Cory Wilk has a simple recipe for success at CityRange

Cindy Landrum
| Greenville News

Cory Wilk received an informal education in hospi­tality while growing up in New Jersey.

His parents loved to entertain, and the family home often was the place for reunions and other large gath­erings.

“(My parents) wanted to put on a show for their guests. But what they really wanted was for every­body to feel welcome,” Wilk said. “I learned from my parents that spirit of hospitality, wanting to make sure every guest had what they needed and were so well taken care of that they wanted to come back.”

It’s a philosophy that has served Wilk well during his 40 years in the restaurant business, the last nearly 22 years as local owner of CityRange Steakhouse Grill.

“The thing I hear most from fans of the restaurant, and from the people who appreciate what we do, is the hospitality we provide is not false. It’s sincere. It’s gracious. It starts at the top, and each one of our staff members has to embrace it. We want people who are loving the business, loving our guests and being very sincere about their actions in the restaurant. We’ve had a high level of retention of our team with five-, 10-, 15- and eight 20-year employees,” he said.

Wilk didn’t get treated nearly that hospitably in his first restaurant job. He was 16, and a newly opened franchise fried chicken restaurant hired him to dress in a chicken costume and pass out menus. He thought it would be inside the restaurant. He was wrong.

“In 1978, Lakewood, New Jersey, was not the town to be walking around dressed as a chicken,” he said.

After two days of getting picked on and his feathers plucked, Wilk asked his boss if he had another job he could do. His boss told him he could learn to cook. And he did.

After he left college, Wilk moved to Baltimore to attend a six-month chef training program. There, he improved his culinary skills, and learned how to run high-volume kitchens and cook high-quality food from scratch. That led to chef jobs in multiple cities.

Wilk pursued restaurant management, a decision that eventually led to his moving to the Upstate for a position with Advantica Restaurant Group, now known as Denny’s.

“I was never the creative chef. I have chefs who work for me now that have probably forgotten more about food than I ever knew,” he said.

Advantica chose Greenville for its first foray into casual dining. Edna Morris, now one of Wilk’s City Range partners along her husband, David Forrester, led the concept development team. The team met with country singer Kenny Rogers about partnering on a concept where guests could cook their own steaks on a grill in the middle of the restaurant. Ultimately, that didn’t work out. Concept development continued but a key link was missing- a strong operations leader who also understood and appreciated food. Wilk joined the team, and CityRange opened in November 1998 on Haywood Road.

When Advantica focused on its Denny’s restaurants and divested all of its other concepts, Wilk asked if he could buy the restaurant.

“I think they saw the sweat equity I put into helping them build the brand,” said Wilk, who bought the restaurant in 2002. CityRange’s Spartanburg location opened in 2005.

Wilk remembers somebody asking him at the end of the first day he owned the restaurant if it felt different.

“I told them it didn’t feel any different because that’s how I approached my job before,” he said. “I took ownership of everything I did … I always took a lot of pride in what I did. I wanted to do the best for our guests. I felt we always offered great hospitality in a warm, comfortable setting. We always tried to have great selections on our menu made with quality ingredients, and we always try to treat those ingredients properly. That didn’t change.”

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Guests have their choice of spacious dining rooms and patios, welcoming bars and private dining spaces.

“We appreciate the guests who have enjoyed City Range for over 21 years and are committed to paying attention to what our guests want for the next 21. We will keep the favorites guests rely on while keeping our menu fresh, relevant and creative,” Wilk said.

To that end, CityRange hired Cory Massa as its new head chef in March at the Greenville location.

The restaurant has added take away meals to eat at home, a butcher shop with high quality meats to fix at home, and curbside pick-up. CityRange is implementing new systems to make it even more seamless for guests to order online and utilize contactless payment options.

Wilk looks forward to hosting families and friends for Thanksgiving at CityRange. For those guests who would prefer to eat at home, they are offering pre-ordered Thanksgiving Feasts To-Go.

“(COVID-19) has forced us to pivot and reinvent ourselves a bit. Safety remains top of mind for our guests and employees. If there’s a silver lining to take out of this experience, it is that we’ve gotten better at a seg­ment that wasn’t a big part of our business and that is curbside and family meals,” Wilk said.

While some parts of the business have changed, one won’t, he said.

“Our roots are hospitality,” Wilk said. “That’s going to continue to drive us.”

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