Ricky Moore’s Saltbox Seafood Joint isn’t just delicious, it’s a model for a sustainable, local NC seafood restaurant

Ricky Moore, an eastern NC native, talked to us about weathering a pandemic and a changing climate at his popular restaurant, Saltbox Seafood Joint. (Photo via Ricky Moore)

By Billy Ball

April 22, 2024

One of the best chefs in North Carolina and a master of NC seafood talks climate change, weathering a pandemic, and doing his part to preserve local fishing operations.

You can hear the eastern NC in Ricky Moore’s voice, then you taste it in his food.

The Durham chef, winner of the James Beard Foundation’s 2022 award for best chef in the Southeast, is a New Bern native. He’s spent time cooking in Singapore, Paris, and Toronto. But Saltbox Seafood Joint, his popular Durham eatery, is a testament to where he grew up, fishing and crabbing on NC’s coast.

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And like many folks from out east, he thinks the area’s overlooked.

“When people have the conversation about seafood, they talk about either South Carolina or Virginia or Maryland or even Florida,” he says. “I mean, they kind of skip over us.”

Saltbox is helping change all that. It’s also something of a model for what a modern, sustainable NC seafood restaurant looks like in a changing climate. His offerings are fresh, local, and seasonal. The menu changes so often that it’s written in chalk.

Given climate change’s impacts on the fishing industry and the coastline Moore loves, we sat down with him recently and talked about thriving in challenging times. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Cardinal & Pine:

Thanks for talking to us. Obviously, Saltbox has been hopping since you opened it in 2012. How are things going now?

Moore:

Oh man. Honestly, it’s just really, it’s a real good feeling to know that you created something, man, that the community has supported consistently over time. I just think it’s a beautiful thing, man. I mean, the story, man, is pretty compelling.

You got a guy who opened up a place over on Main Street in a 205-square-foot space in hopes of this thing working out ok, bottom line. Took a shot, took a shot, and did whatever I thought I could do based on my experience to minimize my risk. And the bottom line is, man, it had a trajectory and it moved forward and not without the community of Durham. Lemme be clear about that one because bottom line is, based on the history of this town and entrepreneurship and what that means, it’s been a beautiful thing to know that your community was there for you and to help you move through, also challenge you, and we’re still here after 12 years.

C&P:

Yeah, I mean, it sure helps that it tastes good.

Moore:

Yes, Billy, here’s the thing. You go to the restaurant, it’s supposed to taste good. It should not be an anomaly. It shouldn’t be like, ‘Oh my God, you have the best thing.’ No, no, no, no. It’s supposed to be delicious. The business we’re in, taking care of people and feeding people something delicious, what that means to you, you know what I mean?

So man, just been blessed, man, to be able to say that I’m still here after all of the things that none of us have ever thought we would go through in terms of a pandemic. Folks who are still here, man, we got a stripe on our shoulder.

@cardinalandpine

🍤 Ricky Moore—a James Beard-winning chef from New Bern, NC—depends on this planet for his livelihood. Which is why climate change was a big part of our recent Moore recently talked to us about climate change. His celebrated restaurant, @saltboxseafoodjoint, serves up fresh seasonal seafood in Durham that’s inspired by his coastal home. Climate change is a major concern for coastal communities, and it’s changing the way we fish too. Moore says everyone has a part to play at their local level to fight climate change. Look out for more of our conversation with Moore @cardinalandpine! 🎥 Billy Ball for @cardinalandpine #climatechange #ncseafood #seafood #outerbanksnc #obxnow #newbern

♬ original sound – Cardinal & Pine

C&P:

Surviving the pandemic is, I imagine, really hard as a restaurant. I know so many went out of business. How did y’all manage that?

Moore:

You know what, man, honestly, just like everybody else, we figured it out as we went along. We did some things that just made sense for us. The staff, I was able to keep everybody on. We just worked things smartly. We minimized things.

We did additional activities to generate revenue. We helped people out. We stayed active. I think a lot of it had everything to do with us. This idea of this thing happened to everybody. There’s no roadmap, no blueprint, no reference point. So what do you do? You just wake up every day and do the best you can and do the same thing, the same thing, and don’t give in or up.

So a lot of things we did, man, like I said, we did to go. We did everything everybody else was doing. We fed schools, we fed children, we did a lot of different stuff outside of what we normally did.

But like I said before, it’s just a matter of this mindset for me anyway, firstly, as an entrepreneur and a business owner here in Durham, I am the backup. There’s nowhere else to turn. So the buck stops with me. So I was like, okay, cool. And I’ve always been that sort of individual. I don’t know anything else. All I know is forward movement, obstacles, sidestep, move to the side, left bobbing weave, or figure out how to go over.

