’It was a quadruple whammy’: Restaurants remain ‘Southport strong’ after Hurricane Isaias, COVID-19

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The Brunswick County town say this summer has been unlike any other

Brittany Chirico has been the manager for Fishy Fishy Cafe in Southport for eight years, so she’s used to the seasonal ups and downs at the restaurant owned by her parents. And she’s seen her share of storms.

But this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused added uncertainty for the food businesses, including Fishy Fishy on Yacht Basin Drive and its neighbors.

And then a surprisingly fierce Hurricane Isaias caused enough damage to close the restaurant for 10 days earlier this month.

“Yes, 2020 has been incredibly challenging,” Chirico said. “I feel like every time we try to get back to normal, another thing comes along and changes the plan.”

She took steps to prepare ahead of the most recent storm, but not enough.

“We were shocked at how strong this storm was,” Chirico said. “When we came back, it was a very devastating scene.”

Railings and portions of the docks and piers at the waterfront restaurant were gone, as were some of the support beams. Bar coolers and kitchen equipment were flipped over from the influx of water. Three feet of water left a layer of mud.

“I had no idea where to start,” Chirico said. But, even without prompting from her, the staff began to show up to help.

“We just started in one corner and worked our way through.”

At the same time a few blocks away, staff at Oliver’s on the Cape Fear by Waterfront Park was doing similar work.

Manager Mike Magee and chef Dustin Garrett have worked together at Oliver’s and sister restaurant Moore Street Oyster Bar since Hurricane Matthew.

“This wasn’t a double whammy. It was a quadruple whammy,” Magee said. “Unfortunately, we have the dubious skill of knowing what to expect from the water now.”

Before Isaias made landfall at Ocean Isle Beach on August 3, they moved furniture to the upper level and put sandbags in place but still water came into the restaurant. They were ready with fans, dehumidifiers, and the help of a local cleaning company to completely dry out. After an inspection to make sure, they opened two weeks later.

“The work everyone was doing just shows the resilience of this community,” said Southport Mayor Joe Hatem. “They’ve all been creative, working with social distancing and at 50 percent capacity and then this. Frying Pan was ready to open, and they cooked for us.”

Frying Pan on W. Bay St. decided not to open immediately after the storm, and instead provided lunch for city hall, and those working to recover from the hurricane.

“We work beside each other every day. We should be able to help each other out,” said manager Craig Blanks. “Southport is a strong community, and we come together in tough times.”

Magee and Chirico echoed the sentiment.

“We’ve helped each other move dumpsters, and there have been mass texts to figure out whose grease trap floated away,” Magee said.

While Frying Pan was relatively undamaged, the same can’t be said for American Fish Company, which Blanks also manages. A Isaias-spawned tornado caused more than $100,000 in damages.

“And, as a bar, we’ve been closed since March 15 anyway,” Blanks said.

Before the storm, he was working through legal channels to open the outdoor facility before they typically close in November.

“Now, I don’t know if we will be able to open at all this season,” he said.

Hatem said he is hoping some of these restaurants, bars and other businesses will do what they can in the weeks and months ahead to continue to adjust and be a part of the community. He’s been impressed with the creativity places like Mr. P’s Bistro, Ports of Call, and others are making in the wake of the pandemic.

In the evenings, Oliver’s can add extra outdoor seating in nearby parking spaces and they plan to bring back their popular Sunday brunch in September.

At Moore Street Market, owner Andrew Laing said they were fortunate enough to add an online ordering system last year. And although they’ve had to cut back their operating hours because of difficulty finding employees, he said that three upstairs dining rooms and an outdoor courtyard offer ample opportunity for social distancing at the breakfast and lunch spot. Earlier this year, they also started a program for customers to sponsor meals for first responders, grocery employees, and other essential workers.

Laing and his wife matched the first $500, and they’ve since provided more than 800 meals.

“The response was incredible,” he said. “I feel like the locals are supporting us, and making up for the fact that there aren’t as many tourists.”

Many of those at Southport restaurants say the situation could be worse.

“Considering everything, we’ve had a successful season,” Chirico said. “But I’m just really ready for 2021.”

They are also hoping that when the summer season is gone they will continue to see the support from neighboring communities.

“We want to let people know we are ready, and we are here,” Magee said.

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