Emerald Isle’s RuckerJohns remains closed on Sundays amid lawsuit with landlord

Diners in outdoor seating prepare to order Monday morning at RuckerJohns in Emerald Isle. The restaurant is being sued by landlord York Properties for being closed on Sundays. (Brad Rich photo)

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 brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.

(12) comments


nice for employees or not the bottom line is RJ signed a lease, legal agreements exist for a reason. rent an apartment with a no pets clause and move in your pets what should happen? The fact that your family loves the pets or "its nice" for them has no bearing. Society ( such as it is) is based on laws and rules and you don't get to just follow the ones that suit you. To be fair RJ could be open on Sundays meet the terms of the lease but only have 2 staff on duty and only offer cold coffee and boiled liver to eat. perhaps then with community support they could renegotiate the lease terms.


Normally I’d be in total agreement with you, except we are still in a bit of unprecedented times. There are still too many people unwilling or unable to work, leaving businesses extremely short handed and employees overworked. If small businesses run the already short handed staff into the ground, they’re liable to lose them, and end up having to close the doors completely, for good. Over this past year and a half, changes and exceptions to contracts already in place, have had to happen on a regular basis. I do find it quite greedy of the property owner to not allow for this small change when the restaurant is only trying to show a little mercy to what little loyal and overworked staff they do have. Anyone with a little business sense would gladly lose one day of being open vice risking losing the whole operation.


Has this always been in the contract? Is the shopping center under new ownership? Either way; these guys are doing what they feel is right for them. More power to them. My thought? Even though it will cost them plenty [and it's the wrong time of year to do this] but they need to look for a stand alone building and move to it!


Oh, they signed a lease that basically places the landlord in charge of their lifestyles, not smart. (i am having trouble digesting this nugget).

(Edited by staff.)


Equal treatment under the law?? I wonder. Are all leases treated the same way?? No - some close Sundays. Playing by Paxton rules.


This seems really petty on the part of York Properties. I mean sure, the lease says what it says; I get that argument. But I don't see the harm in letting the restaurant close on Sundays if that's what they want to do.


This is a tough one. They did sign the lease, with the requirements in place. And it is unusual times, hard to fill positions.

However this is not a standalone location, it's a strip mall. When they close, the reduce the overall traffic to the entire strip mall, negatively impacting the neighboring businesses. Who are abiding by the rules of their lease. If I owned a neighboring business, I'd be furious.

How many of those tourists waiting for a table would have been shopping next door.

If they simply can't find the help, the costs of upping the pay to attract workers will have to be balanced against potential costs of losing a lease or paying damages to the landlord.

Mr. Tom Slick

Face it for what it is.....

Mr. Tom Slick

I fully support Ruckerjohns and their decision to close on Sundays. Lets face the facts. York Properties is on trying to use bully tactics. Chris and Polly can close anytime they choose. They pay their rent and they take good care of their employees.

Big Fat Drunk Republican

This is a tough one.

Seems York properties is covering their liability from the other lease holders that tie into this one.

I’ve heard leases are contingent upon Food Lion, Rucker John’s and other hub tenants.

In other words York doesn’t want to get sued by others claiming they failed the contracts.

In this environment others, including York and who is complaining should be glad Emerald Isle has had the lions share of tourism for the last year.

Emerald plantation foot traffic is not hurting. Especially during summer months. The Sunday closing makes the most sense.

Every other restaurant in town is closed on Monday. We are thankful Rucker John’s is open to give us at least one evening option. The one or two restaurants that do open on Monday, close after lunch.. stinks it’s having to be handled with lawyers, but that could work out in the end if an agreement is reached legally.

I hope the owners of Rucker John’s get a fair resolution, and shame on York properties if the lawyer their way into an expensive ordeal.

The biggest takeaway I took from my time in DC working the K st, Penn Ave and 14th street blocks, the lawyers always win.


Wasn't so tough.


Of course RuckerJohn’s is having trouble staffing, they are only hiring cooks at $13/hour. Why would a cook take that job when they can make $15-16 in the same area?

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