A Bond Between Brothers

Chad (left) and Steve Cook, brothers, own Island Way Restaurant in Oak Island. Photo by Bethany Turner

Chad (left) and Steve Cook, brothers, own Island Way Restaurant in Oak Island. Photo by Bethany Turner

It’s a common scene at Island Way Restaurant: One or two of the Cook brothers, the owners, are flashing luminous smiles while thanking and hugging a guest. It seems the customers are longtime friends of Steve and Chad Cook, as the effervescent owners ask, “How is your family?” and declare, “We’ll see you next Wednesday!”

Part of this daily occurrence is due to the congeniality of the well-trained staff—return customers are welcome faces—yet part is due to the fact that the Cook brothers are ever-present at their restaurant.

“This is a true family-owned restaurant,” Steve assures. “I don’t know that you’ll go into a place and see the owners as often as you see Chad and I. A lot of times people think I’m a busboy. From start to finish, every aspect of this business has our touch on it. We don’t leave anything up to chance. We trust our employees—not meaning on that end of it—but we’re here every single day. Every decision made, we’re involved.”

The “all hands on deck” attitude, as Chad calls it, has been monumental in Island Way’s success. Such work ethic courses through the Cooks’ veins.

“When I was born, my family had two restaurants,” Chad reveals. “My grandfather opened his first one when he came out of the Army. It was actually a Dairy Queen—we took an appreciation to eating ice cream quickly at a young age.”

Their grandfather went on to start his own franchise, Dairy Delight. He served more than just the chocolate-dipped cones, including breakfast, which better served their community. “That worked out very well for him,” Steve says. “So we’re just third-generation restaurateurs. It’s in our blood.”

Growing up in West Virginia, the brothers moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to work and golf. Their parents owned a vacation home in North Myrtle Beach when the boys were young, while their mother leased a business on the boardwalk. Their father, Phillip Cook, took over the Oak Island restaurant next to Ocean Crest Pier in May 2003. He ran the seaside eatery until he passed away four years later.

“It was July 9th, 2007,” Steve remembers. “He was robbed and murdered coming home from here by two kids. We were here the next day, and we’ve been here ever since.”

Steve and Chad gave the restaurant a fresh face in honor of their father’s work. They renovated the entire space—floors, tables, chairs, ceiling, walls—and they added the outdoor seating and additional parking lot. They worked from what their father established to transform it into a growing success. And in honor of their father’s life, the brothers founded the Phillip A. Cook Memorial Golf Tournament.

“We give 100 percent of the proceeds to a charity called Waves 4 K.I.D.S. (Kids in Disruptive Situations),” Steve details. The Brunswick County-based non-profit provides financial support and essential services to satisfy the needs of children associated with Child Protective Services and foster care in our area.

“This year was the second annual,” Steve continues of the event held the Monday after the Masters each April. “We spun a Phillip A. Cook Memorial Scholarship Fund off the golf tournament. We were able to send four local kids to college this year. Our goal was one, but the tournament was so successful, we could send four.”

Two of the students will attend East Carolina University. The others will go to Western Carolina University and the Art Institute of Charlotte. Their first semester is completely paid for, and they can reapply for additional funds each semester.

“There are certain requirements to meet. It keeps them motivated and involved,” Chad clarifies. “It’s not just throwing somebody a loan, where they get out of college with nothing to do and lots of debt. This is free, clear; it’s been given to them and there’s nothing to pay back.”

“It’s turned out to be a wonderful event,” Steve adds. He was able to meet three of the four students and their families in June, revealing the impact the Phillip A. Cook scholarship makes. “We wanted to do something to keep his name alive. We’ve turned it into a major positive.”

Since Steve and Chad took over, the menu also saw a face lift. “All the beef that we use is Sterling Silver, all grain-fed, very high quality—basically the top 3 to 4 percent in the United States,” Steve divulges. “For all of our seafood, we use several different purveyors to ensure the freshest product available.”

The Cooks’ motto is the “customer is king.” It is the way their family always has practiced. “Let me put this in perspective,” Steve begins. “We had 20- to 30-year employees at a Dairy Queen. We grew up around it: You treat your employees good, you treat your customers good. We want to make sure there’s never any buyer’s remorse—that if you bring your hard-earned dollar in this business, you’re going to get the best food, best service, in a relaxed, clean environment. That’s our goal.”

