By Sonia Garza
Tucked inside the Fort Bragg gates, atop Smoke Bomb Hill, lies a small tan building. It may be unrecognizable to some, with a simple exterior, mirroring those of the buildings surrounding it, but don’t pass up this “hidden jewel” as Michelle Hagwood, Family and MWR Business Operations Officer, called it.
Smoke Bomb Grille, aka the former Green Beret Club, underwent a transformation in July captured by Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible. If you have ever seen the show, then you are well aware that Chef Robert Irvine means business.
“General Campbell (Commander of the International Security Assistance Force) knew Chef Irvine from various sources and through the general conversations between them they agreed that it would be really cool to find a way to have Restaurant Impossible be filmed on an Army installation,” said Thomas McCollum, Fort Bragg Garrison Public Affairs Officer. After the Army ran a quick assessment of which restaurants were not turning a profit and close to shutting their doors, Caddy Shack (Fort Lewis) and Fort Bragg’s Green Beret Club were contending for the final spot. “The production company sent out a scout who interviewed a lot of our folks and took photos of the club. It was their decision to come to Fort Bragg,” said McCollum.
This was not the first time the building had undergone a major renovation. In fact, the building has lived many different lives since its construction in the 40’s. “It’s been a school house, a library, a gym and a restaurant,” said McCollum. “It was actually the old Green Beret sports parachute team that gave it its name. The name of the club itself was indirectly honoring the Green Berets,” McCollum added.
Located on Smoke Bomb Hill, just down the road from the All-American exit on Gruber Road, it was the home of the Army Special Operations Forces. It received its unique name in the 1930’s from the way the smoke billowed over the hill, demonstrating the wind direction for artillery fire.
At the time, the Green Beret Club was “reducing hours and operating costs which was postponing the inevitable,” McCollum said. “We were just open for lunch and not too late on Fridays. Weekend hours were cut and most of the evening hours were eliminated,” McCollum continued. “Plus, the Special Forces community was no longer located around the club, so that didn’t help”.
Chef Irvine and his crew arrived at Fort Bragg on July 8th and recruited volunteers from the area. “They were mostly active military and their spouses,” said Michelle. Although exciting, the renovation has proven bittersweet for some. A Fort Bragg soldier and patron to the restaurant, who wished to remain anonymous, took part in the first remodel of the restaurant. “We spent a lot of time collecting and matting pictures and making spaces for them in the restaurant, devoted to each group. When you walked in, there was no doubt that it was a Green Beret club.” He added, “The atmosphere pertaining to Green Berets just isn’t there anymore.”
As you enter the doors, the restaurant envelops you in a laid-back vibe with a modern touch. Meant to resemble a hanger, there is an open, yet intimate feel with its dim lighting. The bright orange stools add a pop of color among the dark woods of the horseshoe shaped bar in the center, offering a variety of classic cold brews on tap. “The colors are great. They bought us new bar stools and the furniture was painted. Before it was outdated but now it’s a nice looking and comfortable facility,” said Michelle.
Patrons stand in a long line that wraps around to the door, browsing the menu options, waiting to order a fresh meal. In true team fashion, Mikki Morris, Business Manager of Smoke Bomb Grille and staff member of eight years greets you with a smile and takes your order while Dawn Schultz, Assistant Business Manager, runs orders to the customers.
Tucked in a corner is the Green Beret Club Memorial area where patrons can sit among the quiet and solemn dignity of those who have passed. “Everything is still there that was in the old restaurant,” said Michelle. “It’s just displayed differently,” Michelle added. A wall plaque commemorates those Green Berets lost…but not forgotten. On another wall, four screens scroll through pictures of the various Special Forces Groups around the world; 1st Group, 3rd Group, 5th Group, 7th Group and 10th Group.
“I like the atmosphere that it used to have because you could actually feel the years of history…every piece of it,” said Private Charles Sorrells Jr, who frequented the Green Beret Club many times before. “Even though I don’t get that homey feeling, it still has a nice atmosphere. I walked in and felt as if I was in a secret base, and that James Bond would come around the corner,” he laughed.
Many assumed that the former Green Beret Club was only open to Special Forces Soldiers, although it was not. “Since the name was changed and the menu adjusted a lot more people are coming,” said McCollum. While the changes have angered some in the Special Forces community, the club “did what it had to do to stay open.” He continued, “Being a Special Forces vet, I think it’s kept the respect that was there before, but they just toned it down.”
Chef Irvine worked with kitchen staff to adopt a menu that included tastier foods. The new menu offers a Pulled Pork Sandwich, created by one of their very own chefs. The sandwich’s sweet and tangy flavors are a perfect pair to delight any palate. You can even top it with a side of slaw for a true “Carolina” taste. For under $10, you can order a full meal plus fries and a drink. Items include the Slawter Burger, with its blend of jalapenos and onions, the Southwest Burger, with options to order it black bean or turkey topped with fresh avocado and jalapeno jam or the Cowboy Burger, with bacon and two onion rings. If you are going for a lighter fare, their wraps, BLT and Chicken Breast Salad will not disappoint.
“The cooks in the back were shown how easy it is to make a healthier meal and the new recipes weren’t complicated. By keeping the items fresh and ordering them in the right amount, you don’t have to worry about anything spoiling,” said McCollum. Chef Irvine revamped the menu and brought many healthy complimentary items. “The concept was ‘come here and eat a good tasting meal’ that, by the way, is healthier for you than what was served before.”
This complemented the Army’s Performance Triad, wherein soldiers are encouraged to get the right amount of sleep, have a lot of physical activity worked into the day and eating healthier meals. “This was one of the ways he was able to help us push this to the soldiers,” McCollum affirmed.
Soldiers are limited in their food choices since most of the restaurants on Fort Bragg are chains. The Smoke Bomb Grille, luckily, offers a unique place to sit down and enjoy a meal. “This is the only actual restaurant in the area, otherwise you get stuck with Burger King and KFC.” PVT Sorrells laughed, “I would recommend this place to a friend any day. In fact, one of these days I’m bringing my wife to eat here.”
The profits from the restaurant funnels directly back into the community to help bring in more activities to the Family Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs. “That is why we really had an interest in keeping this place open,” said McCollum.
With two more hires to the staff, the staff has remained the same prior to and after the renovation. “There has been no change in morale,” said Dawn. “It’s just busier now.” Bright days are ahead for the restaurant. “The menu is well received,” Michele emphasized. “Our sales have increased and it’s becoming a popular place to eat.”
The episode featuring the restaurant remodel aired on Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible on September 17th. “I wa nt people to know that the Smoke Bomb Grille is open to anyone and with seating for 100, is available for special events such as hail and farewells and class reunions,” McCollum said. “We’re a good restaurant with good people and a nice place to hang out and relax,” chimed Dawn.
Feel free to stop by whether you want to learn a bit of Fort Bragg history, or want a cold drink and tasty meal beneath the shade trees on the patio. “There are items there that you can’t get from any other place,” said McCollum.
The restaurant is open Monday through Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and Fridays from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. They are closed on the weekends.
For more information about Smoke Bomb Grille and to see the menu, visit www.fortbraggmwr.com/dining-entertainment/smokebomb/ or call 910.907.4976.