North Carolina’s 322 miles of ocean shoreline accounts for a massive slice of the seafood industry pie, with fishermen reeling in an estimated 45.8 million to 53 million pounds valued at $77.9 million to $86.6 million from 2016 to 2019, according to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. A recent study from the N.C. Sea Grant found that the state’s wild-caught seafood industry contributes nearly $300 million to the economy and about 5,500 jobs. But environmental experts say the only way to maintain the supply to meet the strong demand is through sustainable fishing practices.
Wilmington-based seafood chain Shuckin’ Shack says it’s consciously balancing building business and sustainability through key initiatives such as its oyster shell recycling program, Skip the Straw Campaign, certified ocean-friendly establishments, elimination of single-use plastic and as a member of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition. Founded in Carolina Beach in 2007 in a 900-square foot building, Shuckin’ Shack started franchising in 2014 and now has 17 locations in the Carolinas, Georgia, Maryland and Florida.
“The company grew out of a vision for a local establishment that would appeal to families of all ages where people can come together to enjoy fresh, delicious meals and fun and creative cocktails in a relaxed and welcoming environment,” says COO Bill Bartlett. “Now, we’re really making waves in the industry. There are no other national oyster bar concepts. We are blazing a path and setting the tone with our innovative menu and high-quality food options.”
I recently spoke to Bartlett about the company’s history, growth and ongoing sustainability efforts. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Where is Shuckin’ Shack located?
Shuckin’ Shack has 17 locations. In North Carolina, there are restaurants in Carolina Beach, Durham, Hickory, Jacksonville, Leland, Morehead City, Raleigh, Salisbury, Wilmington and Surf City. In South Carolina, we have restaurants in West Ashley, Easley, Greenville and Summerville. We also have locations in Cumming, Ga., Frederick, Md. and Ocala, Fla.
What’s your background, and how did you get involved with Shuckin’ Shack?
I began working with Shuckin’ Shack in 2018 as vice president of operations, but I have spent my life working in the hospitality industry, performing every job that you can possibly think of. Throughout my career, I have opened more than 160 restaurants around the world and have led companies of all sizes (from 10 employees to over 8,000). At Shuckin’ Shack, I was drawn to the simple yet effective restaurant model in addition to the brand’s continued commitment to sustainability. It was clear that this was a company that was doing something different and really innovative within the industry, and I wanted to be a part of it.
If you had to define Shuckin’ Shack using three words, what would they be and why?
Engaging, quality and experience. We actually engage with our guests and try our best to fulfill their needs. Quality is in everything that we do — from the food and the drinks to the overall atmosphere of our restaurants. We provide not only a chance to dine out but an experience like going to the beach or taking a vacation, even if it’s only for a few hours.
Tell us about Shuckin’ Shack’s oyster shell recycling program?
We recycle our oyster shells in every location that the recycling program is available to us. We feel strongly about giving back to the ocean that supplies us with the fresh seafood that we serve and gives us our livelihood. By recycling the oyster shells (which are turned into artificial reefs and returned to the ocean), it helps to refresh the water and make more oyster beds for the future.
What are some other sustainable practices that Shuckin’ Shack follows?
All of our restaurants participate in a Skip the Straw Initiative where we only offer straws upon request, and all straws are either reusable or biodegradable. We also focus on using sustainable products — all of our to-go containers are recyclable, and we are doing our part to help reduce single-use plastic whenever possible. We feel strongly about keeping our oceans and all areas clean from harmful plastics that are ruining our environment and marine life. Additionally, we have 10 locations that are certified Ocean Friendly Establishments, and we are on track to have all of our locations as certified Ocean Friendly Establishments by 2022.
Where do you see Shuckin’ Shack in five years?
We see ourselves as a major force in the franchise industry. We offer an affordable partnership and give our franchisees the opportunity to flourish in the full-service hospitality restaurant segment.
What’s your favorite menu item?
Our Chargrilled Oysters, both the Jalapeno Cheddar and the Parmesan Garlic. If you’re new to oysters, this is the perfect point of entry.