The brothers understand that “Oak Island is a different animal than Myrtle Beach,” as they say. It took a bit of time for the Cooks to learn what a local’s idea of an evening out represents and what price points they appreciate. “We really listen to our customers,” Steve conveys. “Now we do a ‘local loyalty’ menu that we run from October 1st through March 31st. That menu runs about $10.99 to $14.99.”

It is their third year offering the deal. “That has made a tremendous difference in our winter business,” Steve continues. “We were so blessed this winter that we were packing this place on Friday and Saturday nights—in January and February—whereas in ‘07, we would seat 20 people.”

In the early winters, the staff was bare bones: Chad often would bartend while the chef, Israel Vaughn, was the only employee in the kitchen. “Now we carry a full staff throughout the year, and sometimes we’re on a wait in the winter,” Chad affirms. “We’ll take a hit on our profit margin, but our customers reap the benefit, and employees front and back of the house are working full work weeks. We’re never going to retire with it, but it’s fantastic to help everybody else.”

The employees are like a part of the Cook family, especially Chef Vaughn. “He started working for my dad,” Chad tells. “He is the best. He is just as hard working as we are—can’t say enough good things about him. Love him to death; he’s one of us.”

Likewise, the head waitress, Marquie Allen, has remained with Island Way for eight years. “She’s part of the heart of Island Way, our fearless leader.” Chad expresses. “She’s one of the finest human beings you’ll meet.”

Chef Vaughn is given free range in the kitchen, though the Cooks enjoy playing with the menu, as well, to concoct innovative items. “You’ve got to have some people with creativity that you can work with,” Chad says.

The Filet Neptune from Island Way Restaurant, enveloped by a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Bethany Turner

The Filet Neptune from Island Way Restaurant, enveloped by a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Bethany Turner

The menu today includes many signature items, such as the Filet Neptune. “It’s a center-cut filet mignon, laying on a bed of sherry-braised asparagus, topped with lump crab meat, shrimp, and our homemade bernaise sauce,” Chad describes.

The filet not only rivals but conquers the steaks served at Wilmington’s high-end Portland Grille, as the knife flows effortlessly through the supple meat. “You could cut it with a fork,” Steve muses, though he’s likely not joking. “It’s as tender as you could get; it’s a fabulous, fabulous filet.”

For seafood-lovers, a Grouper Neptune is served the same way. For budgeters, a petite filet mignon is served on the early evening menu, a continuation of the local loyalty deal served from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. in-season. “To be honest, our portions are large to begin with. Chad can eat, but he’s not polishing off two crab cakes,” Steve quips. “Nine times out of 10, people are taking food home with them. We do a shrimp or clam scampi on the early evening menu; it’s a smaller portion than normal, but you wouldn’t consider that a smaller portion compared to other restaurants.”

After all, Steve says, “Our ‘small portions’ are coming from people who grew up in restaurants and love to eat.”

Appetizers are as decadent as entrées. The tenderloin canapé features beef tenderloin on a flatbread crisp served with herb goat cheese and balsamic bruschetta. A favorite of guests is the bacon-wrapped asparagus with an asiago crema, while the crab dip is the most popular dish. “I think it’s just using fresh lump crab meat,” Steve suggests. “It’s a difference of paying, I suppose like anything else, $25 per pound or $5 per pound. We want to taste the quality.”

“There are just certain things you have to sacrifice on the back end,” Chad adds, “because you’ll make it up with people coming to see you over and over. You can’t skimp.”

The Cooks taste every bit of food that comes in and every bottle of wine upon their list, which boasts over 100 selections.

“It’s a process making sure you have the right product,” Steve reveals. “When we pour wine by the glass, it’s important to us the way the glass looks and feels in your hand. We put so much time into the customer’s dining experience. We are upscale for this area, but at the same time we’re diverse enough that we want you to be comfortable. If you want to come in here in a suit, you’re more than welcome to. If you want to come in here in a T-shirt and jeans, please do.”

The men have learned a restaurant must have all phases in control to be successful, from culinary creations and excellent service to beautiful aesthetics and smart management. “You’ve got to be everything, and you’ve got to be consistent,” Chad asserts.

In the end, the Cooks succeed because as owners and siblings, their values are the same. “I couldn’t imagine being in business with anybody else,” Chad declares. “There’s nobody you trust like your brother.”

Island Way Restaurant is located at 1407 E. Beach Dr. For more info, call (910) 278-7770 or visit www.islandwayres.com.

One Response to A Bond Between Brothers

  1. Carol says:

    We’ll be there in 4 weeks and after reading your menu expect to see us! It’s not just the food but the spirit of your establishment that’s a powerful attractant.

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