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Fisherman's Inn celebrates 90th year

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KENT NARROWS — Fisherman’s Inn Restaurant is celebrating its 90th year in business this year. Over the course of 90 years, as successful as times have been, the restaurant is no stranger to hard times, including fires and floods that have closed its doors, and numerous threatening and damaging hurricanes. The restaurant closed in mid-March due to coronavirus concerns and restrictions.

The restaurant was originally opened in 1930 at the beginning of the Great Depression by William Alexander Thomas, “Captain Alex” as he was called, the father of the late Betty Thomas Schulz. The restaurant was in a single-story home with four rooms and a small screened-in front porch, located not far from the restaurant’s current location.

The Thomas family began by servingcrabcakes and soft shell crab sandwiches to hungry motorists who stopped to fill their gas tanks, as the home had three Atlantic Gasoline Station pumps outside along Maryland Route 18. The restaurant had a capacity of 26 people at that time.

Over time, a restaurant similar to the one that now exists was built and developed, especially with the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952, into a thriving restaurant under the leadership of both Betty and the late Oscar “Sonny” Schulz, Betty’s husband.

Betty published a cookbook in 2005 that is still sold at the restaurant. Much of the interesting, early history of Fisherman’s Inn can be found in that book. She even listed the name of the first “hired cook” at Fisherman’s, an African American woman named Bertha Wilson in 1940, and there is a picture of Bertha in the cookbook. Fisherman’s has had numerous outstanding chefs over the years.

A 1958 menu shows a simple one-page menu offered at Fisherman’s, listing only sandwiches, beginning with a crab cake at 35 cents. It also has a cheeseburger at 35 cents; ham and cheese sandwich, 40 cents; bottled Coca Cola at 10 cents; and a slice of homemade pie was 20 cents. Betty referred to today’s restaurant menu of several pages as “a dilemma.”

On Dec. 22, 1980, the restaurant caught fire and burned to the ground. Betty once said, “I thought we were done! I credit Sonny for rebuilding the restaurant. He never hesitated. He told me, we can do it, and he made it happen. He immediately met with our staff and told them we’d be back on our feet soon. Within a little more than seven months, we rebuilt and reopened on July 28, 1981, with a seating capacity of 250.”

Over the years that followed Fisherman’s Inn has thrived. In that time, the members Schulz family became even more involved in the community outside their restaurant, supporting many local charities. They have always been big supporters of Chesterwye, the facility for developmentally disabled adults. The restaurant continues to host a Christmas luncheon each December for those adults who are served by Chesterwye.

When the new Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department opened nearly a decade ago, the Schulz’s hosted a free meal for the hundreds of locals who cared to tour the new fire house facility for the entire weekend. Sonny Schulz was asked, “How can you afford to do this? You always seem to be giving back to the community in many charitable ways.” Sonny turned, looking directly at the eyes of the person asking the question, and said, “The community has always given to me!” He didn’t blink. End of conversation.

Betty and Sonny are gone now, but their legacy lives on in their sons: Andy, Jody and Tracy, who continue to manage the restaurant with a loyal staff offering great selections of seafood dishes. They are always willing to work with everyone, especially groups looking for a place for meetings and celebrations year-round, with food at reasonable group prices.

A couple can come to Fisherman’s, each having their choice of a bowl of freshly made seafood soup, all the dinner rolls you can eat with butter, and beverage for as little as $20, plus tip. And there are many selections of seafood dishes at higher prices. If you choose to eat steak and lobster tail, expect to pay the market price. It’s a place that can accommodate everyone, and yes, there is a children’s menu.

While closed during COVID-19 restrictions, the brothers completed indoor renovations and replaced all seating at the booths and table seating, making it easier to quickly clean and sanitize each table completely after customers come and go. Tables have also been spread out inside the restaurant. The parking lot has also been upgraded with parking lot lines repainted. The same can be said about the spacing of tables at Fisherman’s Crab Deck, which is also owned by the family, serving seasonal steamed crabs.

There’s also a new electronic sign, replacing the old sign for Fisherman’s Inn and Crab Deck, where the old sign was once located. It took several years of planning to get the new sign installed.

The Schulz brothers are emphatic about the success of the restaurant coming from their dedicated employees. The word employee is not the preferred terminology the brothers like to use — the real word is “family” members. “Many of them (employees) are more like family to us,” said Jody Schulz. “We have some who are fourth generation at our restaurant working here. That’s about as close to family without being actual kin as you can get with people.”

One of those is Mary Lee (Seiling) Brown, who began working at Fisherman’s as a waitress when she was 19. She’s worked at the restaurant with the Schulz family for 47 years. Her mother, Leatrice Seiliing (Ms. Lee), was hostess at Fisherman’s before Mary Lee was working there. In her early teens, Mary Lee use to babysit the Schulz brothers.

Today, Mary Lee and her husband, Danny Brown, manage Fisherman’s Crab Deck, and Danny runs Fisherman’s Seafood Market next door. Their daughter has worked at Fisherman’s, as well as their two grand-daughters, one 19, one 17.

There are others: kitchen help Bengi Waters, who has been there 40 years; as well as Danny Clark, “mister fix-it”; waitresses Janet Akers and Valerie Price, who have both served for more than 25 years; and many others, too numerous to mention all of them.

Among the unique decor, the antique oyster plates Betty Schulz collected are on display throughout the restaurant. There are nearly 400 oyster plates. Numerous handcrafted model fishing and sailing boats, replicas of those that once graced the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, a large model train that circles around the restaurant from the ceiling, and paintings depicting life on the bay and an old lighthouse that no longer exists add to the atmosphere.

Queen Anne’s Commission President Jim Moran missed Fisherman’s Inn being open during the coronavirus closure. He said, “Fisherman’s is our go-to place for our family, my wife and I. We both bring our mothers there, and our children. I really miss Sonny being there coming around to meet and speak with everyone in the restaurant. Fisherman’s is a great meeting place!”

Queen Anne’s Commissioner Steve Wilson also commented, “I might be one of their most regular customers. I don’t know how to eat wearing a face mask, but I’ll learn! I’ve been waiting eagerly for them to reopen.”

Restrictions on indoor dining in Maryland lifted Friday at 5 p.m. Fisherman’s Inn will reopen today, Wednesday, June 17, at 11 a.m.

If you arrive and there’s a line, give your cell phone number to the hostess and wait safely inside your car. The hostess will send you a text as to when to come back inside to be seated. All restaurants are limited to 50% capacity for now, and CDC guidelines are in place to protect everyone.

This 90th anniversary in business is quite an accomplishment. Jody Schulz said, “We look forward to being here for our 100th anniversary.”

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