Longtime visitors to Hatteras village may notice a local landmark missing on their next trip to the southern end of the island – namely, the former Channel Bass restaurant.
Originally opened in the late 1950s, the Channel Bass was one of the first restaurants in Hatteras village, and was established even before the Bonner Bridge and a fully paved Highway 12 was added to the island landscape.
Jackie Harrison, who owned the restaurant for nearly 40 years with his wife Shelby and two daughters, says he isn’t too sad about the structure’s removal. “I’ve known about it for about six months, so I’m not too surprised,” says Jackie. “I’m actually glad to see it being torn down, because in the last 4-5 years, it got to be an eyesore.”
But despite a lack of surprise at the structure’s removal, Jackie and his daughters – Brenda and Debbie – nevertheless have decades of fond memories of the Channel Bass, and the notoriety it had on a national scale.
“We used to travel to places in the wintertime, and when the girls came along, they would wear shirts with the name ‘Channel Bass,’” he says. “Then we’d be standing in line in Las Vegas or somewhere, and people would come up to our two daughters and say ‘We’ve eaten at that place!’ It happened in Florida,
New Orleans – everywhere we went, someone would come up and say ‘we ate at that place.’ We got to be really well known.”
The Channel Bass opened around 1958, and Jackie and his family bought the restaurant in 1965.
At the time, Jackie was in the automobile business in Newport News, VA, but he followed his parents to Hatteras village. “I was looking for something to get into in the summer months,” he says. “Channel Bass came up for sale, and we bought it after two weeks of talking to people.”
At the time, Jackie estimates that there were four restaurants in the area – which includes Sonny’s and the Quarterdeck – and the Channel Bass was already an established eatery for the handful of visitors who made the trek south.
The Harrisons kept the name Channel Bass after they bought it, and though it was a quick sale, the restaurant was not necessarily an overnight success. With a sparse visitor population, Jackie estimates that in the first couple of years, the family made about $6,000 annually.
“The first year, we tried opening in winter. The second year, we did the same thing, and we found that it was a disaster,” says Jackie. “So after the first couple of years, we quit opening in the wintertime.”
Over the next four decades, the Harrisons made a lot of tweaks to the Channel Bass – which included multiple remodels.
“[Running the restaurant] was something that we enjoyed doing, and I kept doing research,” says Jackie. “For the first few years, Shelby and I would go to Norfolk, and wherever I went, I ended up in a [restaurant] kitchen talking to people to see how they did things – the equipment they were using, their menus – and that went on for 5-6 years.”
The research certainly helped build the Channel Bass business, but so did the food.
For decades, the Channel Bass only served seafood that was caught by local anglers. “Most of the fish came right off the boats,” says Jackie’s daughter Debbie. “It was nothing but Hatteras style seafood, and the food was impeccable. [Fishermen] would come into the village marinas, get fish in the cooler, and then bring it right to our back door.”
The series of remodels and fresh seafood brought the crowds, and as Hatteras village grew in popularity, so did the Channel Bass restaurant. There were plenty of expansions and hiccups along the way – like a devastating hurricane in 1973 that caused interior flooding, or a large remodel in 1977 – but the Channel
Bass always remained a family affair.
“My daughters grew up with the restaurant,” says Jackie, “and my wife Shelby was the backbone and spirit of the restaurant. With my two daughters, my wife, and I, we were open seven days a week until the last 2-3 years.”
Nearing retirement, the Harrisons sold the Channel Bass in 2003 and leased the property for the remainder of the summer season. When Isabel hit Hatteras village in September of 2003 – damaging the Channel Bass and destroying Jackie’s house – they retired from the restaurant business for good.
Isabel also took a lot of memories from the Channel Bass, which included photos of the original structure and four decades of memorabilia. But there are still plenty of fond moments from the restaurant’s heyday for both Jackie and his daughters.
“We were very popular,” says Jackie. “80-90% of our business was regular customers, and their families and kids. And we were a family business – Debbie used to have to use a Coca Cola crate to get up to the cash register.”
The eventual plans for the site are still unknown – (condos are a possibility) – but for many locals and longtime residents, the plot of land next to the creek in Hatteras village will always be the home of the Channel Bass. Thanks to Jackie and his family, the restaurant that they owned for nearly 40 years has left an undeniable mark.
“I miss the people and the business itself,” says Jackie. “We met a lot of awful nice people. Every now and then, you’d have a complainer, but most of the time people would love the food. It was a pleasure to serve great food and see people enjoy it.”
“On behalf of us all, it will always make us proud to be the Channel Bass family,” says daughter Brenda. “As most would say, there was only one Channel Bass for Hatteras.”