In North Carolina's seafood capital, every lost dinner hour brings sadness, uncertainty

Published May 7, 2020

By Dallas Woodhouse

Just 30 minutes from the tourist mecca of Myrtle Beach, and touching the South Carolina state line, Calabash, N.C. does not have restaurants. It is restaurants. Calabash, incorporated in 1973, is a small fishing village with about a dozen restaurants, almost all seafood, with a year-round population of just under 2,000 residents.

It’s both a town and a style of seafood. The town sits on the Calabash River, just a stone’s throw away from the fresh catches of the Atlantic.

In the 1940s, Calabash was little more than a spot along the River where people lived off the water. Jimmy Durante, the national radio and television comedian and actor, came across the town. Soon after, he left a mystery at the end of every broadcast.

“Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” Durante said.

The sign-off became his signature, and the questions tantalized listeners for years. Was there really a Mrs. Calabash? If so, who was she? And was she, in fact, from Calabash?

Durante in fact came traveling through town and ate at The Original, the first Calabash seafood restaurant. He liked the food so much he asked for the owner, who turned out to be Lucy Coleman, and Durante told her, “I’m going to make you famous one day.”

But it’s the seafood and the restaurants that serve the town that are celebrated. All across the southeast, dining establishments advertise “Calabash Style” seafood. Of course the people of Calabash insist that to be called Calabash seafood, seafood must be made in Calabash by putting fresh fish in evaporated milk, then in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, then in cornmeal, and then into a deep fryer for two minutes, and quickly shaken so no grease remains, and served hot to the table.

The entire community depends on feeding people. The Christmas shop sells to those waiting to be seated for dinner. The one mini-golf course is a family tradition, and the ice cream shops an after-dinner treat.

Now as vacation season begins, with no clarity when Calabash restaurants can welcome thousands of diners per night, each missed dinner shift brings heartache, sorrow and anxiety. Hundreds have been laid off. Locals have rallied around their restaurants, ordering take-out, but that is a drop in the bucket on what it takes to survive.

Donna Long manages the family-owned Captain Nance’s Calabash Seafood Restaurant. She is also the mayor of Calabash.

“Before this happened, we had a staff of about 45 people. They have all gone on unemployment,” declared Long. “We are doing takeout with just the family, as it is a family business, so we are down from 45 to 5.”

The wait during the summer tourist season for any one of the seafood restaurants can run an hour or two. Year after year, families taking their beach vacation return to their favorite restaurants. It’s what built this town. It’s how this town survives.

“We have families that’ve been coming to a restaurant for 40 years, and now it’s the next generation, and you get to know their families because they come every summer and you get connected to them,” says Long.

And pressure is building on Calabash because of the actions of its southern neighbors. South Carolina restaurants with outdoor seating are now open. North Carolina restaurants like the ones in Calabash appear to be weeks away from being able to do anything but takeout.

South Carolina restaurants with the support of their governor are aiming to fully open indoor seating with safety precautions by mid May.

The people of Calabash know, as much as their dedicated and loyal customers love their food, vacation dining is an experience, and Calabash takeout can’t compete with hundreds of seated dining experiences in Myrtle Beach.

Rep. Frank Iler (R-Shallotte) is gravely worried about the slow pace of re-opening North Carolina’s economy in Calabash and other tourism dependent communities in Brunswick County that he represents.

“This is our whole economy, restaurants and tourism. I have told the governor’s people if this gets into June and we are still closed down, it will kill us.”

Iler estimates with the legislature setting the opening of public schools a week sooner and the uncertainly of when restaurants and other tourist related services can open, half the tourist rental season may already be lost, a crushing blow to small business along the coast.

“Every week you lose is 10% of your revenue, and I think there was an overreaction in many ways,” said Iler.

On Monday, May 4, just minutes after attending a coronavirus relief package bill signing ceremony with Gov. Roy Cooper, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore expressed frustration about the slow pace of North Carolina’s reopening. “It is clear we’re in decline now and we desperately need more business and more commerce,” said Moore to Newsmax.

He also voiced concern about the restaurant industry, noting that “it is difficult to see improvement” given the minimal openings that have taken place so far.

Rep. Iler also complained that restaurants not only don’t know when they can open, but under what rules they’ll have to abide by when they can.

That is a major challenge faced by Oyster Rock, a contemporary seafood venue in a setting that is a perfect blend of low-country upscale and Carolina casual, on the Calabash waterfront. South Florida native Patrick Legendre is the General Manager.

“It has been difficult, this is the time of the year when we are skyrocketing, it has been quite a blow, financially as well as mentally.”

“I would love for them to come out right now and say you can have 50 percent of your capacity, all tables have to be six feet apart, you can’t have parties larger than four at a time,” says Legendre. “Give us the guidelines now so we can have our plan, so when you say today is the day, we can get our reservations, open the doors and be gone.”

While North Carolina restaurants wait for rules to be mandated from Gov. Cooper, South Carolina went a different route. Gov. Henry McMaster accepted the recommendations of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association and the dining industry. There is more there in the free market to self-regulate the safety protocols and follow reduced capacity guidelines. Civitas has advocated such an approach.

Meanwhile, in Calabash as each dinner hour comes and goes, empty chairs and empty tables sit, and a town waits and wonders.