Jimmy’s Seafood Buffet Celebrates 20th Anniversary [Interview]
An Outer Banks landmark and favorite among locals and visitors alike, Jimmy’s Seafood Buffet in Kitty Hawk is celebrating its 20th anniversary year in 2019.
OBX Entertainment‘s Sue Artz recently sat down with Jimmy’s owner Liz Dowless on the occasion of her restaurant’s two-decade milestone, to discuss how she first landed on the Outer Banks, how she came to open Jimmy’s with her late husband, Jerry, in 1999, and the challenges of being a successful business owner and female on the Outer Banks.
Read on for our exclusive interview with Jimmy’s Seafood Buffet owner Liz Dowless.
What brought you to the Outer Banks? Had you ever been here before?
Yes. We would vacation here. My family would take us (to the Outer Banks) when we were little growing up. They had a house on the sound. We started coming I think in the late ‘70s.
Where are you from originally?
Maryland. I started coming here when I was in college, staying in that house, working in restaurants.
Did you meet your husband, Jerry, here or back in Maryland?
Here. He was waiting tables with me at Port O’ Call.
So you did have some restaurant experience. Was it just at Port O’ Call?
No, when I was in high school I started working like hostessing and waiting tables. I always loved it. I really did. I did it when I was in college and stuff like that.
So you met your husband here after you moved here, and he was working with you at Port O’ Call. How long were you together before opening Jimmy’s?
What happened was I was in college, and I came here and waited tables in the summer. Then when I graduated, we went to Maryland. That’s where we got married. We were there, and then the owner of Port O’ Call, Frank Gajar, he asked if he (Jerry) would come back and run his bar, like start putting bands in there, because he had history with that. So we came back and started doing that. That’s how we wound up back here. That was in 1991.
We did Atlantis after Port O’ Call. We ran a bar down in Nags Head on the beach called The Atlantis Beach Club. We did that from ’93 through ’96. Then they sold the property we had been leasing.
After that, Frank owned George’s Junction, which was a seafood buffet, and he asked Jerry to come and run it. So he did that for a couple years, and then he was approached by Jim Douglas, who owns Chili Peppers, to see if he wanted to partner in a seafood buffet. So he and David Watson from Southern Shores Realty and Jerry did a partnership for Jimmy’s. That’s how it all came about.
We opened on June 27, 1999.
I know your husband passed away suddenly in 2003.
We had already bought them out. So it was just me and him when he passed away. We bought them out that May of 2003, and then it was August 14th when he passed away. It was really quick.
Then you made a decision to keep the restaurant going.
I was like, ‘I’m definitely going to do it’, because I had spent my whole life in restaurants. I had a passion for it, and I thought, ‘This is what we were going to do, so I’m going to do it’.
So you didn’t even hesitate then to carry on.
No, I knew definitely this is what I should do. I remember Jim Douglas said if I wanted they would buy it back or something, and I remember Jerry’s mom telling me, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t do it’, and I said, ‘No, I feel like this is what I’m supposed to do’.
I know from our previous interview with the staff last year that a lot of them have been with you for a long time.
Even though we had bought the partners out, it was the same crew, so it wasn’t like I was starting over. They were already established.
Did you face many challenges starting out as a woman business owner here on the Outer Banks?
Yeah, it was challenging. Just first of all doing the ordering, working with the guys in the kitchen, because I mostly had worked in the front of the house. So I had to do a lot of changes to the way they would order and stuff like that. At first they were like, ‘What is she doing?’, and then they were like, ‘This is so easy. Why didn’t we do this before?’, because they would write it on a notepad when they ran out of things. I said we were going to do inventory and then I’ll know what we have and we don’t run out of things.
Then, as I got busy, I found that a lot of people in the town were like bullying me and coming at me. They forced me to put in a new sprinkler system when I remodeled, and I know it was because I was a woman and I was busy. The economy started to go down and they were trying to put people to work under my money, so they made me put in a $350,000 sprinkler system. They told me in the beginning that I didn’t need it, because I had under a hundred seats. Then at the end, they made me put it in, so it delayed me from reopening until Memorial Day when I was supposed to open in March that year.
