Beaufort County restaurants wonder if Tropical Storm Irma took their hungry customers with her

Employees of Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks worked to reopen the restaurant just a week after it flooded during Tropical Storm Irma.
Employees of Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks worked to reopen the restaurant just a week after it flooded during Tropical Storm Irma. file photo

Most Hilton Head Island restaurants reopened soon after Tropical Storm Irma rolled away, but customers have been slow to return, several restaurants owners said Thursday.

Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks, for example, was flooded with storm surge but opened its doors only a week after the storm hit Sept. 11.

Andrew Carmines, Hudson’s owner, said Thursday he is uncertain why business has remained slow in the weeks after the storm. He said Thursday it has only started to pick back up this week.

“I was worried people didn’t know we were opened,” Carmines said. “I went to my daughter’s baseball game, and four people asked me if I was open.”

Hudson’s isn’t alone.

Cheap Seats Restaurant Group co-owner Rob Hummel said he has seen a slowdown at his restaurants on Hilton Head Island. This includes Cheap Seats and the newly opened Club Seats Grille.

“In general it seems like Hilton Head is slower than it has been in years’ past,” he said. “This morning I walked out the door and thought, ‘I wonder if people don’t want to come to Hilton Head in October because of the hurricane season.’ 

It used to be that tourist season came to a halt right after Labor Day, Carmines said. But in recent years that changed, and tourism has continued through the fall.

“For me, (the fall) is a good time of year for seafood,” Carmines said. “All of the shrimp and oysters are fresh and local, and swordfish is everywhere. The last two weeks in September and the month of October is why we live here.”

Carmine believes the fall season has started to attract a new type of Hilton Head tourist.

“This new group of empty-nesters are coming down to enjoy the prettiest month of the year,” he said. “This one group has changed the way business works on Hilton Head Island.”

He wondered, though, if the storm has kept tourists away.

Charlie Clark, Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce vice president of communications, said Thursday that the Town of Hilton Head Island specifically has a pool of money set aside for marketing after an event like Irma.

The chamber recently received $150,000 from that fund following Irma to market to the tourist population, Clark said.

“There is an economic storm that happens regardless if we take a direct hit,” Clark said. “That (pool of money) is there to let people know that Hilton Head Island is open for business.”

There have been 1,800 mentions of Hurricane Irma and Hilton Head Island in the national media, Clark said. This includes MSNBC and The Weather Channel.

She said a marketing campaign was quickly launched by the chamber following Irma to let visitors know that the island was ready for them.

“One of the best ways (to get visitors to come back) is with real-time images as soon as possible to show this is Hilton Head Island,” Clark said. “Sometimes The Weather Channel is not always the best for what is really happening on the ground.”

Tourists aren’t the only ones who haven’t been eating at Lowcountry restaurants as frequently.

The local population could be eating fewer meals out because of expenses they took on from preparing and evacuating for the storm.

One Bluffton commenter on Facebook said her family tightened their budget after Irma.

“We are still eating canned (food) that was bought for the storm,” she said. “And a branch busted my windshield, which was an unexpected bill, so no we have not dined out or shopped like we normally would.”

While some Facebook users said the storm didn’t affect them financially at all, numerous others agreed they haven’t been able to spend as much as usual these past few weeks.

“We foolishly evacuated,” one commenter said. “Made it to Augusta, Ga., which ended up faring worse than Beaufort County. Cost? $600 for hotels and probably $150 for food and travel. (We) still have bottled water and some canned goods. Yes, it has definitely affected our spending.”

Corner Perk owner Josh Cooke said his Bluffton cafe and coffee shop has seen a dip in traffic as well. While the shop attracts tourists, it isn’t as heavily dependent on them as some places on the island.

Zach Manley, owner of The Cracked Egg in Port Royal, said he saw roughly $12,000 in lost sales this past September. He said the loss comes not only from the evacuation time but also from the weeks following the storm.

“People spent quite a bit of money on the evacuation trying to get out,” he said. “I have been in the restaurant business for six years. Every time something major happens where families have to spend extra money, sales go down.”

Even those who are venturing out to eat are spending less money, Manley said.

While all the restaurant owners have seen a hit from the storm, they also agree that business is coming back and expect to be back in full swing soon, if not already.

“I have been talking with the charter boat guys,” Carmines said. “Next weekend is booked up and is going to be a blockbuster. It looks like we just hit a little dip, and it should pick up soon.”

Teresa Moss: 843-706-8152, @TeresaIPBG