By Charles Morgan III
Harbor Docks is 40 years old.
I doubt that when we opened in the summer of 1979 that I ever imagined typing that sentence. Most restaurants don’t make it past two years. Very few span four decades.
Many people might ask, “How did you do it?” I ask myself the same question. I think the honest answer is that we did it one step at a time and we took lots of deep breaths.
We certainly made lots of mistakes. But I guess we got things right more often than we got them wrong. The successes must have outweighed the missteps. Surviving year after year with a rotating roster of staff and a changing customer base was a challenge we met.
In this business there is an old, tired, standard cliché that “Good help is hard to find.” It’s unfortunate, but I’m proud to say that I think it’s just as true that good employers might not be that easy to find either…because I’ve found good employees.
Steve Williams and I drove to Tallahassee to pick up our liquor license in 1982 (before then we just sold beer and wine). I’ve been counting on him for 37 years, and he’s never let me down. Through thick and thin and some very, very strange times, Stevie and I have been together.
Jailune McCormick (Mama Dang) showed up in our kitchen in 1982, and she’s never left. She’s responsible for many things including our #4 special, Pad Thai and Garlic Pork, for which I will always be indebted. We’ve served over 1,400,000 of her spring rolls. They’re the best in the world.
Ann Jones came to Harbor Docks from the Holiday Inn in 1983. She has been in charge of our blue-plate specials and spectacular bread pudding for 36 years. She is also responsible for our version of Thanksgiving. We have served over 35,000 Thanksgiving dinners—at no charge—over the past 25 years, and we’ve raised over $375,000 for Habitat for Humanity and Destin Harvest through the generosity of our guests. That is because of Ann Jones.
Mike Seevers came to Harbor Docks in 1984. I thought he was a martial arts specialist and that he might come in handy in the case of a bar fight. I’ve never seen him perform a karate kick, but I’ve also never seen him miss a day of work or show up late or be rude to a customer. Pretty good for 35 years.
Jackie Tway migrated here from Viet Nam and started as a 14-year-old bus girl who barely spoke English. I don’t think there is a single thing that she can’t do in the restaurant business—there’s not much that scares her—and whether it’s in the kitchen or on the floor or in the office, if she can’t do something she’ll figure it out.
Yoshia Eddings started rolling sushi in 1992. She has educated an entire region on the joys of sushi, and it wasn’t easy back then. She’s fed movie stars and fishermen and construction workers and treated everyone like royalty. She has also generously trained a legion of sushi chefs who have gone on to restaurants around the country.
Duster Strawbridge has been a rock in our kitchen for 27 years. He’s directed a staff, and kept fresh seafood coming off of a small line through blistering summer after summer. I don’t think he has ever missed a day, and I’ve never heard him complain. Not once.
Sunshine McCollester came to us from Indian Bayou more than 20 years ago, and she has been waiting on many of the same customers that whole time. Sometimes we have to turn the lights up in the dining room so Sunshine can read the menus, but we can handle that, partly because she has always taken care of employees who have become homebound because of poor health.
Then there are Shannon Johnson and Tony Martin, who have run our seafood market since 1985. It’s the only job they’ve ever had, and they work in a crusty environment and a difficult and stressful industry. They’ve been finding—and selling—fresh seafood their entire adult lives.
Three of these women were immigrants to this country. They became citizens after they got here. My son Chatham took Dang to vote three years ago with Dang waving the American flag the whole time. I wave the flag for them and give thanks every day that they are my friends.
We have so many other dedicated people at Harbor Docks. I am grateful for every one of them. We’ve lost remarkably few employees over the years because, of course, things don’t always work out. The main reason we’ve lost people has been over virtually the only requirement we have. Our workers have to be on time.
We’ve hosted too many different events at Harbor Docks for me to remember. Musicians from all over the country and all genres have played here. We’ve had magicians and dinner theater. We’ve hosted celebrities from all walks of life.
Harbor Docks has provided a platform for political candidates seeking local and statewide office, and for President Bill Clinton. Most of our political gatherings have been for Democrats, and in the most conservative area of our state, we have managed to survive.
I’m almost as proud of our customers as I am of our employees. When you are open to the public, you never know who is going to come through your front door. We’ve had people from every walk of life join us in our restaurant.
We’ve celebrated births, engagements, weddings, promotions and victories. We’ve comforted friends who were sick, broken and sad, and many who suffered losses. In 40 years, you’re going to lose some people, and we’ve lost some very close friends. Most of my friends today are either people I met at Harbor Docks or the people I have worked with.
Through our Thanksgiving dinners, Destin Harvest, and American Lunch, we have fed lots of hungry people over the years. Over 25 years, we’ve helped to take 7,500 kids fishing on the first Sunday of November. We’ve been a part of numerous fundraisers to increase recreational opportunities for our children.
None of our endeavors for the betterment of Destin and for the feeding of less fortunate people would come under the heading of that worn out phrase “Giving back to the community.” We’ve always assumed that we were the community. Basically, we’ve been giving back to ourselves.
My son Eddie bought Harbor Docks earlier this year. His brother and two sisters are his partners. He’ll do a wonderful job, and he doesn’t have to ask me for any tips on running a restaurant. He already knows.
One foot in front of the other. Deep breaths. And don’t forget—be on time.