Less is Moore
By Jillian Apel
Chef Ricky is about to run out of rockfish, and he could not be more excited.
The last filet, fried to perfection and wrapped in a heated dinner roll, has just been sold to one of his regulars, less than two hours after opening.
Perfectly at ease, Ricky continues slicing a grouper while occasionally salting a batch of flat potatoes–the side special of the day. He knows that James, his assistant, will run out front to erase rockfish from the chalkboard menu. He also knows that this won’t hurt his business. It just might make it better.
“When the popular fish sell out, it gives me an opportunity to get people to try stuff they might not normally,” he tells me, tossing discarded fish heads in a trash can. “My customers see me cooking their food every time they come. And there’s a comfort, there’s no worries. It’s all about quality.”
Chef Ricky Moore, a tireless, middle aged man with a hearty laugh, has been the sole chef at Durham’s Saltbox Seafood Joint since he founded it in 2012. The restaurant– which consists of just a kitchen and takeout window in a lime green shack– has no freezer, and closes whenever Moore runs out of whatever fish he is cooking up that day.
Saltbox has amassed a strong base of regulars in the five years since opening, with people from all over the Research Triangle flocking to the Little Five Points neighborhood for Moore’s simple, authentic “trash fish”. Every day at lunch time, customers lounge at outdoor picnic tables, (the only seating on the property), waiting for Moore to fry their mullet, make their lemon punch or season their fried brussels sprouts.
A mother sits, wrangling her toddlers, across from a young hipster couple whispering sweet nothings into each other’s necks. Men in collared shirts escape the office to stand in the sun alongside Joe, the barefoot, bearded teacher who stops by every other Friday. A college student playing hooky sits alone, reading, while to a petite grandmother leans on her son. On any given day, a crowd as diverse as this one waits patiently together for Ricky’s comfort food, their backgrounds as varied as their orders.
And, if all goes to plan, they’ll do the same at Saltbox’s second location, which is scheduled to open in late 2017.
“The amount of people that were like wow, I’ll be there, or I can bike there, or I can walk there, was really refreshing,” Moore says, glancing at the line that now stretches to the sidewalk. “I’m doing this for the customers, to give them more space and less waiting. It’ll be different, but a good dynamic.”
Unlike the original, the new Saltbox will work as a full-scale restaurant, with indoor and outdoor seating and a kitchen triple the size of the current one. Moore bought the property, which previously belonged to the shuttered Shrimp Boat, after deciding that five years had taught him enough about his business, and his customers, to know what worked and what didn’t.
Five years had also taught him that, at its core, Saltbox’s identity lies in its ever-changing menu, high-quality simplicity and intimacy with its customers. How that will translate to a fifty-seat restaurant, Moore is still figuring out.
The idea for Saltbox came to Moore after he failed to find his wife a good fish sandwich.
.It was 2005, and he had just moved back to North Carolina 20 years after first leaving his seaside hometown for the military. Settling down with his wife and two daughters in Chapel Hill, the world-traveling chef began the planning to fulfill his dream of opening a small business.
“You could go and get seafood at certain places in the Triangle, but there was a quality component that was missing,” he explains. “There was a regional absence of local species, and of casual, seafood focused restaurants. I saw this neglected building, and decided that all the things required for a good location were here. I was like, cool, I can work with this”.
Prior to making any business decisions, Moore first took a step back to analyze Durham’s unique restaurant scene. At the time, the fledgling foodie city bore little resemblance to the bigger markets he had worked in, which ranged from Paris to Chicago to Singapore. Five years went by before Moore felt stable enough in his finances and professional life to make the leap into entrepreneurship.
The informal business plan he created had rules: No servers. No investors. No one else calling the shots. Complete autonomy like this over a business is something most restaurateurs dream of, but never get to experience. Moore saw a niche he could fill in Durham’s market–high quality food in an extremely casual setting. It was his chance, and he took it.
“To open Saltbox, I basically jumped off a cliff. But I can cook, so I knew, at least, that I knew how to swim,” he laughs.
Moore’s fingerprints are on every detail that makes up Saltbox Seafood Joint. He was the lone investor, is the sole owner of the property (after paying off his debts in only two years), and even painted the lime-green walls himself. James, the only other employee, has been around for just the past year. Before that, it was all on Chef Ricky.
“I needed a job, and I’d worked with Chef in D.C. way back when”, James recalled to me one afternoon as he filled cups of sweet tea. “I was tryin’ to keep it simple, so I walked up to the window and said ‘Hey, Chef, you need a cook?’ And he said, ‘Yup!’”
Watching James and Moore work together is like bearing witness Saltbox’s philosophy, personified. Both ex-military cooks with roots in southern towns, the men often joke about their “mission first” mentality and exchange home style recipe ideas during the long hours in the small kitchen.