So what I wasn’t going to do was give up. What I wasn’t going to do is have all the other broadliner, fast food places be open and I was going to be open. No way. If they’re open, I’m going to be open. So that was another thing too. I did not close down. I did not shut down. I didn’t do anything. Okay. I kept open, I kept feeding folk. I had a stove, I had some pots. I had something to cook in, so I can feed somebody. The dining room closed down. But other than that, man, we just kept going.

How dare I close? No, no, no, no, no. I mean I know a lot of my colleagues have specific circumstances that they had to do it to make some adjustments. But I’m like, wait a minute, Chick-fil-A open? I’ma be open.

C&P:

Your style, the way that you cook, where did that come from?

Moore:

Oh, so ideally it comes from my upbringing. I’m going to say that just so I put it in context, Billy, when I opened the business, Saltbox, the initial thought, I didn’t have a plan. The location dictated what I was going to do.

I took a trip to Singapore prior to doing it, and I saw these open air markets called “hawker” stalls, and it was cool to see these little small spaces with two or three people in it working, doing something really delicious. And as I’m looking at it from a business model perspective, I spent a majority of my time building in fine dining, all of that. And I know the economics of that. And just so I was smart about what I was doing and minimizing my risk, I say, you know what?

If I can find a little place in Durham that can kind of plug into and do something small, easy, ingredient-driven, and that’s it, and simplify and distill it down to the most basic situation, boom.

I feel like there’s a success path there. And that’s how it came to be.

Now in terms of the food, I just felt, hey, I grew up eating eastern North Carolina seafood. I also felt like you can go to seafood places who do fried fish and grill fish and whatever. And there was very much a similarity, which is fine because that’s what the consumer wants.

But for me, I thought there was an opportunity to introduce those different species that a lot of times are not mainstream. So that was the other motivation that would, I believe, set me apart or put me on a pathway for folks to be recognized.

And so simple man, simple seafood, straightforward, blue fish, mullet, mackerel, triple tail, all these sort of things that you don’t find typically on seafood restaurants that do fried Calabash style.

I decided I’ll take Calabash as a reference and how I grew up eating fish and apply the culinary prowess that I have and create a lane. Not to be better than anybody, just create a lane that’s all. Nothing more nonetheless.

It was cool because it’s hard for a chef to have restraint, to believe in the simplicity of what they’re doing and not feel like, ‘oh my God, my stuff is boring.’ It’s basic. Nothing special about it.

But for me, having spent time in a lot of different places and a lot of different environments and a lot of different cuisines, I’m like the golden rule, the pinnacle of great cooking is simplicity. You have to be extremely mature and confident about that.

C&P:

It’s not just simple, it’s fresh. I mean that really stands out too.

Moore:

Super, super important, fresh. And we still do the fresh in, fresh out, man. We sell it out. We sell it out.

So that was for me, the most important thing. And I guess the style of cooking and the food is the idea behind it. I think that leads to sustainability.

I mean, like I said, I’ve been in business 12 years and I’ve been consistent and I have indirectly taught people how to eat seasonal seafood in North Carolina, because I have customers who come here who know now, ‘Oh, is bluefish in season?’ They’re having those conversations with me: ‘Is mackerel in season yet? Oh, what about soft-shell?’ So that’s a beautiful thing, man.

That was part of my beginning process is like, man, these folk going to kill me, man. I don’t have founder and shrimp and oysters every day, man, they going to kill me, man.

C&P:

Well, let’s talk about that. Your restaurant is a part of the place where you’re serving. Yes. And I think that kind of sounds weird, but I think what I mean is that you’re adapting to the seasons. You’re not serving the same thing all year long.And of course we are in a changing climate, and it’s changing fast. I remember when we had snow here.

So how has that changed things for you as a restaurant owner?

Moore:

Well, I’ll tell you honestly, this idea of global warming and how it affects our coastline hugely affects the fishing. I can think about having conversations with fishermen and they’re saying, wow, the erosion and what’s happening and the estuaries and how they manage them and how the fishes dredge and disturbing the ocean bottom and the sounds, whatever. It’s causing a ton of issues.

And also part of that is the regulatory challenges that have to do with commercial fishing. Huge deal. Part of Saltbox has also been me trying to support local fisher farms, that’s men and women out there trying to make a living to sell a natural resource that we have.

