Friday, March 21, 2014
By Jeremy L. C. Jones, produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
The Flounder Fish Camp doesn’t look like much. It’s nothing fancy inside or out. Most fish camps aren’t. They’re not supposed to be.
The Flounder is out of the way—off Interstate 26, northwest of the city of Spartanburg, at 160 Barbado Lane. It’s a relatively plain stucco rectangle with brown siding at the roof-line, a simply-lettered sign, and slotted windows that don’t call patrons from the highway.
My family arrived early on a Thursday night. We were here to take part in an essential piece of local culture. Fish camps began down South in the mid-20th century as places where you could buy bait, rent tackle and then fry up your catch after a successful day of fishing. Typically they were located in simple sheds at lakes or along river banks. Over the years they evolved into neighborhood restaurants, often serving meals on surplus Army trays.
“Do they have anything other than fish?” my ten-year-old daughter Molly said from the back seat.
“They have chicken,” I said. “And fries.”
“Whew,” she said.
A steady flow of people came in and out—young and old. A woman in an orange Clemson sweatshirt rushed from her mini-van with a newspaper over her head. Her husband, walking with a cane and a straight back, took the weather in stride. A painter in all white made way for a young mother pushing a stroller with a bundled infant inside. Business seemed brisk.
Inside, a man in a green Flounder T-shirt named Ken, who would turn out to be the owner, smiled and said, “First time here?”
Despite all the cars and people, the dining area didn’t seem all that full, but it was filled with warm expectation, almost like a welcoming elementary school cafeteria before all the classes have arrived or a church social hall before services have let out. Brightly-colored saltwater fish decorated one wall and a red-striped life preserver welcomed us aboard from another.
Ken seated us under a large-mouthed bass at one of the many wooden booths. Our waitress, Rebecca Barnett, arrived with menus and a smile. She used to come here to eat when she was a child. I asked her what set fish camps in general and The Flounder in particular apart from other restaurants.
“It’s a family place,” she said. “Most of the employees are related. Denise has worked here since the ’70s and her mother works in the back. She’s in her ’90s.”
Like a lot of fish camps in Spartanburg, diners come with their families, and The Flounder has its “family” of regulars, too. Everyone seemed to know everyone—or, at least, they acted like they did. Yet, there was no air of exclusivity. You don’t need to be a “member” to get in.
The appetizers were hard to pass up—clam chowder, oyster stew, and shrimp cocktail, among others—but we wanted to save room for the main course.There’s almost too much to choose from: deep fried Alaskan white fish and flounder; catfish and jumbo shrimp; crab patties and clams. And it’s not all fried. There are half-orders or whole.
There’s even BBQ beef hash for the rebellious souls at the table.
I liked this place. There are a lot of fish camps in the area—Lighthouse, Pioneer, Roebuck, Tadpole, Wagon Wheel, to name a few—and I usually go with my mother-in-law who has lived in Spartanburg most of her adult life. My mother-in-law is the sort of person who knows everyone, and more than once she’s introduced me to a friend who she just met at a fish camp.
The Flounder is the longest-running family-owned fish camp in Spartanburg. Arthur Toney opened the original Flounder in 1969 while he was still in the Air Force. A fire in ’81 closed the camp for eight months while the Toneys rebuilt.
“There were 31 employees before the fire,” said Ken, “and thirty came back to work after the fire. We’re like a family. A lot of us are family.”
Ken Toney took over in ’89. The Flounder has continued to thrive. Toney estimates that they’ve served over 43 million people in 44 years. They are packed by six o’ clock with people lined out the door.
What’s Toney’s secret?
It’s the same as his father’s.
“Take good care of your people, buy the best, and make your food from scratch,” Ken Toney said, over the din of a growing crowd. “We’re off the beaten trail, so we have to be good. We don’t have the luxury of people driving by and dropping in.”
Rebecca brought our meals and it was easy to see—or taste—why people lined around the block to eat at The Flounder. Trina’s teriyaki shrimp, small and sweet, fills her up fast.
“Wow, these are good,” she said.
Molly mumbles her agreement over a mouthful of chicken.
When neither of them was looking, I speared a few of Trina’s hush puppies—crisp on the outside, moist inside, and seasoned just enough to distinguish them from the fish all around but not so strong that they overpower everything else on the plate.
As we waited at the register to pay the bill, Molly asked Ken what many out-of-towners want to know, “Why do they call it a fish camp?”
“Most people think it started down in Black’s Landing at Lake Moultrie,” Ken Toney said. “They’d catch fish in the lake and cook them right there at the camp. It’s the closest we can come to an explanation.”
Molly spent a dollar at the candy bins. Out front, cars poured into the lot. Headlamps caught patrons in a net of lights and rain, and the line outside the entrance grew longer and longer.
Over the lollipop in her mouth, Molly asked, “Can we come back soon?”
Jeremy L. C. Jones, Produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
Jeremy is a freelance writer, editor, and lecturer living in Spartanburg County with his wife, daughter, and two miniature poodles. He teaches English part-time at Wofford College, volunteers at the Carolina Poodle Rescue’s dog sanctuary, and plays folk ukulele … but not very well.