NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Carolina Fish Fry Co. owner Tyler Morgan said it’s normal to churn out 180 orders of fresh fried fish a night. And that’s working with only three fryers in his 1,800-square-foot Market Street eatery.
By the end of the summer, Morgan will be operating a second Carolina Fish Fry, double the space and double the equipment. It’s slated to open in Ogden Market Place, the shopping center which also houses Publix.
“I can seat about twice the amount of people at the Ogden restaurant than I can here,” Morgan told Port City Daily from his Market Street location.
The 2,700 square-foot building will have 90 seats, including outdoor dining, not to mention more kitchen space and more fryers — five to be exact. Though it’s Morgan’s second restaurant, it’s his first stint in the restaurant business. Morgan became general manager of Carolina Fish Fry Co. in summer 2020 and left the business in September, before returning to buy it in October 2020.
“I officially became the owner on November 1,” he said.
At the time, he revealed, the business was only doing around $5,000 a week in sales. After Morgan renovated the space and upgraded the food, including utilizing local oysters and spots, he said sales improved, one week clocking in at $18,000.
“That’s the biggest week we’ve cleared so far,” he said.
It’s serendipitous in some ways that he would find himself in the seafood business. Morgan said he had boyhood dreams of opening a restaurant, mostly inspired by the fish fries he and his father would host in their neighborhood in Bessemer City: “I’ve been fishing since I was probably 2 with my dad — you know, carving them up and cleaning them myself since I was probably 8. . . . [E]very three weeks we’d cook fish and have a bunch of people over.”
“I think all things happen for a reason,” Morgan added, “but it wasn’t necessarily that I went out looking to own a fish restaurant.”
He gained management experience first by working for national retail stores, overseeing appliances and home-goods sections that brought in $13 or $14 million a year. Today, he may be overseeing an operation with less sales — averaging $700,000 a year — but he said he appreciates the larger role he plays as a business owner.
“We have a very simple process, simple menu — with, really, 10 items listed in multiple different ways,” he said. “So, our prep, our cooking process is pretty easy and fast.”
Carolina Fish Fry serves fried flounder, oysters, popcorn or jumbo shrimp, deviled crab, scallops, and clam strips — both as platters with two sides and hushpuppies or as sandwiches. It also offers a few land-lover items, including cheeseburgers and chicken tenders. Morgan said he will increase seafood and non-seafood items alike at the new location on a daily specials menu.
He has begun working with Seaview Crab Company and plans to add more local purveyors. He also brought in one of his favorite childhood snacks he used to get from a burger joint, Blacks, back home in the western part of the state.
“Have you ever heard of corn nuggets?” he asked. “They are deep fried, battered balls of creamed corn. Oh my gosh, they’re amazing! They have been a hit — everybody loves them.”
Having a say in the creation of new products has drawn Morgan to the restaurant industry more than his previous career in retail. He said he enjoys toying around with specials and improvements that help create a good experience for customers.
“With sales in retail, you’re given a product, and you just present it,” he explained. “You have no buy-in on that product. You’re selling somebody else’s idea. This is still me selling someone else’s idea — because we’re a franchise — however, essentially, me and my team are the architects. We design the product, we create the product, it’s 100% on us.”
Morgan has hired a crew he said is dependable, and focused on team-building and inclusivity. He also said he pays more than minimum wage and plans to offer benefits once the second location opens, which will help him meet the employee minimum (he will have around 30 people between both restaurants).
“It definitely costs more to hire and retain employees today than it did even eight months ago,” he said. Morgan starts employees out at $10 an hour plus tips. “I split it all up between the entire crew, so on average, our employees make anywhere from $12 to $13 an hour,” he said.
In addition to rising labor costs, Morgan said food costs have increased. Thus, he had to raise some menu prices recently by 50 cents.
“On average, each case of food that we buy in bulk has gone up, I would say, about $4 a case,” Morgan explained. “Shrimp fluctuates like crazy; it can vary anywhere from $20 to $40 a case.”
The various housing developments around Carolina Fish Fry’s Ogden location was a big draw for Morgan to open a second eatery at the north end of the county. He said, while there are seafood establishments in Porters Neck that may be more high-end, he is confident he will fill a different niche.
“There’s really not any seafood in the general area of Ogden that’s fast, casual, less expensive, your served-on-a-paper-plate kind of place,” he said. “It will be the only thing that’s in a good area where a lot of families live.”
It also will be the sixth Carolina Fish Fry Co. franchise, founded by Sam Karos.
“He’s actually been in the seafood business for like 30 years,” Morgan said. “They used to own some of the seafood buffets in Myrtle Beach.”
The first Carolina Fish Fry started on Market Street in Wilmington five years ago and has since expanded into Greensboro, Garner, Burlington, and Jacksonville. Morgan said he plans to open locations in Monkey Junction and Leland over the next few years as well.
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