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HBCU graduate opens nonprofit restaurant in Bolivia


The signs are in place, the menu board is on the wall, and black cast-iron pots are being readied for the first dishes, offering tastes of the Caribbean with nary a palm tree or sandy beach in sight.

For Ray and Elisa Wood, the work of “feeding the soul” along with hungry bodies is just beginning.

This week, the Bolivia couple are opening Brunswick County’s first nonprofit restaurant, a new venture they hope will provide good meals to many, and contribute to spreading a wealth of good works by volunteer and social service agencies in Brunswick County.

Called Elisa’s Caribbean Pot, the restaurant sits at a spot familiar to many county residents: the site of the former Brad’s Grill, just off U.S. 17 on the eastern edge of the small town of Bolivia.

“Everybody knows where this place is, so that’s a plus,” Ray Wood said as he recounted steps taken to get the restaurant building and its nonprofit status in order.

The Woods, newcomers to the county, were visiting his stepfather and mother in Bolivia when he spied the vacant building. It ignited a long-held idea of opening a restaurant that the couple had joked about when they first met, then married, two years ago, he said.

“I’ve always had a love of food, to cook it and eat it,” Ray said. Ray’s father once owned the Salisbury restaurant called Grillmaster, and Ray said growing up he did a lot of the cooking, both for the business and for family gatherings.

Ray Wood is a graduate of St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh. Elisa Wood, a native of the twin-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, emigrated to the United States when she was 12. She is a former accountant for a law firm that once had offices in the World Trade Center.

Ray, who describes himself as a spiritual man, left a nearly 20-year career in the corporate world as a manager for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline in the simple hope of doing something more meaningful in his life. He met his future wife in upstate New York, and after she fixed a curry chicken meal for him on one of their first dates, he said he was hooked on Caribbean fare.

“I told her the food was so good she should open a restaurant,” he said. “Then when I saw the restaurant site, I thought ‘here is our opportunity.’?”

Ray said he researched nonprofit restaurants and how they operate before sinking some of his savings into the venture. He and Elisa worked diligently to get the restaurant kitchen set up to pass necessary health and building inspections, and contacted food suppliers to ensure they have a steady flow of food staples that will make up the simple island fare.

“Trying to line up suppliers was a chore; just to get the curry we had to really call around to see if we can get enough,” Elisa said. “It’s been a little bit stressful, but I’m excited.”

The nonprofit restaurant is set up as a Section 501(3)(c) company, which denotes charitable and religious organizations, Ray said. On its incorporation papers, the restaurant is known as Body of Christ Ministry, doing business as Elisa’s Caribbean Pot.

The couple have signed up the business with Southport-Oak Island Chamber of Commerce to spread the word among the business community; the chamber will host a grand opening for the restaurant on July 20.

“The way it works is after we meet our expenses, we’ll be making a donation to one of the local charities. It could be $2,000 one month or $500 the next month, but we’ll be sharing it with the community,” Ray said. “The challenge I have is having a business here with a lot of the nonprofits elsewhere. To be quite honest, we’re looking for people to donate to.”

The couple have already made contact with a nearby church in Bolivia that operates a food bank, and they plan to use their chamber connection to publicize a rotating list of organizations to receive their donations, which will change on a quarterly basis, he said.

“I’ve been in a for-profit business all my life. The goal for us now is to show people you can do some good and promote things in the community and still make a living. That’s the model I’m trying to create,” Ray Wood said. “I don’t need to be rich; I’m already rich in spirit.”

The restaurant owners are their own staff, save for Elisa’s three children from a previous marriage who will help out as kitchen orderlies, she said. A side catering business is also envisioned once the restaurant is up and running, she said.

The restaurant’s simple daily menu will consist of choices between two meat dishes and two vegetables, served with rice and peas, all served up from large cast-iron pots on a 10-burner stove. The menu is a mix of Caribbean and “soul food,” with a goal to feed people healthy, well-made dishes while opening the restaurant to the average person, Ray said.

The breakfast staple will be curry shrimp and grits, a twist on traditional Southern fare.

“That’s one of the reasons we like the restaurant life; we both love to cook, and we both love to meet and talk to people,” Ray said.

He added that the restaurant’s limited seating space at 16 people fits right in with the “cozy feeling” he wants the place to impart to customers who’ll “holler at me back in the kitchen.”

“Southerners are just like that,” he said.

In addition to providing an assistance source for county nonprofits, Ray said the restaurant could be the start of a rebirth of business along Bolivia’s main street. Current businesses in town include two gas stations, the Post Office, a bank, a nights-only barber shop and thrift store.

“Our broader hope is to bring some commerce back to Bolivia,” he said.

Information from: The Star-News,

_ Associated Press

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