EMERALD ISLE — Two owners of a restaurant in Emerald Isle are so far defying their property owner’s lawsuit to get them to reopen the business on Sundays.
Chris Johns, co-owner of RuckerJohns, a popular canal-front eatery with indoor and outdoor seating in Emerald Isle, said Monday he was caught “out in left field” when he received a phone call last week from York Properties of Raleigh, the owner of the shopping center and his lessor. The representative on the phone call reportedly told him RuckerJohns would be sued for violating its lease requirement to always be open on Sunday.
A few days later, Mr. Johns said he was served papers.
“I had no idea they would react this way,” he said. “We were just trying to do something good for our employees.”
The Sunday closure was aimed at giving employees slammed by heavy business and staff shortages in the wake of the lessening of the coronavirus pandemic time off, he said.
York Properties reportedly asked Mr. Johns to pick a different day to close, but he refused.
“Our goal was to make our employees happy,” he told the News-Times Monday. “Sunday is by far the day employees most request to be off, so we thought it was the right decision, something nice for them.”
So far, he said customers have reacted well to the publicity over his decision to remain closed on Sunday.
“We’ve been busy,” he said Monday. “Customers have been appreciative of what we’ve done for the employees.”
In addition, Mr. Johns said there appears to him to be little difference in business on any day of the week this time of year, when Emerald Isle is full of tourists.
He said the restaurant’s lease of its space in the shopping center expires in 2027 and moving elsewhere would be a “tall order” because of the lack of sewage service in the town. The shopping center, Emerald Plantation, is served by a private package sewage treatment plant built for that development.
York Properties did not immediately respond Monday to phone calls and emails from the News-Times seeking information about whether other businesses in the center close on Sundays and what action might be taken against RuckerJohns.
The suit, Emerald Plantation v. RuckerJohns Inc. and Christopher Johns, was filed in Wake County civil court. York Properties is represented by attorney Nelson Harris of Raleigh.
Mr. Johns said Monday he has hired an attorney who reportedly told him not to publicly discuss any details of the lawsuit. He did not name his attorney, and the civil division of the Wake County Clerk of Court’s office said the suit does not list an attorney for Mr. Johns.
Debbie Rucker, co-owner of the restaurant, noted in a Sunday interview with the News-Times the staff has been working overtime as a result of the pandemic. The management team, she said, was fearful the cooks and wait staff at the Emerald Isle and Wilmington locations could not keep the current pace.
The Wilmington restaurant is also now closed on Sundays.
Ms. Rucker noted Sunday is a very profitable day for the restaurant, and said they pay their rent regardless of what days it operates. She also claimed there are numerous stores in the Emerald Plantation Shopping Center closed Sundays.
Mr. Johns said he plans to stick with the Sunday closure.
“I understand (York Properties) have been getting slammed on social media and with phone calls,” he said. “Hopefully, they will change their mind.”
Mr. Johns said he knows some businesses in the center are closed on Sundays, but he did not know which ones. He said he’s not privy to leases other than his own.
RuckerJohns is not the only restaurant in Emerald Isle with overworked employees and a thin staff.
Kathy Jasso, general manager of Trade Winds in Emerald Isle, said that restaurant basically sets its hours on the fly these days.
“We have to game plan every day,” she said. “We try to be as consistent as we can, but it’s not easy. We announce any changes on social media.”
She said she hopes the situation will improve as the summer progresses.
Mike Stanley, owner of Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier in Emerald Isle, said the Surf’s Up restaurant there appears to have few problems, except sometimes a low number of breakfast staff. Mr. Stanley doesn’t own the eatery but leases the building to the business owners.
At the other end of Carteret County in Morehead City and Beaufort, Joe Stroud owns two restaurants, Tight Lines and Queen Anne’s Revenge, which is not yet open after relocating.
He said Tight Lines, his bar and grill on Arendell Street in downtown Morehead City, “is well-staffed,” mostly with relatively longtime and loyal employees.
“I feel very fortunate, Mr. Stroud said. “There’s some turnover, a few people come and go, but not excessive.”
He said he is having to pay people more than in the past.
For Queen Anne’s Revenge on Front Street in Beaufort, he said things are not quite as good, so far.
“We have most of our bar staff hired and about half of our wait staff,” he said. “The shortage is cooks,” and that’s true pretty much everywhere, he added.
Mr. Stroud said he understands it’s a tough job, long hours in a hot kitchen and restaurant pay traditionally hasn’t been good.
According to the N.C. Department of Labor website, the minimum wage in North Carolina is $7.25 an hour. The minimum wage in the state for employees who work for tips, including many restaurant and bar workers, is $2.13 per hour.
“There are two theories” about the current problem, Mr. Stroud said. “Labor shortage and wage shortage.”
There are other issues involved, as well, including but not limited to unemployment benefits and, in most cases, a lack of traditional benefits like health and dental insurance.
Many of the people who move to Carteret County are retired and don’t want to work, he said, and it’s a hard place for young workers to live.
“It’s hard for them to find a place to live,” he said, and when they do, the rent is high.
“In the past, we used to get a lot of college kids coming here to work. Three or four would rent a house and have a good summer. I don’t think you see much of that anymore,” he concluded.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.