Hanna Raskin’s monthly column, a partnership with The Food Section, looks at the stories behind what we eat.

It’s an unexpected summer of love in Calabash, North Carolina.

A few weeks ago, Kurt Hardee received his first shipment of T-shirts branded with a circular “Beck’s & Ella’s One Love” logo. Hardee, owner of Beck’s Original Calabash Restaurant and Ella’s of Calabash, said the illustration was designed in the wake of a devastating fire at the latter last April – to reassure patrons that both seafood institutions have a certain future of breading and frying fish.

“With insurance, we’re just in a holding pattern,” Hardee said of drawn-up plans to rebuild the 73-year-old restaurant, which was ripped apart in what was ruled an unintentional cooking fire. “I don’t want to put down a whole entire industry, but it stinks the way they do things. They’re quick to cancel you, but they drag their feet to pay.”

In the meantime, Beck’s has absorbed Ella’s employees and customers, although a deluge of the latter has challenged the former.

“I just told my wife I’m working harder than I ever did,” Hardee said, logging 15-hour days at the neighboring seafood house. “Part of it is I have all this stress built up [from the fire], but this restaurant has just been overwhelmed.”

Still, Hardee knows the drill. His great-aunts in the 1940s opened Coleman’s Original and Beck’s, the restaurants credited with developing the light, crisp cornmeal batter synonymous with Calabash-style seafood, and his grandfather opened Ella’s, a legend among tourists who since the 1960s have flocked to Brunswick County for combo platters with coleslaw. As a result, he has personal or professional connections to just about every ruinous fire in the self-proclaimed “Seafood Capital of the World.”

Over the last quarter-century, at least half a dozen Calabash seafood houses have burned down, including Coleman’s and Beck’s.

Hardee’s sister and business partner, Shaun Bellamy, told The Brunswick Beacon in 2014 that she kept after him “to make sure Ella’s is thoroughly checked out and safe from any electrical problems” after a 2012 fire attributed to faulty wiring took Beck’s offline for six months.

While seafood houses aren’t as notorious as barbecue pits for going up in flames, plunging hush puppies into oil heated to 375-degree Fahrenheit is only marginally safer than dripping lard on smoldering coals. 

And many of the region’s most beloved fried fish purveyors are housed in aging buildings—and with a customer base so thrifty that Beck’s menu imposes a split-plate fee on its $9.95 lunch special, necessary upgrades are often too costly to contemplate.

Just across the state line to the south, fire has forced both Tadpole Fish Camp in Greer and Preston’s Seafood in North Myrtle Beach to suspend operations this summer.

What Hardee’s family learned from Beck’s rebuild will be applied to Ella’s, and they’ll also benefit from a similarly streamlined kitchen. “We had too much space,” he said. Hardee is also considering “maybe turning the restaurant: Physically twisting it to face the road,” rather than a parking lot.

Hardee hopes to start work later this year. Until then, he’ll be at Beck’s, ringing up customers at a counter that now doubles as a display table for Beck’s & Ella’s One Love coffee mugs.

Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a newsletter covering food and drink across the South. You can reach her at hanna@theassemblync.com.