By Rebecca Woltz
The Fore family knew it was risky to open a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic, when lockdowns and restrictions forced many businesses to close their doors for good.
But Stephen Fore and his cousin, Zach, and their uncle, Kenny, found a restaurant space in downtown Laurinburg that was small enough to keep overhead costs low. They figured they could “keep the lights on” by serving 70 to 100 take-out orders each workday to church groups and people who work at the hospital and courthouse.
“And that’s exactly what we did,” Stephen Fore said.
Fore’s Family Restaurant, which opened last December, is part of a surge in entrepreneurship across North Carolina. About 129,000 new businesses have been created in the state so far this year, and more than 185,000 are projected by the end of the year, according to the office of N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.
The big rise began in 2020, when the state saw 127,000 new businesses – a 27% increase from the prior year, Marshall’s office said.
Scotland County, home to Laurinburg, saw a 211% increase in new business filings between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, compared with the previous 12-month period. That’s the highest jump among the state’s 100 counties, according to the secretary of state.
Chris English, executive director of the Scotland County Chamber of Commerce, points to the county’s location to explain the inundation of new businesses. Situated along U.S. 74, the area is about halfway between Charlotte and Wilmington.
“We get a lot of traffic from the Greensboro/Triad area,” English said. “And Scotland County is probably the last easy place to get on and off Highway 74 before you get to the beach.”
Kenny Fore credits pass-through traffic for part of Fore Family Restaurant’s success. But he doesn’t discount the patronage of Scotland County residents.
“I love my hometown,” he said. “The community’s really supported us. We get a lot of locals that come in on a regular basis.”
Family of entrepreneurs
Fore’s Family Restaurant was one of 123 new businesses to open in Scotland County in 2020, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. As of Sept. 20, the county had gained 161 new businesses so far in 2021.
Members of the Fore family are no strangers to entrepreneurship.
Kenny Fore’s mother, Keiko Fore, was a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing in Japan during World War II and later became a well-known seamstress in Scotland County.
“She made her mark in this county with her kindness and community service,” Kenny Fore said. “I think she did everybody’s wedding dress that ever got married in Scotland County.”
Stephen Fore has been self-employed for more than 10 years and has worked in food service since he was 13 when he started cooking at a seafood restaurant. He owned the What’s Fore Lunch food truck, offering fresh-baked breads and deli-sliced meats, but he closed the business during the pandemic.
He and his wife own Fore All Occasions catering service, and Stephen Fore also recently acquired the Lighthouse, a three-story clubhouse with a restaurant and bar at Little River Golf and Resort in Moore County.
Kenny Fore has owned Krazy Kuzzins’ Concessions food truck for two years, serving hot dogs and snacks. He had dreamed of owning a business in downtown Laurinburg, and the pandemic – which slowed business at his food truck – turned out to be the right time.
The rise in new businesses in Scotland County and across the state coincides with the pandemic, which led to high unemployment rates and plenty of uncertainty.
But the secretary of state’s office said most new companies that responded to a survey said they “launched their businesses in search of new opportunities, and not as a result of a job loss.”
Entrepreneurial spirit could bring more people to southeastern North Carolina, which saw drastic population declines over the past decade, Todd Brantley, vice president of public affairs for the NC Rural Center, told the Border Belt Independent last month.
“Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “So maybe there are some people who are trying to figure out how to do something on their own in light of this pandemic and economic downturn.”
Kenny and Stephen Fore shared ideas about their business plan, and within a week they found a downtown location that was almost a turnkey operation for a new restaurant. They trusted that the Fore name, so prominent in the area, would bring in business.
“[My mother’s] name was already out there, and we relied on a lot of that to get folks, once they saw the last name, to come in and try us out,” Kenny Fore said. “I get three or four people a week that come in and tell me a story about my mom.”
Surviving and thriving
With no staff to serve customers initially, Fore’s opened as take-out only but allowed patrons to sit in the dining room with their carry-out boxes.
“We really felt like to-go plates would be a hit because people were tired of having to stay in and eat, not being able to get to a restaurant,” Kenny Fore said.
Now open for dine-in, the intimate restaurant seats about 30 customers. With low-hanging Edison bulb lights, exposed brick interior and dark wood grain chairs, the eatery offers a quaint bistro feel that’s unique in the area.
“When you’re walking down the streets of Laurinburg, you just don’t expect this,” Stephen Fore said. “It’s a great feel and vibe.”
Stepping through the door of the window-front restaurant, patrons are immediately greeted by the smell of hand-pattied cheeseburgers and pulled barbecue with eastern North Carolina vinegar-based sauce.
The classic American menu changes every six to eight months, featuring up to 14 items plus daily specials.
“The menu was built in such a way to survive COVID times, where we don’t have this big menu that we have to facilitate,” Stephen Fore said.
He knows that many businesses haven’t had as much success.
“I’ve talked to so many people that own so many amazing businesses that couldn’t make it during this time, and it breaks my heart for them,” he said. “And to be honest, someone had to lose their dream because that’s how the Fore’s Family dream was able to happen, because there was a restaurant there before us.”
For the Fores, the risks were worth taking.
“People have told us that we were absolutely out of our minds for opening up a restaurant in the middle of COVID,” Kenny Fore said. “Now we’re overflowing.”
Rebecca Woltz is a freelance writer in North Carolina.