LUMBERTON — After serving hungry folks for more than two decades, Charles Strickland has retired from the restaurant business — leaving those in search for a seafood fix floundering in uncertain waters.
On Oct. 21, he gathered all of his employees together, paid them what they were owed, and told them he was hanging the “Closed” sign. The Robesonian received several calls from people asking what had become of the seafood place at which they were loyal customers.
“I had been thinking about it for a while, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do, and I had just decided,” said Strickland, who lives in Laurinburg.
While Strickland said no one thing made up his mind, the restaurant’s cash pool was continuously being drained by ever-rising seafood costs, and the tide of usual customers had been stymied by the poor economy.
“We have a loyalty club where we can track our customers who sign up, and what they buy,” he said. “Where they used to come in twice a week or four times a week, they now come in once a week or once every few weeks. They say they just can’t afford to come out and eat anymore.
“We had a lot of loyal customers there and a lot of great experiences. But it just kept getting harder and harder until we decided to close down.”
According to Strickland, the restaurant has been serving Robeson County since 1977, when it was opened by Phil Davis. Davis, who later opened several locations, was schooled by Jimmy Parker, who founded the first Jimmy’s Seafood House in Lake Waccamaw.
Strickland was introduced to a hot stove at the age of 12, when he started working at a grill in Maxton after school. Later, when his family moved to McColl, S.C., he started working at a place called Rogers Drive-in, a “very, very busy place” that “sold more beer than anyone else in the state of South Carolina.”
In the late 1950s, with tips, Strickland made more than $100 a week — about $800 in today’s dollars.
“I did all right,” he said.
The restaurants were eventually bought by an investment company, which in turn hired a company to manage the restaurants — Scottish Food Systems, which also manages Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Inn. It was there that Strickland worked for 20 years.
“I had all kinds of titles, from a restaurant manager, to a multi-unit manager, restaurant supervisor, and then director of operations,” Strickland said.
“That’s all I’ve ever done … I believe it’s about time for me to get out of it. I’ve been in the business right at 55 years, ever since I was 12 years old, and now I’m going on 70.”
Strickland also served on the company’s board of directors, and developed and ran a management training school. He was on the board for the South Carolina Restaurant Association, and served on the South Carolina Nutrition Council.
When the investment company sold all its properties, all Jimmy’s Seafood Houses were sold off one by one. Strickland left his job and bought the Lumberton location in August 1990.
“Everyone else who bought one changed the name and changed the recipes,” he said. “But I kept Jimmy’s Seafood going.”
As Strickland ran the business, he married and introduced his daughter, Misty Strickland, to the operation. She worked with him for more than 20 years, he said, most recently as the restaurant’s manager. In his years in the restaurant business, Strickland said that while he learned things that carried over in other aspects of his life — like dedication and commitment to “do it right the first time” — he said that most of what he learned came through the people he met.
“I have always said if you want to learn, talk to seniors,” Strickland said. “We have a lot of senior citizens and I just loved them to death. I learned a lot from them.”
He learned from Edmund Pate, a majority owner in Scottish Food Systems, a four-step system to success.
“Number one, you’ve got to take care of your customers,” he said. “Number two, you’ve got to take care of your employees. Number three, you’ve got to take care of your suppliers. And if you do all of those things you’ll take care of number four, your shareholders.”
From a meeting with Colonel Sanders, KFC founder, that Strickland called “most pleasant,” he learned marketing.
“He was a character,” Strickland said. “When the photographer would start taking pictures he’d say ‘say cheese,’ and colonel would say ‘cheese, nothing, say chicken.’”
From his customers, Strickland learned loyalty.
“We had customers that used to come in there and sit in a high chair and now they’re coming in there with their grandchildren,” he said.
Because his patrons had given him so much, Strickland tried to give back. He said that the restaurant was selected as the most outstanding small company in North Carolina by the North Carolina Special Olympics, to which he had donated as much as $25,000 over the years.
“We really enjoyed helping them,” he said.
It wasn’t difficult to find people who loved going to Jimmy’s.
At about noon on Friday, Mary and Jesse Lamm, of Lumberton, pulled up in a gold sedan. The two said they had been coming for seemingly as long as the restaurant had been open, continuing a tradition of eating fish on Fridays.
“I always had the flounder, and he ordered shrimp,” Lamm said, jutting a thumb over at her husband, in the passenger’s seat. “We didn’t even have to tell them what we wanted. We walked in and they immediately placed our orders.
“We always sat right there, in the corner,” she said, pointing out of her open car door to a spot behind a window trimmed in red casing.
As Strickland and his wife Charcie stood in the parking lot, Jimmy Meares, of Bladenboro, drove up in a battered pick-up and asked if the restaurant were open.
“Where am I supposed to eat at now?” he said.
Strickland, without revealing who he was, laughed and told him, “I’ve been wondering the same thing.”
Strickland has also been wondering what he’ll do with his free time.
“I’ve got a big yard,” he said with a chuckle. “And I’ll probably get out and find something part-time to do. I won’t be sitting at home all the time.”
Asked if he misses his work, Strickland laughed again.
“I already do,” he said. “I already do.”