- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Captain John’s Crab House on Cobb Island has been a longtime meeting place for seafood enthusiasts from all over. This year, the restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Situated shortly before the bridge that connects Cobb Island proper to the mainland, Captain John’s is a white and brown building with a pier that one can tell is dazzling to sit on when the sun is setting in the summer months. The restaurant has made its business serving a plethora of different homemade items to groups both large and small, and comes from humble roots, much like the family that runs it.
“When it first opened, it was very heavy into wholesale seafood, too,” owner Skip Yates said. “We still get our rockfish and as much as we can like that local, but I guess we moved away from that sometime in the 1980s.”
Jack Yates, Skip’s father as well as the son-in-law of original owner and restaurant namesake John Shymansky, said the restaurant began with a small menu that has expanded over time. Originally, Skip Yates said, the restaurant was a small room with a smaller kitchen. The second kitchen was added in 1968, the carryout store in the early 1970s and the second floor in the 1990s.
Despite its place in the community and its longevity, Skip Yates said the biggest challenge is keeping fresh seafood stocked.
“It’s also about quality help and keeping up with rising prices,” Skip Yates said. On a busy day, Skip Yates said, it’s possible to use more than 90 bushels of crabs.
The family agreed that the restaurant’s biggest challenge came when Hurricane Isabel blew through the area in 2003.
“There was water up to here,” Jack Yates said, motioning to a point on the wall where the wood paneling ends and the painted portion begins.
“We were closed completely for a week,” Skip Yates said. “We closed it off and cleaned up enough to open small portions of the restaurant. You’d be eating and hear people up banging on the roof at the same time. We always get nervous when high tides and hurricanes come through here.”
The hurricane, however, was the restaurant’s push to remodel.
“It was a long process, but it wasn’t too big of a dealbreaker,” Skip Yates said.
“We’ve been real close before. The water has been to the edge of the floor, but that was the worst,” Jack Yates said.
Through the years, Skip Yates said, business has remained pretty consistent, save for a small dip when the recession hit. The restaurant always has been family owned and operated, which has set it apart, as has its location.
“This one’s right on the water, and it’s really pretty when it’s a nice day out,” said Brianna Smith, Skip Yates’ granddaughter. “When the sun is setting, you can see everything, and on weekends, there’s usually fireworks.”
“I think consistently, we strive for good product and good service all the time, so when people come back, they get the same service that they got the time before and the same good food; it’s not a crapshoot,” Skip Yates said.
When asked what stories stood out through the restaurant’s history, Paula Smith, Skip’s daughter, said she remembered the restaurant seeing its first proposal on the dock.
“Customers always email us and tell us they had their first date here, and they always come back for their anniversary,” Skip Yates said. “That happens all the time. I still see customers come in here that I remember from when I was a teenager.”
The family’s emotions ran high when the conversation veered toward football season at the restaurant. Paula Smith said she remembered her grandmother Christine Yates, who passed away in 2009, behind the bar cheering on the Washington Redskins.
“A lot of my memories are of her shouting for touchdowns and stuff, and all the customers joining in and having a good old time,” Paula Smith said.
“She was a pretty solid person around here,” Skip Yates said. “She loved talking to all the customers. Paula’s picking up on that now.”
“Customers have referred to me as a miniature her. She always loved just to laugh and talk about anything with anyone,” Paula Smith said.
“The life of the place,” Jack Yates added. “She was always here when you needed her here. People really liked her.”
Recently, Skip Yates said, the restaurant hosted a customer who sailed here from the West Coast.
“He said he came down from California through the Panama Canal. ... He was headed to [Washington, D.C.] to get his daughter and said he plans to come back through,” Skip Yates said. “During Isabel, we had a catamaran out here from Alaska. And I’ve got a guy in Germany who always contacts me asking for one of our calendars.”
The family agreed that the restaurant is a hallmark of Charles County culture.
“We’ve been around so long, I think so,” Jack Yates said.
“Not that many businesses stay open that long, much less with the same family continuously,” Skip Yates added.
Moving forward, Skip Yates said he is unsure how the restaurant will be affected by the insurance requirements for small businesses mandated as part of the Affordable Care Act, set to take effect Jan. 1. That, he said, likely will be the biggest challenge.
“We just pay close attention to the seafood and the service, and that’s kept us here,” Skip Yates said.
Another local restaurateur and president of the Business Alliance of Charles County, Ken Gould, said that Captain John’s is an exemplary model for the service industry.
“The fact that they’ve made it to 50 years is incredible,” Gould said. “This business is tough, and it’s incredible they’ve stayed vibrant. With family business, there’s both ends of the spectrum ... and clearly they’ve been able to pass it along, and that creates a passion within the family. If the ownership is passionate, then the workers will be, too, and that leads to success. They’re always very friendly, and you always run into someone you know there. It’s a great example for Charles County business.”
Edith “Sissy” Swann, a 37-year employee of the restaurant, said she loves how close-knit it is.
“Not a day goes by where I don’t miss having Christine there,” Swann said. “We’re all like family down there. Paula is like my granddaughter. We’re far down, but people travel quite a ways to come there, and they enjoy it because they know it’s good.”