That does not get talked about enough or put forward in a conversation like, man, we got a ton of seafood on our coastline. And when people have the conversation about seafood, they talk about either South Carolina or Virginia or Maryland or even Florida. I mean, they kind of skip over us.

So along with that, but the whole erosion of the shoreline and all the things that are happening, man, it really has had to me to think about and just what it means to sustain this business because without seafood, I’m out.

That’s a straight reality. I’m blessed to still be here, but if anything goes down where I don’t have that source for me to be able to purchase a local North Carolina seafood, I got to go cook hot dogs, man.

You know what I mean? Honestly, that’s a scary thing. Like, okay, I’m building a business off of something that’s super seasonal that may be altered or challenged by any sort of regulation or what goes down with the weather. Hugely important. Oh my God, it’s a big deal, man. When the nor’easter comes in and stuff ain’t happening, or the wind blowing too hard, it can’t get out. The fish during the pandemic, nothing’s going down. Absolutely. So the blessing was that the fishermen had put up a whole bunch of fish they had caught. So that was a lifesaver for me. They had stuff that was sitting in the freezer. And let me preface by saying frozen fish, local frozen fish. Frozen fish locally is a means of preserving.

And also the preservation of a beautiful resource we have in this state. A commercial fisherman is somebody who is special.

I mean, honestly, that’s a big deal. It’s a hard job and a big deal. And I feel like there needs to be some support always in that space. Like I said, not to take away from anything else, but I mean, we’re feeding our citizens, we’re feeding the state.

C&P:

It has to be a tenuous bottom line too. I don’t know much about the fishing business, but if you’re a local fisher person keeping it, you are because you are dependent on the weather, because the seasons, the whatever else is going on, the world goes to lot. It has to be so tentative.

Moore:

And a lot of times it’s hard to say, ‘OK, I’m going to make a living fishing.’ I got a gentleman who I’ve been going to for a long time. He is a fourth generation fisherman, and he tells me stories about his grandfather.

I have another friend of mine who, she’s solo, she digs oysters and mussels by herself, Billy, that’s backbreaking work. Absolutely it is. No joke. And she goes to restaurants with it. She sources what is called Atlantic rib muscles, got little ribs in it, you know what I mean? And who would’ve thought that North Carolina has local wild mussels, but they do. You know what I mean?

So for me, from a sustainability standpoint, as an operator on my side, I’m always trying to make sure that I’m connecting with these individuals and we just got to roll with it.

C&P:

How do you as a business do your part for climate change?

Moore:

Honestly, here’s what I share with you, Billy. I’ve always been this way. I’ve always thought about climate change and climate.

I mean, the products that we purchase to put to-go items are biodegradable, disposable things that are not harmful to the planet. The thing is, and Billy, I don’t want to come across any kind of way, man, but I’ve always behaved in that manner. You know what I mean?

This thought about the planet and what that means, and my part of the world, my little space here is a particle compared to everything else. But in my little four walls here, I do the best I can from a recycling standpoint, from how we handle waste, how we even handle the fish when we butcher. I have somebody come here and get that for fertilizer.

I have some folks who come here for my oyster shells. I don’t have enough, the oyster shells, that’s my decoration.

So in my business that I’ve created, that’s very fundamental, and it’s been easy for me to do it. So it is normal. It’s sharing with my staff how they need to behave and not have it be so some folk, man, they don’t connect with that. I try to make it a little bit more easy so people can identify.

But man, I’ve always been that way. I don’t waste. I utilize things correctly. I buy what I need—no more, no less. I try to make sure that everybody around me shares in that vision.

It is tough though. It’s tough when sometimes folk ain’t in that space because they thinking about surviving, period. ‘What you mean I need to do this? Whatever man, I need to figure out how to eat tomorrow.’

Look, I also spent time in the military and my upbringing.

C&P:

What branch of the military were you in?

Moore:

Army. So we did what we call a police call. That was part of lower ranks. We did those tasks. You walk the whole facility in the area and pick up everything. Everything’s pristine.

C&P:

What do you think that local businesses like you need right now from the people who are writing the policies and the regulations?

Moore:

Just be open to the fact that we are partners in all of this too. Our concerns are not all about us. It’s not about me, me, me. I mean, I think a lot of small business operators are only interested in making sure that everybody has a pathway to sustainability. What do we need?

We need common sense approaches to things. We need thoughtfulness about things.

I say this all the time, man, and I think it pertains to a lot of stuff. There’s no new problems. You take on a problem and you manage through it and move on to the next. I know that sounds simple. I know that’s not how the world works, but sometimes we got to go back to fundamentals.

Author

  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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