Southport: Yacht Basin Provisin Co.
It’s fun to watch first-timers at Yacht Basin Provision Co. in Southport. The experience is so different from any other dining establishment that first-time visitors barely have time to digest the tasty food or unique way of doing things – before they’re planning their next Provision Co. visit.
This waterfront restaurant and bar provides an atmosphere that’s become legendary with both boaters and landlubbers alike. The unique experience starts the moment you pull into the parking lot (or dock). You typically stand in a short line--though it sometimes goes out the door--and then order your food from the counter. The menu is on a chalkboard right inside the screen door. Once you’ve placed your order, you grab your drinks on your own (on the honor system). They keep track of your entire order on 3x5 cards and you pay when you leave.
Provision Co. favorites include conch fritters, freshly-made seafood chowder, steamed shrimp, crab cakes, a great grouper salad sandwich, and some seriously tasty hamburgers. Veteran visitors often order the fritters or chowder as appetizers and then head back to the counter to order their main course.
With a Little Bit of Luck
Owners and founders Paul Swenson and Maria Tilling attribute the unique Provision Co. vibe to vision, trial, error, and a bit of luck. It’s also obvious that the couple’s loyal staff plays a major role, including long-time manager Rose Ray and several veteran cooks and wait staff.
First coming to life in the summer of 1993, the Provision Co. wasn’t an immediate success by any stretch of the imagination. The little ramshackle building was once a boater’s store called Yacht Basin Provision Co., with “Provision Co.” emblazoned on the red tin roof. Maria and Paul were originally going to call it Sunset Grill, in homage to the great sunsets seen over the water from the restaurant’s patio dining area. However, they ran out of startup money before they had a chance to buy a “Sunset Grill” sign.
Although it had already been listed in the Yellow Pages under Sunset Grill, everyone started calling it Yacht Basin Provision Co. (then just Provision Co.) and the name stuck.
While both Paul and Maria were from the northeast, they each fell in love with the Carolinas early in life. Paul went to college in South Carolina and settled in Raleigh, while Maria moved to Southport after years in the Caribbean. Once they met, Paul relocated to Southport and they tried to figure out something they could do together (using more than 30 years of combined time in restaurants).
“We wanted to work together, combining our restaurant skills,” says Maria. “We thought the Southport waterfront was a great location for a casual outdoor dining restaurant, which it lacked. It is wonderful to be able to go to work in shorts, have a great view of the water, work in a profession we love, and live in a great town.”
The food speaks for itself
The menu hasn’t changed much since 1993. “Our menu has always been based on good, casual, and reasonably priced food,” says Paul.
“It is only food. Don't try to disguise it. Let the food speak for itself,” continues Maria. “We use high quality products and make the best use of kitchen space and equipment.” Many of the recipes are from Maria’s mother and her daughter Tina--who worked in the restaurant for many years--still tops her chili cheeseburger with potato salad, just like her grandmother did.
Of course, it’s only natural that seafood would play a key role. The steamed shrimp is their perennial best-seller, but the melt-in-your-mouth grilled tuna dinner, crab cakes, and fish-filled grouper salad sandwich are favorites, too.
The New England Seafood Chowder is quite simply one of the best you’ll ever taste north or south of the Mason-Dixon line. The Provision Co. version includes shrimp, clams, fish, and lots of cream, but there are some other flavors in there--which Paul and Maria won't reveal--that make a tasty difference. It’s hard to beat on a chilly spring or fall day, which is the only time they serve it.
A system that works
The get-your-own drink system, along with the ordering and delivery of food, were all based on their desire to keep things simple and operate with just a few staff members. Originally, customers wrote their own order and included their first names on the index cards. Now, orders are written down by a staff member at the counter, but first names are still the rule and it’s just one of the place’s many personal touches. Rose and other staff members enjoy asking first-timers about their experience, and they typically remember your name when you come back a second time.
Occasionally, over the years, both virgin visitors and veterans have accidentally left the Provision Co. without paying. This typically leads to a quick return, a worried phone call, or a check in the mail from some faraway location. “As a gesture of appreciation that the honor system does work, we mail them a little something as a thank you,” says Paul.
During lunch and dinner, “organized chaos” best describes the narrow kitchen just behind the counter. Cooks, counter staff, and waitresses smilingly jockey for position and food (they like to serve it hot). Maria says, “Like any kitchen, we have all developed our own routine, where insanity and practical jokes reign. Sometimes, for our staff meals, we add hidden treats in the food--like habanera peppers and hot sauce!”
Great times, great memories
All of those employees jockeying for position won’t keep their positions long if they can’t stand the heat (of the kitchen or the habaneras). It’s a busy working environment and it’s obvious pretty quickly who will sink and who will work out swimmingly. In fact, the last day of the season (they typically close from mid-November to mid-March) leads to a dunking in the water for those who make it through their first Provision Co. summer.
November also means it’s time for the Stede Bonnet Regatta, which started as a Halloween sailing party soon after the restaurant had opened. The pirate theme (and maybe a bit of rum) quickly turn normally sane sailors into swashbuckling plunderers, complete with massive water balloon fights and a fairly serious race.
The awards ceremony features hilarious speeches, feeble attempts at conch blowing, and a huge buffet dinner served by Provision Co. staff free of charge. Maria, in proper “wench” clothing, says, “It developed as a way to thank our loyal customers for a great year and now has a life of its own on and off the water.” They also host a Spring Swing event, with big band music, dancing, and dining.
Paul and Maria, long-time staff members, and restaurant regulars, all have lots of great Provision Co. memories, which they’ll be happy to repeat at the little bar. That’s where you’ll often find long-time regulars like Southport resident Russ Farris.
“I come here two or three times a week for the view, the food, the people, and little things like the honor system with drinks,” says Farris from his typical spot at the bar. “Paul and Maria, plus their staff, have created a place everyone feels comfortable.”
While there can only be one “original” Provision Co., Paul and Maria were approached several years ago about opening another location. After a year of training and searching for a location, the Holden Beach Provision Co. opened to rave reviews. “If we met another interested party that wanted to open a Provision Co., who knows?” smiles Paul. But it’s both veteran and first-time visitors to this Southport seafood (and more) shrine that keep smiling.
By Lynn Seldon
added: December 15, 2008
updated: March 12, 2009
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