Wilson’s offers live music, food and an adults-only party in South Jersey

Why would a chemical engineer and the owner of an art gallery go into the club business?

It was a natural career progression, said Mark Wilson, a scientist with a long career in plastics, natural fuels and rocket fuels. As the son of a Chicago jazz club owner, he also had a passion for hospitality.

Several years ago he moved to South Jersey, where his wife, Mame Wilson, owns LaBelle Art Gallery, specializing in works of his words; it features black artists from the United States and Africa; he is now at Voorhees after five years at Haddonfield.

»READ MORE: From our archives: A South Jersey art gallery dedicated to African art

They discovered that Camden County lacked a destination for food and live music, especially jazz and blues. When they wanted to go out at night, they would head north and west from their home in Williamstown in Philadelphia or east and south to Atlantic City, each about 45 minutes away.

In April 2019, Mark Wilson, now 53, retired from ExxonMobil and decided to go into the restaurant business. The couple set off in search of an apartment building and heard of a long vacant club – formerly Richeez’s, Hi-Nella Inn, Balloons, and Duke’s – next to Sterling High School in Hi-Nella.

The place was a dumping ground.

Mame Wilson, 55, whose first name is pronounced “MAY-mee,” said that when they pulled into Warwick Road to meet the real estate agent, “I didn’t want to look inside. I was scared. It’s not the building for me, but Mark said, ‘No. This is the building. It has potential and that’s what we’re going to do with it.

Two years and $ 2 million later, after emptying the space, remodeling it (including paintings of black musicians from their personal collection), adding destructive acoustics and lighting, and waiting for most of the pandemic , the couple opened Wilson’s Restaurant and Live Music Lounge December 3.

Wilson’s is large: 250 seats, including 35 around a rectangular bar with tables facing the stage. In the spring, 100 additional places will serve customers on two outdoor terraces.

The building, incidentally, also had a liquor license that allows the club to be open until 5 a.m., and the Wilsons stay open until 3:30 a.m. on weekends. Wilson’s is designed as a supper club, aimed at an adult audience, they said. Live music ends around 11 p.m., then a DJ spins dance music.

The Wilson’s have selected Philadelphia-raised chef Elijah Milligan, whose long resume includes Stateside (where at 24 he was named executive chef in 2013) and most recently the Cooking for the Culture series, which has highlighted black leaders and the future. Greenwood Social Club, a dinner club inspired by Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. Its menu of New Orleans-inspired southern dishes includes crab egg rolls; grilled oxtail cheese; Old Bay wings; Grilled lamb chops; and okra with lobster.

Music producer Nancie Manning arranges the acts.

Mark Wilson manages day to day, leaving the finances to Mame Wilson. One of five daughters, she immigrated from Senegal with her family right after high school, and to finance her degree in international marketing at Baruch College in New York, she sold imported masks and clothing to her classmates. She first ran her gallery in Brooklyn with a sister. After September 11, she and her first husband, Scott, decided to leave New York City and found their way to South Jersey. He died of leukemia in 2014. She opened LaBelle two years later.

Mark Wilson, who said his family still runs the Chicago clubs, said the catering matched his personality. “I just love people, making memories and making friends,” he said.

Wilson’s Live hours of operation are 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 6 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday (including jazz brunch).

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