The Old Oyster Factory
Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. | Photographer: Mark Staff Photography
When we’re out enjoying oyster roasts during fall and winter, inevitably somebody asks, “Are these local?” Sometimes yes, but usually we learn that the tasty Crassottrea virginica come from Florida waters or elsewhere. With restrictions on commercial harvesting, gone are the days when a little cannery on Broad Creek’s north shore shipped Hilton Head Island’s oyster bounty as far as Savannah, Charleston and beyond.
The Broad Creek Oyster Factory is no more, but Hilton Head Island always excels at maintaining continuity to its legacies. “Mr. Mitchell has been here supplying our oysters for 25 years,” said Jessica Lemek, a manager at The Old Oyster Factory, that venerable seafood house on the Factory’s former site. She refers to Mr. Richard Mitchell, whose family was among those harvesting Hilton Head oysters in the Factory days. This year, The Old Oyster Factory celebrates its 25th anniversary, a remarkable achievement you might think, but not so hard to believe when you consider how they have done it: through continuity and consistency.
A 22-year veteran, Lemek is more the rule than the exception for The Old Oyster Factory. “They do a great job of keeping their employees here for a really, really long time,” she said. “I remember a couple of years ago overhearing servers from other restaurants saying there’s no way anybody can get in there because nobody ever leaves.” Lemek says that her longevity story is typical, starting as a hostess fresh out of high school and working her way up. Many of the staff follow a similar path. For years, a popular destination restaurant for thousands of the island’s repeat visitors, The Old Oyster Factory servers as often as not find themselves greeting the same customers year after year. “You can tell they want to be here and they really enjoy getting to know their customers,” Lemek said. “Some will say, ‘I only want a four-table station because I’m the kind of person who makes that contact with friends who will come back the next year and ask for me.’”
The menu goes on to offer a vast selection of seafood, poultry, and steakhouse selections, “healthy choices,” a children’s menu, the tastiest hush puppies in all the land and, of course, oysters, raw or cooked and from waters near and far.
Evidence of continuity and consistency in the kitchen is in the fact that one chef has been back there since the restaurant opened 25 years ago, working alongside now semi-retired Executive Chef and company partner Franz Auer. “He wanted to make sure that every single plate went out with—I guess you could say—love,” said Lemek of Auer’s influence on The Old Oyster Factory’s culture. He takes so much pride in the presentation and quality of the food. That just trickled down to everybody else.”
The mantle for continuity and consistency trickled down to executive chef Andrew Love, who came aboard in 2011 to continue the legacy. “My first summer I worked hand-in-hand with Franz, because he wanted to make sure that I was the right guy,” Love said.
Love’s experience as a banquet chef prepared him well to take on The Old Oyster Factory’s high volume busy season, Memorial Day through Labor Day. The Old Oyster Factory is built to handle a booming tourist trade, but this isn’t fish ’n’ chips and popcorn shrimp. The menu is fine dining quality served in a lively, casual, atmosphere, with sweeping views of Broad Creek, its abundant wildlife, and dazzling sunsets.”
To give you a taste, Broiled Dayboat Scallops (lightly breaded jumbo scallops in garlic butter and sherry with whipped potatoes, vegetables, diced tomatoes, and lemon beurre blanc)—The Old Oyster Factory’s signature dish according to Love—and the Seafood Medley (a broiled combo of locally caught shrimp, dayboat scallops, chef’s catch of the day, an Oyster Savannah and Oyster Rockefeller finished with the sauce du jour, garlic parmesan rice and vegetables) are two of the most popular choices.
The menu goes on to offer a vast selection of seafood, poultry, and steakhouse selections, “healthy choices,” a children’s menu, the tastiest hush puppies in all the land and, of course, oysters, raw or cooked and from waters near and far. Nightly features are always worth a look as well. (Author’s note: Shrimp and Scallop Topped Tilapia is highly recommended if you’re there on the right evening.)
Do you like it fresh and local? “The owner at Red Fish (with Alexander’s one of The Old Oyster Factory’s two sister restaurants) goes out to the Gulf Stream on a regular basis to fish for our grouper, mahi and wahoo,” said bar manager Nick Randall. “I’ll come in to work and he’ll have live fish out there on ice. It’s cool as can be.”
A new twist is that The Old Oyster Factory now takes reservations, directly or via the OpenTable.com reservation service. “We started that last year,” Lemek said. “Now customers come in the door and they might wait 10 minutes at most. Ironically, sometimes that’s not long enough for some who like to enjoy a drink, the Broad Creek scenery, and entertainment out on the back deck. “We have entertainment six nights a week during the summer—a musician and a juggler for the kids.”
The Old Oyster Factory folks hope that shorter waits will bring a few more locals in during the summer, but if you’re a local and would still prefer to wait until the off-season, they’re okay with that too. They’ll be waiting for you with early bird “sunset dining” and a happy hour bar menu and specials.
So don’t forget to stop in and wish The Old Oyster Factory a happy 25th anniversary. “We’re going to do some events like big oyster roasts for our local customers,” Lemek said. There isn’t a better spot on the island for that.
Randall added, “Happy environment, beautiful sunsets, and the scenery out there…you can’t beat it.”
The Old Oyster Factory is located at 101 Marshland Road, Hilton Head Island. For reservations call (843) 681-6040 or online at OpenTable.com.