Dad was the original bean counter," says Jon Burns, president of Riverview Inn, a Charlotte restaurant that last year sold about a million dollars worth of seafood, fried in some 10 tons of oil. From his no-nonsense office, which is in stark contrast to the cheesy faux pirate fort of a restaurant his father opened on the banks of the Catawba River 64 years ago, Burns produces a spreadsheet.
"Going across and coming down is every item we have on the menu, every combination item, every child's plate, every soft drink, every iced tea, every Coke, every toothpick," says Irwen W. Burns Jr., who upon retiring earlier this year sold his share of the restaurant to his younger brother. "Our dad started it, and if s gotten more extensive since then." Like father, like sons. "This is probably 90% of our success. While most people wait till the end of the month or the end of the year to look at their figures, we do it every week. We take it down every day."
"I don't see how they do it," says Raymond Stowe, who runs Catfish Cove--across the river in Gaston County--by the seat of his tan khakis. He insists that he has no idea what his margins are and, after all these years, is not about to start keeping track of them. His accounting method is pay as you go, something he learned from his mentor, Luther R. Lineberger, who started Gaston County's legendary Lineberger's Fish Fry in 1948. "I know when I get through every week, I got extra money. I pay for everything every week." If there's still money in the cash register, he's doing OK. "We make money, and that's the bottom line. And if you don't make money, you don't stay in business."
Like Catfish Cove and Riverview Inn, homegrown fried-seafood restaurants across North Carolina are thriving. "We've been extremely fortunate, and our sales have been doing very well in this economy," Irwen Burns says. And that in the face of rising seafood prices, the deepest recession in decades and the encroachment of fast-food outfits like Long John Silver's and Captain D's. One of the prime reasons is they give you so much food for the money, says Don R. Lineberger, the son of Luther Lineberger. "You need to serve your customers the kind of food they're accustomed to, prepared the way they want it, for a reasonable price, delivered in quantity."
But there's another tradition that goes much deeper than the Carolina-fried, mega-portion-plus-value formula. As North Carolina fish camps and fried-seafood restaurants have shifted into second- and third-generation ownership over the last six decades, those that have survived have owners who have followed the formula of the men who founded them in the 1940s. Just as Stowe or the Burns brothers would never dream of changing the recipe for the homemade tartar sauce, the slaw or buttermilk-batter, they would never think of tinkering with their mentors' recipe for financial success. They run their restaurants just like their kitchens--the old-fashioned, fiscally conservative way.
Fish camps are a great example of the principle that a region's distinctive cooking is often its working people's food," says Tom Hanchett, staff historian of the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte. Just as Gaston County's rivers and streams were once full of catfish and bream, its mills "had more looms and spindles than any other county in the U.S.--meaning more mill workers with a few coins to spend on a restaurant meal on Saturday nights." It's not surprising that fish camps took off there, Hanchett says, "nor surprising that they are found today anywhere in North Carolina where people value lots of good food for their dollar."
And just what is a fish camp? "A family-oriented restaurant where they fry everything they see," humorist Bill Melton wrote in a guide for Yankees in the Gaston Gazette. "I've been going to the same one [Riverside in Dallas] all my life," he says. "I grew up going there every Friday night, and you saw everybody you knew." (As Burns Jr. says of customer loyalty, "Fish camps in this area are very much like churches. People who go to the Baptist church won't go to the Episcopal church.") But aren't people eating less fried food these days? "Lord, no," Melton says. "Not here. Absolutely not." Some might order grilled salmon for a week or so after bypass surgery. "But they'll ease back after a while when they forget they've been that close to death."
No story about fried fish would be complete without...