Sampson County will drive to Fayetteville in a heartbeat to spend money. Similarly, those in the northern end will go to Raleigh, just like residents in the southern and eastern end will travel to Goldsboro or Wilmington.
“We need to give them a reason to come into town instead of leave town,” Trey remarked. “We think this can be one of those reasons.”
Another one of those reasons is a larger variety of local drinks, which is soon to include beers brewed in Clinton.
Vodka infused with local jalapenos from Jimmy Burch, and some Vidalia onions and green olives thrown in makes “one of the best bloody marys you’ll ever taste,” Trey noted.
Burch and Bobby Ham, each third generation sweet potato farmers, have their own Covington vodka which Ribeyes uses, infusing another of their own drinks with cinnamon sticks and marshmallows for martinis and other cocktails. If that wasn’t enough, the sugar that cakes up at the bottom of the glass dispenser from the dissolved marshmallows is re-purposed for a Ribeyes cheesecake dish. The same is true of the restaurant’s bacon-infused bourbon.
“Bacon makes everything better,” Trey points out with a grin. “That’s something you would see in downtown Raleigh and we’re trying to do more of it here.”
The restaurant has also doubled its draft beer lines from six to 12, with the majority from this state.
“That’s a big revamp. We’re replacing all of our liquors. Not only is North Carolina popping up breweries but distilleries also. Why would we continue to sell Absolut and send money to Sweden when we can get great organic vodka from Chapel Hill and keep that money in the state? We had Bacardi, and we’ve changed that to Raleigh Rum Company,” Trey said. “If you spend $20 at a local business it never leaves the town.”
“Why are we going to spend money overseas when we can put it 20 minutes down the road?’ Kristen added. “Our money is better spent locally, in America, sure, but North Carolina especially.”
Likewise, Natty Greene’s Pub & Brewing Co. in Greensboro, Fortnight in Cary, Big Boss in Raleigh and Unknown Brewing in Charlotte, as well as Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston and Double Barley Brewing in Smithfield are just some of those on draft at Ribeyes, which also offers selections from Winston-Salem and Asheville.
It’s really nothing new for the business, which is the longest-running customer providing Lonerider Beer of Raleigh’s Sweet Josie Brown Ale.
“We started transition over to North Carolina draft beers a long time ago,” Trey pointed out. “People thought we were crazy. They said ‘why are you doing this?’”
The restaurant’s “Tap Takeover” on the first Thursday of every month has been huge. At first it was going to be a one-off but the event proved so popular, and beer reps were so appreciative, that the event has only grown. An upcoming grand re-opening will feature Foothills of Winston-Salem and Hi-Wire Brewing of Asheville, with the chefs cooking up appetizers infused with those breweries’ beers.
A couple brews drafted in Clinton will soon join the mix. It will be a separate operation, but one in which Trey and Kristen will be very much involved.
Ribeyes will give that local brewery some exposure, which will allow the separate operation to gain some steam. Along with the Cummings, there are others who are trying to bring that operation to fruition.
“We’re going through the process now of getting permitted for the brewery,” Trey noted. “Once that is set up, we’re going to have two draft lines set up that are dedicated to the brewery. When it is time and the building is ready, we’ll just move it downtown. We’ll continue to sell the beer here but we’ll have a physical taproom in the downtown area.”
There is a 16-18 month plan for that to happen, with brewmaster Patrick Dunn already hard at work.
“We’re trying to pull together and make it happen for Clinton,” Trey attested. “You can look at what the other breweries have done to grow their towns, like Mother Earth in Kinston. We’re just going to start small and hopefully grow large.”
A journey that started nearly 10 years ago is now a true force. With the support of the community, the endeavor that saw its origins with Trey cooking dishes that Kristen served has blossomed — and the two said the homegrown concept is one that will always be its backbone.
Ribeyes’ menu items are a perfect example of that, they said.
“They use what we have and what the local farmers have out right now,” Kristen said of Soza and Baker. “We want to put Clinton on the map. We want people to want to come to our restaurant from out of town, and eat what we produce from this community. This is home and we want to be able to help the people who helped us get where we are.”
That can produce a domino effect for other retail establishments in Clinton and Sampson County.
“Maybe they do some shopping while they are in town,” Trey offered. “Every little bit of influx we can get into the city will help everybody.”
Both Trey and Kristen were transplants to Sampson County and for Kristen, whose father retired a General after 30-plus years in the Army, it was a new experience to set up roots elsewhere. The decade in Clinton is three times longer than she’s lived anywhere else.
And the couple aren’t moving. They are truly vested in the community, and want to see it grow, with Ribeyes at the forefront of that growth.
Along with Ribeyes, the couple have owned Happy Belly Deli across town for nearly four years. When the two started out in Clinton, it was just the two of them struggling to get a business up and running. Now they have a successful enterprise and two sons, Camden, 7, and Ryder, 2. Kristen calls Ryder “a spitfire,” while Camden has essentially been the mascot of Ribeyes his entire life.
“He’s been passed around this restaurant since he was 2 weeks old,” said Trey. “Sometimes it feels like we just opened yesterday, but most of the time it seems like we’ve been here forever because the people have just been so welcoming since we’ve got here and we’ve made Clinton home.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Kristen quickly adds. “This is home now.”
Reach staff writer Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.