So yeah, there have been some challenges. Some of the food vendors try to treat you different.
I’m sure the back of the house was mostly men. Did you find that you had to be tougher on them?
It’s a little challenging finding the line without making them angry. A lot of times I’ll use sarcasm to get things across. They know what I mean when I joke about it. But it’s always been like family though. Everybody kind of takes care of each other. I try to make it not a real up tight work environment, but yet get the job done. You’ve got to get it done, but it doesn’t have to be miserable. You can have fun.
Something we’ve found from interviewing a number of local restaurant owners is that you have to be there pretty much all the time if you want it to run right. And it’s also important to have your core people that have been with you for years.
It is good. I have so many dependable people, like Matt and Jimmy in the kitchen, they’ve been around forever. I’ve got some really good people.
Have you always only been open six months a year or have you ever tried to stay open a little longer?
One year, it was the first flight centennial anniversary in 2003, everybody was like, ‘Oh, that December is going to be so crazy’, so I thought about doing it, but when you’ve got a buffet, it’s not a good idea. You don’t want the food sitting out too long, you want it constantly moving or you want to be closed. I thought about doing just meals, but it just seemed like if it wasn’t the buffet then it wasn’t the right thing, so I didn’t do it.
So do you find now that depending on the time of year or day of the week you know what to expect?
It’s so crazy, but I know what to expect for the day from the records and studying the patterns that develop. And also it’s funny how at the end of the night I know where to cut back and what to keep full, how much to have out so the waste is a lot less. But it’s just so much being there and working it to learn it. It’s hard, but you figure it out after a time and get it down to a science.
Do you have any pet peeves as far as food waste goes?
I hate when people just get desserts, tons of desserts, and don’t eat them. The pies take so much time, and then you see people literally get one of everything and they don’t even take bites of some of them. It’s awful to watch. Or the crab legs, they don’t know how to eat them.
So, we asked your staff last year, but what is your personal favorite thing on the buffet?
I really like all the fresh fish, the tuna and the salmon, the mahi. I love all the fresh fish. I love to put it on top of a salad. I love the cream spinach. I like to put it in an ice cream bowl. And of course the crab legs, but I don’t really ever eat them.
When we started we just had snow crab legs, and I was like, ‘We should try a couple different types’. So on my 10-year anniversary, I did 10 types of crab legs the whole summer. My staff wanted to kill me. It was so much work, but it was so busy.
I think my favorite has got to be the lobster tails. It’s crazy how people tailgate in your parking lot before you open most nights.
I know. This past Wednesday, they started arriving at 1:00, and then at 1:15 there were about five cars, and by the time we opened, the line was zig-zagging through and we had a waiting list within 10 minutes, which makes it pretty crazy.
So for this year’s 20th anniversary are you going to have 20 different kinds of crab legs?
That many don’t exist, or I would if they did.
What’s your favorite thing to do on the Outer Banks on your day off?
I don’t take a day off when I’m open, but my favorite thing, like everybody else, is to go to the beach. I love the beach. I love going in the water, I love lying in the sand. I love everything about the beach. That’s my favorite thing to do. I love it even more if I can do it with my kids.
How old are your kids?
Sophia is 18. She’s my youngest. My oldest son is 27, and my other son is 23. He’s waiting tables (at Jimmy’s).
Some day do you think you’ll hand the business down to your kids?
I don’t think they want it. I’ll probably just sell it. They see how much work it is. They don’t have the passion for it that I do. Maybe Jason would, but I know Shane doesn’t and Sophia definitely does not. She cashiers and waits tables (at Jimmy’s) now that she’s 18, but she’s more into the arts.
Do you ever think about how your husband would feel if he could see you and what you’ve done with Jimmy’s now?
He would be so proud of it.
Sometimes I just sit here and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this is mine. We did this. We made this.’
You can watch our video from Opening Day 2018 at Jimmy’s below.