March 20, 2012

A new season brings some changes to Ocracoke businesses


The sounds of spring—hammering and sawing—are in the air on Ocracoke, and visitors will notice some changes in island businesses.

 George and Janille Turner have been busy the last couple of months giving a facelift to their new restaurant, the Topless Oyster, along Irvin Garrish Highway in the former Jimmy’s Buffet, which had been Captain Ben’s for many years before that.

Oysters of all types will be a featured part of the menu, as well as some new foods to the island, says George, including low-country boil, authentic North Carolina barbecue, and George’s “killer Mexican salsa,” and his famous crab cakes, for which he has won “The Taste of the Bayou” contest.

“We’re also bringing back prime rib because people have asked for it,” George says.  “And we’ll have some of the items that used to be on the Captain Ben’s menu.”

The Turners are happy to be back in Ocracoke, where they lived for many years before moving to Dauphin Island, Ala., in 2007.  It is an island almost exactly like Ocracoke, Janille said as she added a coat of fresh paint to cabinet doors in the bar.

Dauphin Island, however, does have a bridge as well as ferry access.

But they longed to return to Ocracoke, and about a month before the BP oil spill, they put their Topless Oyster Raw Bar and Grill on the market.

“The oil spill took all the oysters away,” Janille says. “Businesses were dropping like flies.”

Joe returned to Ocracoke to manage the Jolly Roger while Janille stayed in Alabama for 11 months.  When Jimmy’s Buffet closed, they found their chance to fulfill their dream of owning a restaurant on Ocracoke.

The colorful new sign out front depicts local oyster catcher, Rex O’Neal.

“He’s a pillar of the community,” Janille says with a laugh, adding that the blue color they are painting the bar area is the color of Rex’s jacket.

The Topless Oyster Restaurant expects to be open any day now, as does the revamped Ocracoke Coffee Co., under new management by the husband-and-wife team of Justin and Joelle LeBlanc.

The LeBlancs, along with building owners Garrick and Jacqui Kalna, also have been busy the last several weeks giving a facelift to the popular gathering spot at Back Road and Sunset Drive.

There are new ceiling fans, a new ceiling, fresh paint, redone floors, and a new bathroom, among other improvements and personal touches.

“But we’ll have the same menu and the same crew” notes Justin between the myriad tasks of renovation, and they will be open the same hours.

We are excited to be here,” said Joelle, noting it is a dream come true for them, too. They had met the Kalnas several years ago and became friends.

After spending more vacation time on Ocracoke, the the LeBlancs, from Bethesda, Md., wanted to move to the island.

“It was serendipitous,” Justin says.  “Garrick and Jacqui knew we were itching to get here.  Over a couple of beers we agreed that this could work.”

A former elementary school learning specialist, Joelle said they moved to the island last June.

“The day school ended, we packed up and drove down,” she said.

The Kalnas will keep their island home but are heading to Aspen, Colo., before school starts to spend the year there.

“We’re just going to see how the year plays out,” says Jacqui.  “It will be an adventure.”

Islanders are disappointed that the Community Store closed in February after having been reopened in 2008 by Susan and James Paul.

The Pauls will concentrate on their ice cream shop across the parking lot.

In the meantime, David Senseney, owner of Community Square , and the Ocracoke Foundation, to whom Senseney signed a letter of intent to sell the entire square, will work together to get the store up and running.

“We want it to be a store,” notes Robin Payne, executive director of the Ocracoke Foundation.  “I worry about the village down here losing its human vitality.”

At grocery stores, locals and tourists connect, she says. That’s what she wants to retain.

“With the Community Center Project, everything’s about the waterfront and the store,” she said.

Management of the Silver Lake Motel and Inn has transferred to Ocracoke Island Realty, noted owner Peggy Wrobleski.

The lodging is undergoing a spring facelift and cleaning to be ready for opening before Easter.  The Jolly Roger, which she also owns, will open mid-April as weather permits. Most other island businesses should be open by Easter.

Laura Death, who has worked at the Ocracoke gas station for the last five years, is now managing the business as of Feb. 1.

She has extended the store’s open hours, added an arcade game, some lunch specials, WiFi, and adopted the cappuccino machine from the Community Store.  The station also will offer “offshore box lunches” for charter fishing folks and anyone else.

“We’re trying some new things,” she said.

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