Interviewed by Charles Morgan III
Your grandfather, Ol’ Nick, passed away in 1999 but people still talk about him like he’s going to walk around the corner of the oyster bar. It’s a terribly over-used phrase, but Old Man Nick is a true legend. What was he like?
My grandfather was born in Oakfield, New York, quit school at 15, and joined the Army Air Corps. He left the service, lived in Selma for a while, and then built houses in Montgomery. He and a buddy took a trip to the coast and stopped at a roadside bait shop in Basin Bayou. He liked it, and bought it for $8,500. That’s where Nick’s is today. He moved down here and sold bait, rented boats, and shucked oysters. He opened the store in 1963.
He was a tough Italian. He was an outsider down here, a Yankee. The locals wanted to try him out. There were lots of fistfights in the restaurant. He beat one guy up and threw him through one of the plate glass windows. Then he was mad that the guy had broken the glass, and he went outside and threw him back inside the restaurant. He wasn’t the only one who got thrown out of Nick’s.
How did the transition of ownership work in the Nick family? Didn’t it change every few years or so?
My grandfather had nine siblings, and he brought four of them down from New York. His youngest brother ran it from 1969 to 1979. My dad Frank ran it from 1979 to 1989. Connie and Wayne Jones ran it from 1989 to 1998. I’ve run it ever since.
What’s the Auburn connection in the family?
My dad was 18 years old and was out in the bay tonging oysters one winter. The anchor line holding the boat was frozen solid with ice. That’s when he decided to go to college.
I know you went to Auburn, too. I doubt that’s where you learned about vertical integration in business, but you figured it our somewhere. You do it all. You supply the fish, shrimp, crab and oysters for the restaurant. The middleman went away. I think that’s how you’re supposed to do it. How does it work?
Well, I had good mentors. We’ve been doing that forever. My grandfather had a shrimp boat, and he tonged oysters. And we’ve always had fish and crab boats.
You were 23 when you took over the restaurant. You must be some kind of genius.
When I took over, there were four people working for me who had 120 years of experience. They said, “What’s this kid gonna do here?” Three of the ladies used to spank me when I was a boy. I told them, “Y’all just keep doing what you’ve been doing for 30 years. I’m gonna clean the restrooms and greet the people when they come in the door.” They said, “That’ll work just fine.”
You put on fishing tournaments and bonfires and do tailgates. You even do tailgates in Tuscaloosa. What’s that like?
I’m an Auburn fan, but I’ve learned to say “Roll Tide”. If the Lord were to call me home, he’d have to send me back on Saturday so I could watch college football.
You and Jennifer just got back from New York City. How did y’all fit in up there?
It was overwhelming. We’re surrounded by weirdos down here. They took it to another level. I loved it—we’ll be back.
What’s with all the animals around Nick’s?
As long as I remember, there’s been critters around here. Ducks, chickens, alligators, pigs…we used to have geese that would chase the customers.
What’s your secret? You’ve got a customer base that doesn’t fit conventional demographics. I’ve seen people in here that look like they just came out of the swamp, people who either just got out of jail or look like they belong there, cops and military guys with real guns, and some of the wealthiest, fanciest people who live on the coast.
We do bring a little different angle than you’d expect at a restaurant. Our customer base, our clientele is like a big family. We’re more than a restaurant—this is our way of life.
You always look like you’re having fun. Jennifer works a full-time job teaching. In addition to shucking oysters and bartending, Aubrey and Cade are always busy doing something. Your parents are in the restaurant helping out. You just kind of wander around. How’d you figure that out? Are fishing and hunting part of your job? You seem to stay busy in the woods and on the bay.
Well, nothing really changes around here. When I took over, if it was going to fail, that was on me—and that wasn’t going to happen. Ever since my granddaddy and grandmother had it, our family has always lived in the store.
Since Jennifer and I took over, it’s just history repeating itself. Everyone here is hands-on.
What’s the one thing that makes Nick’s so special?
I think we’ve grown more unique over the years because we haven’t changed.