For weeks, the owners of Nannie’s Fish Camp & Chicken Champ threw a big party to celebrate the opening of the new Fallston restaurant, but it turns out that life had other plans.
Johnny Ray and Tyler Jones, who run the popular Honey Hog farm-to-table restaurant just three miles down the road, were due to start serving baskets of fried chicken and fish with neighboring co-owner Steve, but the day before their opening, all restaurant dining rooms were closed on orders from the North Carolina governor’s office as the state tried to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Nannies, named after Jones’ grandmother who ran a cafe in Tennessee, offers fish baskets, hand-breaded fried shrimp, Po Boys and fish sandwiches, fried chicken, fillets, soups and accompaniments.
âWe opened here the day after the dining rooms closed,â Steve said. âEveryone said we were crazy for doing what we did. “
Despite the bad timing, Steve says – knocking on wood – that they’ve been wide open since they started serving customers a few weeks ago.
Due to the unique circumstances, the original inauguration they had planned had to be postponed. Instead, they spent the first month serving customers solely on a donation basis.
From Sunday they started operating as a traditional restaurant with fixed prices, but before that it was the pay you can get.
âThe way we’ve opened up is the toss,â Steve said. âWe functioned like a soup kitchen.
He said it was a good opportunity for them to show their appreciation and support to the community during the difficult days.
He said they had a recommended minimum donation, but a lot of people went above and beyond. The trio said that recently Dan Forest, Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina, came to the restaurant and made a donation. These additional donations enabled them to provide free meals to first responders and those in need.
Steve said he had been a paramedic for many years and that his old profession was still close to his heart.
âBetween me, Tyler and Johnny Ray, we’ve all agreed that once we’re done with an operating donation kitchen, we’re going to distribute to local charities,â Steve said.
One of the charities that have received their support is Feeding Kids Cleveland County.
âThe idea was to keep people working and feeding people and all of the above would go to charity,â Johnny Ray said.
âIt was a bit of a crazy start,â Steve said.
Johnny Ray said that despite the unexpected start, it turned out to be the perfect smooth opening. This allowed them to start up and hire and train staff while serving the community.
Johnny Ray said they created four or five jobs to start with and more should follow.
Jones said the current crisis had a silver lining. It allowed people to see that Nannie’s is focused on community connections, and it also benefited the staff and owners and allowed them to grow their restaurant.
Johnny Ray said the donation-based opening was so successful that they saw it as a future business model for other companies to come.
âIt’s good for everyone,â Jones said.
Emphasis on being good neighbors fostered strong bonds in the community
The Honey Hog Restaurant has been a hit with residents of Cleveland County and those beyond. Johnny Ray and Jones have a strong social media presence and regularly post mouth-watering photos and videos of their menu options, as well as live Facebook videos of their farm, where most of their produce comes from, and daily operations of the restaurant.
Nannie’s Fish Camp and Chicken Champ also has a Facebook page.
The small restaurant has a strong country style with an emphasis on the local. The cedar poles inside and out were from Jones’ farm. Frying pans and old license plates decorate the walls, and dozens of photos hang on one wall.
Tyler said the photos were from neighbors, friends, locals and family.
He shows a photo of himself fishing in a Missouri pond. His own son is shown fishing for catfish in the same spot.
Johnny Ray said they encourage people to bring their own photos, and have them framed and added to the wall.
âIf you have a photo of your grandma cooking fried chicken or fishing yourself, give us a copy and we’ll frame it,â he said.