NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, July 8th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A family enterprise.
Many family-owned and operated restaurants took a hard hit during the coronavirus closedown. According to the National Restaurant Association, spending at our favorite eateries fell to the lowest level in 35 years.
WORLD correspondent Kim Henderson takes us now to meet some restaurateurs who are depending on their family traditions to find a way forward.
AUDIO: [BUSY RESTAURANT]
KIM HENDERSON, CORRESPONDENT: The Family Fish House is like a thousand other eateries found along country highways criss-crossing the South. A road sign beckons with a catfish image and promises of “all you can eat.” There’s a big gravel parking lot that fills up on Friday nights. Inside, framed bass and a full-mount bobcat round out the rustic decor.
AUDIO: [CUSTOMERS PLACING ORDER]
Customers line benches beside long, naturally distressed wood tables. Ceiling fans whir above the heads of kids wearing ball caps and families talking rodeo.
But the thing that sets this fish house apart is the staff. Everyone here is related to the Granger Family, from the short order cook to the matriarch manning the cash register.
Waitress Britney Guillory was 8 years old when her grandparents opened for business in 19-95.
GUILLORY: We named it the Family Fish House not only because all family works here, but the environment that we wanted to have is everybody that comes in is part of the family.
And the place has that sort of feel. It’s a community meeting spot, and customers like 84-year-old Doyle Byrd really missed coming during the pandemic.
BYRD: I’ve been waiting two months. I had a whetted appetite. I was ready to eat.
Command central at Family Fish House is a four-foot counter in the middle of the building. Its worn formica juts out from the kitchen into an area where waitresses like 18-year-old Julia Rose Ferguson fill orders.
JULIA ROSE: I am waiting on a 3-piece fillet and a 3-piece whole…
In the kitchen, things are hopping. Or, rather, frying. Catfish from the Delta. Oysters from Louisiana. French fries and hushpuppies, too. In a foodie culture that thrives on the avant garde, fish houses stand apart. They bank on a predictable menu of consistent favorites.
Ferguson’s cousin, Justin Curtis, says it’s really hot in the kitchen, but he manages.
CURTIS: You stay so busy you stay psyched—makes the night go fast.
Before COVID’s half-occupancy rules took effect, they could serve as many as 300 a night, according to co-owner and great-grandmother Shirley Granger. Every week she helps grate three sacks of cabbage for slaw, mix hushpuppies, cook turnip greens, and make tea.
GRANGER: I mean, everything’s like it’s in somebody’s kitchen. We don’t order this pre-cooked stuff. We do it ourselves, like old grandmas.
They also cut their own grass and clean the building every night after closing. It’s hard work built on an unlikely foundation: the death of a Granger daughter.
GRANGER: Jeanette’s dream was she’d open a fish house. Her twin sister Lynette, she and I talked about it and we decided we would carry her dream out. And here we are, 25 years later.
Lynette is now a co-owner. She runs the kitchen. And buys a lot of fish.
LYNETTE: We probably do from 250-275 pounds in three nights, and that’s rolling.
Naysayers cautioned the Granger crew about their plan to employ relatives.
GRANGER: My sister was one of them. She said, “Y’all will never, never make it, because family cannot work together.” I said, “Well, we’ll see.”
Granger’s great-granddaughter, Gracie, is 13.
AUDIO: [SOUND OF CLEARING THE TABLE]
She can clear a table in under 2 minutes. She has a tidy push cart with black plastic bins, and she has plans for her paycheck.
GRACIE: Well, we’re going on vacation. And I want a car, so I’m starting to save for that, too.
At a nearby table, Waitress Julia Rose is balancing a full tray in her left arm and a plate of crab legs with her right. Serving is physical work. She and her mom, Teresa, waitress together. They also shop for shoes together.
FERGUSON: We will probably try on 10 pairs to see if that’s the right one that’s going to get us through. You know, we don’t just say, “Oh, those are cute.” We go for comfort and what’s going to hold up on this concrete floor.
Julia Rose says her mom also gave her important advice about stamina of a different sort.
JULIA ROSE: How to be nice when it’s hard to be. You’ve got to be nice, even when they’re not nice to you.
And it’s not just customers. Teresa says they have to focus on maintaining right relationships within their family, too.
FERGUSON: Everything kind of gets chaotic, anything that happens here is left here. When we walk out of here, this was business. That’s still our family when we locked that back door and it’s the end of it. You know?
The restaurant’s viability was important to the family patriarch James Granger. He died just as they were hitting their stride.
FERGUSON: It was hard, but we knew he wanted us to keep these doors open and keep going…
Shirley Granger credits her husband’s early business decisions with the restaurant’s staying power. One decision in particular.
GRANGER: Some of us would go to church on Sundays, and some would open the restaurant and run it. My husband said, “You know, this is not right.” So we just went home and prayed about it, and we decided that we were going to close on Sundays. It’s paid off.
Ever since, the Granger bunch has spent Sunday afternoons at her house, where they don’t serve fish for lunch.
AUDIO: [SOUND OF ORDER PICKUP]
Because of the pandemic, the 25th anniversary of the fish house in May went without celebration. But Ferguson says June’s reopening was amazing.
TERESA: That was the best feeling. Even at 50 percent capacity, we’d take it. We wanted our people back…
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Hazlehurst, Mississippi.