by Dan Holly | photography by Joshua Steadman
At age seven, Isaac B. Horton IV started his first business: mowing lawns in his neighborhood. Between that and his allowance he had amassed $20, so a trip to KMart was in order. “I wanted an X-man action figure so bad,” he recalls. “But it cost $27! My parents gave me the rest of the money, but I said to myself, ‘Man! After a month of work, I don’t even have enough for an action figure? I need to make more money!’”
His father used the incident as a teaching moment about the value of money. And thus, an entrepreneurial mindset was born—and it has grown quite a bit. Horton IV, now 31, is a partner in a business that includes four food trucks, one of the most popular restaurants in the booming Morgan Street Food Hall and a free-standing restaurant in Southeast Raleigh. And if everything goes according to plan, he’s just getting started.
Horton IV gives a lot of credit for his success to his father, Isaac B. Horton III, 62, a successful entrepreneur himself who has spent a lifetime preparing his children to imitate and surpass his own business ventures. Horton III has four decades of experience in technology, patents, international business and finance. After earning a PhD in chemistry at Indiana University Bloomington, he began his career as a research chemist for Dupont and later spent eight years at Rohm and Haas, a specialty materials company later acquired by the Dow Chemical Company. Horton III left the corporate world in 1994 to pursue a career as an entrepreneur. Through his various endeavors, his companies have been awarded more than 100 patents in areas like fiber optics and water purification.
But with success, Horton III says, comes responsibility. He always included one day of service on every family vacation, whether it was bringing food to the poor or visiting people in hospitals. “I wanted my children to see what most of the people in the world were experiencing,” Horton III explains.
These experiences gave Horton IV a framework for being both ambitious and generous. “My dad always taught me that it was important to have more than enough not out of greed, but out of benevolence,” he says. “Because at some point, God is going to call upon you to take care of somebody else.” Horton IV majored in economics at UNC-Greensboro, graduating in 2011. He took a job at Lenovo, as a sales manager, but the entrepreneurial spirit was calling: He learned about a man in Durham who was selling his seafood truck, and along friends, pulled together $13,500 to buy it. They fixed it up and rebranded the truck to launch Oak City Fish and Chips in July 2015.
One of the keys to the brand’s success is its proprietary blends of seasonings. “The seasoning was a hit!” says partner Ijeoma Nwankwo, who has been involved in the company since the beginning. “Every time we made it, we didn’t have enough.” When asked to reveal the recipe, Horton IV chuckled and politely declined. But he gave this hint: “The hushpuppies have brown sugar on them.”
One truck grew to four trucks and, by 2018, demand was high enough that they started thinking about a brick-and-mortar location. “I live in downtown Raleigh,” Horton IV says, “and every day I would go for a walk past every major construction site so I would be cognizant of economic development. One day I walked by this building and I saw the sign the first day they put it up.” The sign was for the Morgan Street Food Hall, a dining concept—then new to Raleigh—in which several restaurants share a large common space under one roof. The space, now home to 19 vendors, opened in August 2018. “He was the first person to sign up,” Horton III says. “He called me and said, ‘Dad, downtown is changing, and we have to be part of it.’” Today, Oak City Fish and Chips in the Morgan Street Food Hall is thriving, according to food hall personnel. “They have a line out the door every single day,” says Melinda Jackson, marketing director for the food hall. “They seem to have a cult following.”
With the Morgan Street location under their belts, Horton IV led the opening of a stand-alone Oak City Fish and Chips restaurant on New Birch Drive in Southeast Raleigh this past February. “It’s right in the heart of where I grew up,” Horton IV says, “and it’s an area undergoing rapid development.” Civic leaders were particularly happy to see the restaurant open in that area. “Southeast Raleigh has a disparity in overall retail services compared to more affluent areas like North Raleigh,” says Wallace Green, a board member of the Raleigh Area Development Authority. Any retail establishment like a restaurant, Green says, adds jobs to the local economy and contributes to the tax base. To date, Oak City Fish and Chips has sold more than 100,000 meals at their varied locations, including the food trucks.
But they’re not done yet. Everything they have done so far, Horton III says, is part of a larger effort to build a brand and customer base and to learn more about customer behavior. All of that will be used as part of an overall strategy to expand their business ventures. In Oak City Fish and Chips, Horton III has acted mostly in an advisory role to his son, but he is the primary driver in other planned ventures. In keeping with the spirit of using their success for the greater good, the Hortons are thinking beyond traditional restaurants—even beyond food.
Both father and son would like to expand into hydroponics, a system in which food is grown indoors using only water, and Horton III is developing a concept for a restaurant in northeast Raleigh that would use it. He found a large, warehouse-like building that has room for hydroponics equipment in the back and space in the front for a restaurant. Both of the Hortons are passionate about hydroponics, which they tout as a superior method of producing food as it avoids pesticides, requires little land and cuts down on transportation.
Horton III also has invested in solar energy—another venture that serves the goal of both father and son to use entrepreneurship for the greater good. In April, the Hortons got a boost for their dreams when they agreed to a partnership with Churchill & Associates, a multibillion-dollar asset management and private equity firm in Atlanta. “Having a strong financial partner enables us to start hydroponic food production and consider franchising Oak City Fish and Chips,” Horton III says.
Chris Smith, managing partner of Churchill & Associates, in a statement announcing the partnership, made clear that the Hortons’ varied business interests is what attracted the firm: “The focus of the Horton family on food, real estate and renewables is aligned with Churchill’s Opportunity Zone Fund I and alternative assets on our platform.”
As the Hortons grow their business ventures, it’s clear the son has taken all of the teaching moments he got along the way and ran with them. “I don’t have an MBA,” Horton IV says. “But there are two types of knowledge, theoretical and experiential. I don’t have to get an MBA because I’ve gotten experiential knowledge from my dad over the years.”