Duck’s Restaurant Dynasty
Sam McGann and John Power took a gamble on the North Carolina Outer Banks. Twenty-six years later, The Blue Point restaurant is a destination in itself.
On a brisk February night in 1989, the sleepy resort town of Duck, North Carolina, wasn’t hiding any secrets.
It looked deserted. Wind whipped around the Currituck Sound, and rain turned to sleet as John Power gazed into the Atlantic Ocean.
He had one tough sell ahead.
“Hubris,” Power says of how he got started.
It took only 24 hours, and a drastic turn of weather—typical in the state’s Outer Banks—to convince his high school friend from Virginia, Sam McGann, to buy in. That July, the Blue Point Restaurant was brought to life with 50 seats, a six-person oyster bar, and the challenge to survive in a community that typically houses fewer than 400 year-round residents.
“It was pretty darn quiet, but we were the only game in town back then,” Power recalls. “We were the only ones serving the kind of food that we served—with the staff that made sure people had a good time. We didn’t have any competition, which certainly helped a lot.”
This past July marked 26 years for the Blue Point, which like the town of Duck itself, has transformed quite a bit over the years.
A 2006 remodeling stretched the restaurant to 125 seats. The diner-style black and white floor is gone, replaced with warm, natural tones, and textures like cork, slate, and wood. A trellised deck and bar were also added on the sound. The Back Bar in the Yard is a popular spot for drinks, sunsets, and live music.
The red booths stayed, however, and so did Chef McGann’s take on Atlantic Coast cuisine. A graduate of Johnson & Wales University, McGann is well traveled. His trips to the Oriental Thai Cooking School in Bangkok, Thailand, the Perrier-Jouët House in Champagne, France, and The Barn at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, inspired him to focus on regional, seasonal, and creative dishes.
When the Blue Point first opened, Chef McGann would wheel a cart “two minutes” to a farm stand in the parking lot of the nearby waterfront shops, load up on vegetables, and head back to the kitchen.
His supply list has extended over the years, but McGann still tries to keep everything local.
The seafood, for example, comes from Virginia and North Carolina. One of the first-course staples is the Blue Point’s Traditional She Crab Soup, which McGann says sells an average of 300 orders per week in-season.
The dish is started with live Blue Jimmy crabs or Sooks. The stock is then simmered for 90 minutes, rested for another 30, and strained. A mirepoix of vegetables, Spanish sherry, cayenne, nutmeg, cream, and crab claw meat seasons the dish, and a garnish of jumbo lump crab, more sherry, and a dusting of Old Bay seasoning is added at service ($13.50 for the bowl). When available, McGann also adds female crab roe, giving the course its name.
Customers are clearly responding.
Power says the restaurant had gross revenue of around $3.5 million last year with an average check of $55 for dinner and $22 for lunch. Credit that to another risk that’s paid off, McGann says.
“From the very beginning we had committed ourselves to being open year-round,” the chef explains. “And we felt like we wanted to be there for our guests, especially those that came in the winter time on a dark, quiet, cold Friday night. They would walk up the boardwalk with a good breeze in their face and walk into this little restaurant that had all this wonderful energy in it. There was something going on in Duck all the time because the Blue Point was there for them.”
Battling the seasonal highs and lows has only become easier as well. “The season has grown since we’ve been here.
There are really only four months when it’s desolate out here,” Power says. “Even then, our best customers are customers who own second homes down here. And, of course, the ones who use those homes a lot. People will come down for the weekend. If it looks like it’s going to be a pretty weekend in January, they’ll come down—from Richmond [Virginia], or Raleigh, or [Washington] D.C.”
Economic development and the growing affluence of the region has helped. The median price of a conventional residential property sold in 2014 in Duck was $484,137, according to Shore Realty.
The extensive wine menu, originally crafted by Power and McGann but now handled by second-level sommelier John Lenhart—the restaurant’s bar manager and wine director—has selections ranging from a $26 bottle of 2013 Loosen Bros. Dr. L Riesling to a $475 Groth Cabernet Vertical Napa with options of the ’02, ’03, and ’04 vintages.
Power says Blue Point has had bottles as steep as $800 in the past that sold.
“I think that’s always been a passion of the restaurant,” McGann says. “You can’t have quality food without a good glass of wine to go with it. And vice versa.”
Some of the favorite house cocktails include the Carolina Cooler, a combination of St. Germaine, Sauvignon Blanc, fresh lime, Maraschino cherry, and soda ($10); and the Southern Boy—Makers Mark, muddled mint, sorghum syrup, and ginger ale ($11).
The Blue Point also makes all of its breads, ice creams, and sorbets in-house. Dessert selections include Warm Southern Pecan Pie with a brown butter caramel sauce, and bourbon ice cream ($8); the Blue Point’s Brown Cow—Stewart’s Root Beer, vanilla bean ice cream ($7.50); and the adult-friendly Jack & Coke Float—Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, Coca-Cola, and vanilla bean ice cream ($8.50).
One thing that’s kept the Blue Point rolling, McGann says, is innovation. He allows his staff, including Chef de Cuisine David McClary, who assumed the role in 1994, to brainstorm new menu items.
The fare changes multiple times each week, and McGann says learning and adapting is one of the restaurant’s greatest strengths. “Reading and traveling and just realizing what we do is a constant learning experience for us,” Chef McGann explains. “We’re always trying to teach ourselves something new.”
Power says the average tenure of a server at the Blue Point is 12 to 15 years, showcasing the kind of environment they’ve fostered since opening.
When they started, Power employed around 20 people. That’s ballooned to 50, a number that “may drop” to 40 during the offseason.
“It’s very consistent. People are always requesting certain servers. Our customers are buying them baby presents and house-warming gifts,” he says.
Duck’s split-personality weather has naturally become a way of life. In the past 26 years, Power remembers only one storm that caused enough damage to shut the restaurant down.
However, the threat of impending storms, especially during the Atlantic hurricane season—which typically runs from the beginning of June until the end of November, does affect patrons’ appetites, he admits.
“The mere mention of a hurricane can really affect what goes down around here,” he says. “We talk about weather, but it’s one of those things that we sometimes forget makes the beach different. The weather can change in an instant.”
As far as the future goes, Power and McGann aren’t feeling antsy. Power says they’ve opened, developed, and sold two restaurants—Ocean Boulevard, a 70-seat bistro in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and The Good Life Gourmet, a bakery, sandwich, and retail shop in Kill Devil Hills—but realized they’re simply happy where they are.
“The Blue Point has been very good to us,” Power says. “We’re here looking forward to reaching 30 [years] and continuing to love what we do.
“We have this beautiful place with a wonderful view, and we’re very fortunate to have been this successful for this long, and we hope to continue.”