The walls of the Sanitary Restaurant in Morehead City are lined with memorabilia. Signs, photographs and newspaper clippings tell the story of its history, some faded and curled from decades in the sun and others, bright and fresh as if just clipped last week. Beauty queens and boxer Joe Lewis are interspersed with hometown heroes and elected officials. Gov. Bev Perdue is there, Tipper Gore and the Presidents Bush, both junior and senior.
The restaurant marked its 75th anniversary Feb. 8-10, 2013 with a ribbon cutting ceremony, live entertainment and a variety of specials in honor of its staff and customers. There are a few things co-owner Jeff Garner wants to keep under his hat until plans are finalized, but he’s confident everyone will have a great time.
In the middle of the walls, almost lost in the thousands of pieces that crowd them, are photographs of the late Capt. Jesse Lee “Tony” Seamon and Capt. Ted Garner, Jeff’s grandfather, who partnered in 1938 to open the counter diner with a dozen stools. It started, like most enduring parts of the community, innocently enough. Seamon, who worked in construction, and Garner, who was originally a barber, began taking parties out on the Monnie M. for a little coastal fishing. Because hotels were limited, fishermen would often spend the night on the boat during their visit to Morehead City, and as many of the patrons weren’t familiar with the cleaning and cooking of the fresh catch, Seamon would cook the fish while afloat, making a natural transition into chef. In interviews years later, Seamon would say he didn’t really know how to cook, but the freshness of the seafood made it taste good no matter what he did.
The fresh fish dinners were an instant hit, so at the urging of the public, the duo set up a couple of kerosene burners and a counter close to the dock, making it easier for folks to enjoy the seafood without having to take a fishing trip. They had no knowledge of health codes or the necessity of receiving a nod from the health inspector. But upon hearing about the venture, Earle Hubbard from the local health department was quick to make a visit. Luckily for the fledgling restaurateurs, he agreed to let the men stay open as long as they agreed to make some necessary upgrades to their equipment. It has been reported that Seamon himself climbed up on the roof and hand painted the word “restaurant” on his fish market sign the day the restaurant received its certification.
“They leased a building for $5.50 a week and bought everything they needed from the dime store,” said John Tunnell, 85, who began working at the Sanitary in his teens. “So the health inspector made them go out and buy a hot water heater, a three-compartment sink and a sterilization tank.”
Another restroom was needed, too, he explained, so men and women had separate accommodations, but by that time, nobody really cared – business was booming. The lines that formed on opening day, continued, and grew, making the Sanitary the place to visit for fresh local seafood dinners. Families returned year after year to the ever-growing building nestled over the water, making it a tradition of their annual vacation. And celebrities, both local and national, would swing by for a taste of the seafood everyone was raving about.
“Food service is a hard industry to go into. And you don’t go into a venture like this thinking you’re going to please every customer, every day,” said Tunnell, who continues to work as a manager and resident historian. “But I think the food and the service spoke for itself. It still speaks for itself. You are nice to your customers, you remember them and you welcome them by name when they return. Customer relations are very important. If you appreciate the customer and appreciate their business, then they’re going to return. It’s as simple as that. Without the customers, I wouldn’t have had a job.”
A memory often repeated by return customers was the sight of Tunnell holding back the door and welcoming them by name. It was a practice, Tunnell said, he had learned from Seamon himself. With a famously accurate memory, Tunnell said Capt. Tony would ask him for the names of guests before they made their way into the restaurant so he could greet them appropriately. It was a small touch – but one that made a night at the Sanitary a memorable occasion.
Using the restaurant’s popularity as a platform, Seamon became a staunch advocate for restaurant practices in the state. He was involved in the formation of the NC Restaurant Association, serving as both director and president. He served on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Travel Council of North Carolina and was named to the National Restaurant Hall of Fame. In 1964, he received the first Governor’s Restaurant Appreciation Award from Gov. Terry Sanford.
The platform he stood on continued to grow as well. New construction after hurricane damage and a variety of add-ons have maintained the same wooden, beachy construction through the decades. Shiny wood floors, real wood paneling on the walls, a collection of nautical décor and expansive views of Sugarloaf Island and the NC State Port have made it an icon on the waterfront. It is what many would consider “retro” by today’s standards. No glitz and glamour, no French cuisine in small portions with delicately prepared sauces. Instead, folks can depend on receiving a full helping of seafood, slaw, fries or a baked potato and the hushpuppies that are continuously raved about.
Some newcomers simply don’t understand the fuss, while others, who have long established roots to Carteret County and subscribe to the relaxed, traditional way of life that the region has become famous for, will quickly say that many a beach memory has been made under the Sanitary’s roof. From matchmaking and weddings to providing a first job for thousands of the area’s teenagers, the Sanitary has a foothold in Carteret County that runs as deep as the oceans that sustain it.
The Garner and Seamon partnership lasted until Garner’s death in 1978. Ted Garner, Jr. purchased the restaurant outright in 1979 and while he still oversees the restaurant, the day-to-day operation is left to son Jeff and daughter Lisa.
“It was a natural transition,” offered Garner. “I had worked in the restaurant my whole life, started at 12 or so, bussing tables. And I always knew that this was what I would do as an adult.”
He studied business administration at ECU and spent a season in Colorado, but for the most part, he said the restaurant business was in his blood.
“It’s hard work – it’s not a business that runs on cruise control by any means. You have to be here every day and there is always one issue or another to deal with,” said Garner. “It’s important to stay relevant – to be current and give the customers what they’re looking for.”
Capital improvements continue with the brother and sister team at the helm. In the last few years they have added outdoor seating, a bar and new floating docks. The flavors of the Sanitary Restaurant remain the same, however. The shrimp and flounder combo is hands down the most popular dish on the menu, Garner said, noting that they strive to keep the menu the same, while making additions and trying new things along the way. In the end, however, it is the most traditional of dishes that customers turn to. With a seating of more than 600, the restaurant can see more than 2,000 customers on a busy summer day.
The one thing customers expect is consistency, said Garner. Fresh local seafood is used while in season, but even during off seasons diners can be assured that only North Carolina seafood is being served.
“We get fresh what we can when it’s in season,” he said. “We’re proud that we’ve been able to support our local fishing industry for 75 years.”
And with 75 years under its belt, it’s safe to say the Sanitary will continue to draw customers for as long as there is seafood to serve.
“Not only are we the third generation of owners, but we’re welcoming third generations of customers,” said Garner. “People come back year after year. People come because their grandparents ate here. It’s not just a family tradition for us, it’s a tradition for generations of repeat customers.”