By Bruce Collier
On July 4, Harbor Docks restaurant in Destin will celebrate its 40th birthday. Beachcomber caught up with founder/former owner Charles Morgan III and his son (and current majority owner) Eddie Morgan. Like many success stories in Beachcomberland, Harbor Docks is a tale of timing, growth…and lack of beer.
Charles had graduated from the University of Alabama with a master’s in American Studies, and was working on a fishing boat. “I had zero-percent business background,” he says. “But there were only about six restaurants between Destin Bridge and Sandestin. You had to go nearly to Fort Walton. It was self-serving—we wanted a place to hang out.”
The enterprise began with two coolers—one for oysters in the shell, the other for beer—and a few picnic tables. They set up in what had been Dewey Destin’s old house, which Charles’ father had purchased from charter captain Jack Cason, and which he rented to Charles for $200 a month. “He was probably wondering what the hell I was doing down here,” says Charles.
The area was still largely undeveloped at the time. “You could still park on Highway 98 up to the 1980s,” says Charles.
In 1981, expansion began. Charles went to one of two local banks for a $5,000 loan for improvements. The first one turned him down. At the second bank, he asked for $7,500 and got his money, which paid for construction of the “front room” of the present restaurant. “It was the last business plan I made,” says Charles. Eventually a dining room and downstairs area were added.
Eddie Morgan has photos from the old place, including one of the 1981 menu, bearing the slogan, “One Hell of an Oyster Bar.” Prices are handwritten by his mom. The “from the bar” section offers Perrier and a Tropical Smoothie (there’s now a full bar). Beer prices range from 90 cents for domestic drafts and top out at $2 for imports like Red Stripe and San Miguel. The menu offers soups, salads, sandwiches and five seafood items, including raw oysters (a dozen for $2.50) and snow crab for $6.50. Florida lobster tails, as always, were market price.
Charles added more staff, and expansion continued. In 1990, he tried sushi for the first time at a local Asian restaurant (no longer in business), prepared by a woman named Yoshi. Charles perceived that things didn’t look so good at the restaurant, and told Yoshi she should come work for him. Three days later she showed up with her gear at Harbor Docks, and its sushi bar was born. “At the time, sushi was just about unknown here…[Yoshi] educated an entire region,” says Charles.
Asked about best and worst moments, Eddie and Charles recall Hurricane Opal (October 1995). “It wiped out the downstairs,” says Eddie. “There were couches here from Holiday Isle.”
Charles says his “best thing” is the fact that “we’ve been here for 40 years. The incredible people I’ve worked with, friendships with customers.”
Harbor Docks has hosted many celebrities, including President Bill Clinton. Charles also recalls the night he received a call from a friend asking if he could get a table for Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, and their daughter. It was a busy night, and they had already been turned down by another restaurant. Asked if they could accommodate the country singer, the other restaurant’s response was reportedly, “I don’t care if it’s [expletive] President Bush, we’re 100-percent booked.”
Charles assured his friend that Harbor Docks could accommodate Cash’s family. He gave them a window table. The other patrons respected the family’s privacy throughout their meal. As he was leaving, Cash stopped at the door, then turned around. “He went from table to table, tapping people on the shoulder and saying ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.’”
Eddie bought the restaurant from Charles last fall. His duties include doing whatever’s needed, including cooking occasionally, “shaking hands and kissing babies.” They have been doing some remodeling, and “other stuff,” as yet undisclosed, is in the works. The July 4 celebration will begin at 11 AM, with live music starting at 4 PM (Beachcomber Music Award winners Austin Jennings and Cadillac Willy). There will be specials all day, and no reservations are needed.
Charles expressed full confidence in his son’s stewardship of Harbor Docks in its next 40 years. “It’s just a matter of common sense to people you work with and customers. We’re a real part of this town that we live in and love. Whatever we do, it will be done with love.”
Harbor Docks is located at 538 Harbor Boulevard in Destin. Hours are Monday through Wednesday, 11 AM-10 PM; Thursdays, 11 AM-11 PM; Fridays and Saturdays, 7 AM-11 PM; and Sundays, 7 AM-10 PM. The phone number is 850-837-2506.
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