In their current set up, James handles taking orders and getting drinks, while Moore focuses on preparing and cooking the fish. The tag-team style is an improvement from when Moore had to do everything on his own, but, at the same time, manages to make the micro-kitchen feel even smaller.
The lack of space in Moore’s beloved green shack never really bothered him until recently, when he tried to add an extra side option but had nowhere to store it. The full fridge and cupboards stubbornly upheld his “fresh in, fresh out” motto, whether he liked it or not.
In the same way, Moore appreciates that his cozy location can be easily run without external help, but hates the increasingly long wait times it has caused due to a growth in customers but not employees. Nowadays people often must wait an hour or more for their plates, which they do, willingly but begrudgingly.
The new location, in Moore’s ideal vision, will solve these problems by acting as an exact-but-larger replica of the original Saltbox.
Just like with the first building, Moore is spending only his own money to pay for the renovations and branding of the second. He has always been enticed by entrepreneurship–as is obvious by his Twitter handle, @Chefpreneur–but maintains that ‘business owner’ still comes second on his resume after ‘cook’. With the new space, Moore wants to scale up, but is determined to not sell out.
On a foggy morning in February, James arrived at Saltbox as if out of thin air.
“CHEF!!” he yelled, before disappearing inside the kitchen to start stocking ice. James knew his boss was somewhere– 8:30 a.m. may have been early for James, but it was at least two hours into Moore’s day. If he didn’t get to work, Moore would assume his responsibilities without a second thought.
“Morning!” Moore shouted back, not looking up from the inventory list he was checking off in a side shed. Dressed in his daily uniform of a green Saltbox t-shirt, blue jeans and tan Saltbox bucket hat, Moore reveled in the morning’s alone time, the few quiet hours when he could make sure everything was in its rightful place.
He knew he would have to get used to sharing these responsibilities once the new location opens. The current daily fish delivery–which arrived shortly after James did– is just small enough to be prepped and cooked by one man. Once it triples, however, it will become impossible for Moore to control how it all is made.
“The fishermen love the idea of a bigger place,” Moore said, unloading the tuna from a truck. “The more volume of people I get, the more fish I need, and the more business I give them. I gotta take care of my local guys.”
This is one of Moore’s many affirmations regarding the larger space helping to maintain the Saltbox brand. Not only does he think it will be better economically, but also better for the growth of the community and camaraderie around Saltbox. Some of those regulars, such as barefoot Joe, disagree.
“I like that there is nowhere to sit, or that the only place to sit is outside all together,” he told me, munching on his usual order of Catfish and unsweet tea. “The food is so good, the two guys here are so good, I wouldn’t want it to change”.
Moving responsibility from just “the two guys” to a larger staff has already proved to be a challenge for Moore. Still in the process of hiring employees for the new location, he has yet to find cooks that are passionate enough for his liking. He repeats the phrase “hire for desire” often–maybe to convince himself that he must find someone good enough to follow his lead, or maybe out of fear that he never will.
“It’s hard to cook something really delicious that doesn’t come from your gut, because the people who eat it can tell,” Moore said. “They really can tell. You can’t be disconnected.”
While no other chefs could possibly match his love for the Saltbox concept, Moore hopes they could become inspired by it.
James, one of the few who understands this connection, is set take over the chef role at the original location once the second opens. Moore plans to control the prep work at the new space, but still spend most of his time with James, in their tiny kitchen.
After all, while the entrepreneur in Moore will want to oversee the busy, buzzing restaurant, the chef in him will bring him back to the kitchen. It’s where he belongs.
Closing time at Saltbox depends on when the final fish is sold. James may erase the last item from the chalkboard as early as 5:30 pm on weekends, or as late as 7 or 7:30 on an off-day.
Moore starts to clean up, closing the windows as a signal to potential customers that they’ll have to come back tomorrow. He has a lot on his mind, and a lot of stuff to do at home. But that can wait. The kitchen needs to be ready for the morning, so he can get to cooking the moment the fishermen come by.
A soft R&B song drifts from the outdoor speakers, the sound occasionally dwarfed by rush-hour cars zooming by. Through the tiny window of the tiny shack, Moore looks like a giant. He puts away his ingredients and crunches some numbers, an idea for the new space forming in his head.
The opening date has not been set yet. Based on Moore’s estimates, it could be any time from four to eight months from now. There are still a lot of details to iron out, walls to paint, and, eventually, cooks to hire. For now, Moore is trying not to worry too much about that.
Even in the moments he does get overwhelmed, he tries to convince himself it will all turn out okay. After all, his restaurant sells the best fish sandwiches in the Triangle.