Mark Wilson became a restaurant owner in the same way that he presents his food—simple, straight forward and real. He came by it honestly, growing up with two siblings raised to work in their mother’s kitchen sharing the chores, from shopping for the groceries to prepping the ingredients to cooking and clean up. For Mark, the work and participation just made the food taste all the better.
He enjoyed camping and Boy Scouts, cooking over an open fire, allowing the smoke to bring out even more flavors in the meats. Later in life, his time working around fire-service personnel and EMS professionals, gave him the special satisfaction of preparing meals that brought a hearty appreciation for the food he cooked and presented to the men he served alongside.
Mark’s career path however lead him in a different direction. He worked at New Hanover Medical Center in Wilmington, NC, for many years as an IT Project Administrator. Growing tired of the corporate structure, Mark made the decision to take his earned pension and retire, sort of, to move in a new direction. He received basic training in the hospitality arena, working at Gallaghers, a popular sports bar in Surf City. He further earned his bbq chops working alongside Ed Coburn III, owner of Poor Piggy’s Food Truck. Cooking for large groups at catering events, prepared Mark for the preparation and timing it takes to serve up quality barbecue fare.
Mark began dreaming of owning his own place in Wilmington to try his hand at being a restaurateur. One day, while traveling through Carolina Beach, he found the perfect location—a small, but sufficient sized building completely equipped with seating, kitchen equipment and a smoker.
“It was as if the heavens parted and there was my golden opportunity,” said Mark about seeing the building on Lake Park Boulevard. “It basically had everything I needed to go into business and get cooking right away.”
But Mark needed a catchy name to go with his vision of a down-home bbq joint for Carolina Beach. Then, during a family dinner, testing some of the recipes he’d developed, one guest declared upon trying his tender beef brisket “Holy Smoke that’s bbq!”. Loving the name “Holy Smoke”, Mark decided to name his new restaurant by that moniker. But he soon found out, that there were plenty of other “Holy Smoke” bbq restaurants scattered around the country. But by inserting “that’s bbq” into the name cleared the way for his own, unique brand.
“From the building, to the name, to the way I wanted to cook and present my food, Holy Smoke (that’s) BBQ, fit the bill.”
So, in the Spring of 2016, Mark opened the doors and fired up the smoker to turn out his first versions of true southern cooking. He opted to offer NC pulled pork shoulder and Texas style beef brisket, then added on a whim, fried chicken after watching an episode of “Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins”. He chose sides that accompany his meats, that would make his mother proud—slow cooked green beans, mac and cheese, scratch-made potato salad, and slices of golden cornbread.
Along with offering the neighborhood good, satisfying, hardy food, Mark wanted to become part of the community. He takes pride in talking to customers who visit from all over North Carolina and the US, about his restaurant and the food he prepares for them. He takes delight in hearing the unsolicited comments, as a new patron takes the first bite of their meal—“Wow, that’s good!”, “Perfect flavor”, “I love it”, “Delicious”.
Topping it all off, Mark is developing his own house-made sauces to accompany his meats. Try the vinegar based NC-style sauce or the new tomato-based bbq sauce. Might we soon see bottles for sale in the restaurant? Customers are asking.
Smoked St. Louis style spare ribs have now been added to the menu. And a unique item discovered by accident called the “Smokey Boat”—you just gotta try it.
Mark Wilson is as down-home and humble as his food—happily running his idea of a classic bbq joint in a small seaside town called Carolina Beach, “where BBQ is almost a religion”.