Outer Banks entrepreneur Jo Hopkins Whitehead could give a seminar on how to build a small successful empire in a beach-side community, despite unpredictable weather patterns, a seasonal customer base and personal tragedy.
Whitehead, who owns the renowned Awful Arthur’s Oyster Bar and its sister operation, Awful Arthur’s Beach Shop, moved to the Outer Banks in 1985.
She and her then-fiancé, Jay, opened the oyster bar, married in 1991, and went on to open two more blockbuster businesses, Awful Arthur’s Beach Shop, and Bad Barracudas Raw Bar & Grille.
“Awful Arthur’s Beach Shop opened in 1997, basically, as an overflow for our famous logo apparel,” Whitehead says.
As the years passed, the shop evolved into a variety store, including the expansion of women’s apparel and jewelry, as well as home decor, everything for the beach and more.
The couple also expanded its family, with the birth of daughter Katie and son John.
The happy family was riding the wave of success — and then, the unthinkable happened: Jay died in December 2000.
“Running Awful Arthur’s, Awful Arthur’s Beach Shop, and Bad Barracudas when my husband died was, understandably, a horrible time,” Whitehead says. “Having two young children and three businesses was, at best, overwhelming. I can’t imagine that I would have survived the way I did if it had not been for a lot of help from family, friends, and loyal staff.”
She didn’t let it derail her for long. She had two small children and three growing businesses that she and her soul mate had built from the sand up — and she had a team that she knew she could rely upon to help her navigate the choppy waters that lay ahead.
“I sold Bad Barracuda’s five years later, which is now Mulligan’s in Nags Head, and forged ahead,” she says, adding that she was buoyed by the longtime staff she considers to be family: AJ Johnson, Lisa Willis and Angie Davison, all of whom have been part of the Awful Arthur’s family for more than 25 years.
“AJ joined the team in 1992. He began as an assistant kitchen manager and was promoted to manager in 2012. AJ is such an important part of my business. He is one of the most loyal people I know. He treats my restaurant as if it was his own, and I truly can’t imagine running it without him,” she says.
In addition to the trio of all-stars in the quarter century club, the staff at the restaurant and the beach shop includes several people who have been with Whitehead for more than a decade.
Whitehead insists there’s no “big secret” as to how she’s able to elicit such loyalty from her staff, saying it’s simply a matter of mutual respect.
“I try to maintain respect from them as much as I respect each one of them,” she says. “I have a great management team without whom I could not run such a successful business.”
And successful it is.
Now in its 34th year, Awful Arthur’s — the original Outer Banks oyster bar — is so much more than its name would suggest.
Sure, it has the only copper-topped oyster bar on the Outer Banks, boasts one of the beach’s only ocean-view lounges, and was named “one of the top 10 oyster bars in the nation” by Coastal Living magazine.
But it also was winner of the 2014 Outer Banks Taste of the Beach Annual Chowder Cook Off for its popular shrimp corn chowder, and it garnered praise from Esquire magazine for its steamed spice shrimp.
“Some of our most requested items on the menu besides oysters are spiced steamed shrimp and grilled teriyaki tuna,” Whitehead says. “My favorite item on the menu is, by far, the spiced steamed shrimp.”
Seafood lovers can cast their eyes on the menu and always land something great, but there’s also a plenty of non-seafood items on the menu, from filet mignon and pasta to burgers and chicken.
The extensive menu, reasonable prices, casual dining experience, beach vibe and down to earth friendly staff have lured diners through the door for more than three decades — and they keep coming back.
“Families and the young of heart of all ages enjoy the dining experience not only for our food but also for our high-energy atmosphere,” she said, adding part of the joy for her is interacting with return guests.
Whitehead and her husband started a business together on a solid foundation of respect, determination and love. Upon that foundation, the careers of others in their orbit were nurtured and other businesses were spawned — all of which helped to grow the economy and shape the landscape of the Outer Banks.
“Another highlight would have to be knowing how many people with other OBX restaurants got their start here working for my late husband Jay: Jim Douglas (Chili Peppers), John Kirchmier (Tortuga’s, Quagmire’s, and Bonzer Shack), Brian Brown (Red Drum), and Linda Coats (Steamers),” Whitehead says. “Owning a business on the OBX for the past 33 years has been such an amazing journey. I have lived here during a great time of change and growth. I truly can’t imagine raising a family and having two wonderful, successful businesses anywhere else.”