CALABASH – It is no secret that the restaurant industry is among the hardest hit by Governor Roy Cooper’s sweeping and open ended shutdown edicts. The N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Associations predicts that as much as half of restaurants will not make it through to see the other side of the lockdowns, even if Phase One has been initiated.
For some communities, particularly small waterfront towns on the coast of our great state that live and die by tourist diners during the summer season, the devastation stands to be even more complete. Calabash, the self-proclaimed Seafood Capital of North Carolina, is the prime example. Dallas Woodhouse, writing for the Civitas Institute, paints a vivid picture of what life is like in a town built on seafood restaurants, waiting for the day they might be allowed to make a living, and hoping they can survive until then.
“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. […]”