- Associated Press - Thursday, October 2, 2014

CALABASH, N.C. (AP) - Deep in Brunswick County, there’s a fryer that never dies.

Dubbed “The Seafood Capital of the World,” the close-knit and well-fed community of Calabash is home to roughly 2,000 residents and 32 restaurants. That’s 62.5 people per restaurant, a ratio far above the state average of 513 residents per restaurant, according to U.S. Census and National Restaurant Association numbers. And the backbone of Calabash’s bustling food service industry is unquestionably the throng of venerable seafood establishments dotting River Road and the Calabash River waterfront in the town’s heart.

That heart skipped a beat earlier this summer when an electrical fire consumed the better part of Coleman’s Original Calabash Restaurant, one of the county’s oldest eateries with a history dating to 1940. It wasn’t the first blaze to rip through an area restaurant - not even the first for Coleman’s, which burned in the 1970s - and it likely won’t be the last.

With a handful of families sharing a history dating back four generations, the idea of Calabash is bigger and stronger than any one restaurant. They’ve survived hurricanes, significant changes in the commercial fishing industry and a fat-phobic dietary revolution.

If anything, a fire gives the community one more chance to rise from the ashes.

“I knew we were building back immediately,” Crystal Coleman-Nixon, general manager and granddaughter of owner Joanne Coleman, said of watching wood reduce to smoldering embers that fateful August night.

Born of the region’s once-booming commercial fishing industry, the iconic Calabash institutions began life as informal fish camps, evolving into large restaurants that have fed families for more than half a century. While who first sold the distinctive and generous plates of fried flounder, shrimp and other fruits of the sea is a topic of enduring debate, nobody questions the family roots these early founders share.

The late Ruth Beck and Lucy Coleman - allegedly the “Mrs. Calabash” of Jimmy Durante fame - were both sisters and architects of an enduring legacy. Beck’s Restaurant, Coleman’s, Ella’s of Calabash and Calabash Seafood Hut all remain in the family, and Captain Nance’s has joined the clan through marriage. All have been in business since at least the mid-1970s.

Despite all this blood, even the few outsiders, from veterans like Captain John’s Seafood House and newcomers like The Boundary House, are treated like family.

“People think we’re all in competition, but they have no idea how much tartar sauce gets borrowed behind the scenes,” Coleman-Nixon said. “Every single restaurant owner here has come to me to see if I need anything, whether they’re related to me or not.”

As she waits for insurance claims to be settled and investigations to be completed, Coleman-Nixon is in good company during these days of anticipation before rebuilding can begin.

Beck’s, run by her cousin Shaun Bellamy, rebuilt from a complete loss to fire in October 2012. Captain John’s, located to the west side of Coleman’s overlooking the Calabash River, was lost to flames in November 2010. Captain Nance’s, next door to the east, burned down in July 1999.

“When we burned, all of the other restaurants were there hugging and crying,” remembered Donna Morgan, who’s worked for her aunt, Captain Nance’s owner Doris Nance, for the majority of her 43 years. “If we don’t stick together, then Calabash will be no longer.”

While well-known - and occasionally ribbed - for what’s perceived to be a business built on bubbling fryers, those lava-like vats of boiling oil can’t be blamed for the blazes. Of the major property-damaging fires, various electrical malfunctions were cited.

Calabash Fire Department Chief Randy Bork said he can’t comment on the most recent burning, which began after the restaurant closed and didn’t cause any injuries. He refuses to draw any parallels between previous incidents that might suggest an elevated risk associated with the fried seafood business.

“Every fire is different,” Bork said. “They all have their own challenges.”

Bork did stress that the rate of restaurant fires in Calabash is consistent with the number of commercial business fires in other communities.

“All cities have fires,” Bork said. “In Calabash, the populace is restaurants, so you’re going to have more restaurant fires in a place like this.”

Bork and his crew are cited as heroes by Coleman-Nixon. Thanks to the department’s efforts, about half of the kitchen equipment, furniture and other belongings survived. They are temporarily housed in a trio of shipping containers in the restaurant’s parking lot, ready to move in once the new walls go up. She was particularly moved by fire crews’ efforts to rescue sentimental items like newspaper clippings, photos and other personal items while the flames raged.

“That was probably the worst day of her life. She was really torn up the night of the fire,” Bork said of Coleman-Nixon. “That was stuff from another generation. Buildings can be rebuilt, but those (mementos) cannot. It’s a good part of the job to be able to hand her those pictures.”

Rebuilding the 6,000-square-foot restaurant will be bittersweet for the Coleman family. Diners rarely complain about a sparkling dining room with a new-car cleanliness. But when the old walls come down, they bring a shrimp-boat-sized haul of memories with them.

Virgil Coleman, son of Lucy Coleman and grandfather to Coleman-Nixon, ran a tight ship, as his granddaughter recalls. He was particularly keen on making sure a specific row of windows were cleaned just so, a task she happily passed down the line to avoid his critical eye falling on her. Those windows and other tangible artifacts of his life - he passed in 2011 - won’t be part of the new structure.

“I don’t go to the cemetery,” Coleman-Nixon said. “This is where I come to talk to my granddaddy.”

The blaze came at a bad time for Coleman’s, dampening the business’ strongest summer in recent years. Coleman-Nixon said a recent uptick could be attributed to a rebounding economy, but the blaze derailed a crucial period in the restaurant’s largely seasonal business.

In decades past, a line of cars waiting for a parking spot at the waterfront eateries could snake well up the road, but changing tastes compounded by the recent economic downturn found business tapering to a more modest thrum. Coleman’s and other restaurants in the community have adapted to the health-conscious customers, selling a significant number of broiled plates every night. Menus have grown to offer grilled chicken breasts, salads and other lighter fare, but sales haven’t rivaled those of Calabash’s heyday.

It’s difficult to estimate the exact economic impact of the restaurant segment on the Calabash community, but Chuck Nance, the town’s administrator, can’t undersell the industry’s contribution.

“The restaurants employ quite a few wait staff and hostesses. It is a large, large employment sector,” Nance said. “They are this town. They were here even prior to us being a town.”

For one worker, construction at Coleman’s can’t begin soon enough. Julie Hinkle is a longtime employee and was serving as manager the night of the fire. Hinkle started in 1994, left briefly to pursue a computer career, and returned when that proved unfulfilling. Since the blaze, she’s been working at sister restaurant Seafood Hut, but misses her role as head waitress at Coleman’s.

“I’m not kin, but I feel like I’m family,” Hinkle said of her relationship with the Colemans. “Had I not been put up (at the Seafood Hut), I’d be unemployed. This is my livelihood.”

While the remaining building has continued to deteriorate - a fresh section of roof fell in recently following heavy rain - Coleman-Nixon said she hopes to see construction begin soon and plans to open the doors again around Easter of 2015.

“The first time I came in I had to turn around and walk out,” she said of the emotion she felt entering the charred building after the fire. “Now, I’m ready. Let’s go.”


Information from: The StarNews, https://starnewsonline.com

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