WILMINGTON — He may have opened a new restaurant during an economically devastating pandemic, but for Robert Pickens, it was a matter of rolling with the punches.
Soon after he signed a contract in December, contractors began renovating the old KBueno Norte Cocina in Porters Neck into an oyster bar.
“Once the dotted line was signed, for me anyway, I just moved forward,” Pickens recalled. “What are you going to do?”
Fortunately, his May 30 opening came a week after Governor Roy Cooper rolled out a second phase of business reopenings, including restaurants at 50% seating capacity. But regardless, opening a restaurant amid a pandemic came with unique challenges.
“It’s difficult enough opening a restaurant when you put in all the other factors that go along with it, plus you’re dealing with a paranoia that surrounds the pandemic. A lot of people aren’t going out to eat [now],” he said.
Although Pickens implemented the CDC’s recommended precautions — all employees wear masks and gloves while disinfecting regularly — he said there is only so much they can control; he estimated only 10% of his customers wear face masks.
That’s why he adjusted his business plan to make up for the smaller number of dine-in customers while meeting the needs of vacationers, Figure Eight Island second-homers, and residents still afraid to eat out. A big hit, he said, has been the cook-it-yourself Low Country Boil kit. Customers can pick up metal pots filled with kielbasa sausage, potatoes, corn, butter, and sauces with their own mix of seafood options:
- 6 oysters ($10)
- 12 oysters ($20)
- 12 mussels ($8)
- Lobster tail ($14)
- 1 pound large shrimp ($14)
- Half-pound snow crab legs ($12)
- 1 pound snow crab legs ($22)
- Extra half-pound andouille sausage ($8)
- Extra half-pound kielbasa sausage ($6)
- Extra corn on the cob ($4)
- Extra red potatoes ($4)
When they get home, they just follow the instructions (add two cups of water or beer and let everything steam for 20 to 33 minutes, according to the seafood meat.
Take-home options are crucial in a time when Covid-19 cases are rising in the Wilmington area — new cases climbed 51% in New Hanover County between June 12 and June 19 — and certain restaurants are closing their doors for the second time in three months, voluntarily this round.
“The reality of the whole thing is just starting to hit here now, I think, for most people,” he said.
Resurrecting North Carolina oyster farms
Pickens said the idea for Tidewater Oyster Bar began as a way to “highlight some of the natural bounty” from Stump Sound, an area north of Topsail Island ideal for oyster harvesting.
One night last year, Pickens saw an old friend and former employee eating at Kornerstone Bistro — an Italian restaurant that he opened 13 years ago, directly across the street from Tidewater. The man, a former chef named Keith Wallis, told him he was now farming oysters in Stump Sound.
“He brought some of them in and I just thought they were phenomenal oysters,” Pickens recalled. “And we just started talking about the industry and how they’re trying to resurrect oyster farming in North Carolina. Because we have some of the best natural conditions for oysters, as far as salinity of the water, the way the tide goes in and out, and the vegetation that they feed off of.”
Wild oysters along the North Carolina coast were once harvested in abundance. At the turn of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of oysters were being shipped to New York City, Los Angeles, and other major American cities, Pickens said. North Carolina was producing nearly two million bushels of oysters a year, according to North Carolina State’s Sea Grant North Carolina.
“By the 1920s and 1930s, annual production had declined to about 300,000 bushels,” according to the the university’s Coastwatch publication.
Another huge drop-off came in the late 1980s. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries said that by 1998, only 44,613 bushels of oysters were harvested in the state, compared to 225,000 bushels in 1987.
“They overfished the population and contaminated the waters, and the industry kind of died,” Pickens said.
But Pickens said North Carolina is beginning to follow the course set by Virginia, which over the past two decades has “made a push to capitalize on their oyster industry,” including setting certain incentives to grow oyster farming.
He said there are perhaps thirty farmers in Stump Sound, maybe more, who are more and more focused on educating consumers that oysters farmed during summer months are as delicious — and safe — as wild oysters sold during the winter.
Unlike wild oysters, farmed oysters do not reproduce in the summer, which make wild oysters weak and susceptible to bacteria and contamination (thus the common adage: Only eat oysters in months ending in ‘r’).
Although he receives oysters from all over North America — he just got a batch from Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada, and says Gulf Coast oyster farms are also on the up and up — nothing beats the oysters he receives from farms in Stump Sound and other areas of the North Carolina coast.
“I think North Carolina oysters stand up to all of ‘em,” Pickens said.
Tidewater Oyster Bar is located at 8211 Market Street in the Porters Neck Center. It is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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