I Got Your Crabs is about a lot more than crabs

By on May 24, 2016

Olivia and Hunter Stuart opened I Got Your Crabs in July 2012.

The story of how I Got Your Crabs started is as iconic and as Americana as a Norman Rockwell painting.

From the humble beginnings of a little Curritucker selling crabs from a red wagon to being featured in the pages of national publications, the Stuart family’s storefront eatery has grown into a mecca on the Outer Banks with locals and visitors alike.

Once you learn how the simple seafood restaurant at milepost 4 on the bypass in Kitty Hawk got its name, the moniker makes so much sense.

On a recent chilly night, we slid onto the orange cushioned stools, taking our place at the gleaming stainless steel counter.

Abby Stewart pulled a length of brown butcher paper from a roller and laid it down in front of us.

Our orders placed, we took in the ambiance: cozy and convivial. We see other guests we know, and everyone seems to know everyone else.

We are seated just across from the kitchen pass and take note of the baskets of bright orange-red crabs being pulled from the double-stacked steamers.

On the wall before us, a neon Pabst beer sign anchors the upper right corner. A glance over our shoulder to the other counter reveals a bright red crab over a mirror.

Sharing the wall space all around are framed photos showing our hosts’ family at work on the water. They go back a generation or three.

A lone North Carolina license plate is there too, framed. It reads CRABGIRL.

In moments. the beers and appetizers land on the counter. We’ll all be sharing and tasting the crab bisque, the oyster stew and the curiously named Currituck Dip Sticks: fried egg-roll skins stuffed with rich crab dip accompanied with a tangy dipping sauce.

Yes, we’re dipping deep-fried dip into a dip. It’s over the top, but that’s what a night like this is about.

Then there are the soups.

We have some difficulty getting our dining mate to relinquish the crab bisque, and we return the favor by hoarding the oyster stew, which is the best tasting version we’ve ever had.

There is a background spice reminiscent of a curry, but that probably isn’t it, and they aren’t going to tell me. It is so full of freshly shucked oysters that we can’t eat them all.

They are so soft and plump, they obviously only went in when the order was placed.


Steamed shrimp and a dozen crabs, a little small due to the season, appear. We choose from several of their sauce offerings, a cocktail, some horseradish and a tangy Asian one. Then we dig in.

The crabs are dusted with JO brand spice. It was coarser, richly spicy and had us rethinking our allegiances to Old Bay and Zatarans. The shrimp were plump, tasty and easy to peel.

There is an art to eating steamed blue crabs, and we have not yet mastered it. But we soldiered on anyway and found all the yummy bits along with the back fin lumps.

A few weeks later, we would watch video from the 2014 Outer Banks Seafood Festival showing I Got Your Crabs proprietor Hunter Stuart demonstrating just how easy it is to break down a crab into manageable bites.

Soon we will head back with this new-found knowledge. A word to those wanting to try the hard crabs: Ask for help, and the staff will be happy to break them down for you. This is preferable to smashing the whole thing into a pulp with the provided baton.

Rolls of paper towel posted at every couple of seats confirm that eating with your fingers is completely acceptable here.

But this is also an oyster bar made specifically for raw oyster lovers, so we ordered two-dozen for dessert.

Our first raw oyster, the one that set the hook years ago, was at a New Orleans bar where they cracked them open right in front of you.

That has been our gold standard for our raw experience, and we are so happy to have found that here.

Our affable server, Abby, deftly popped them and plopped them down while carrying on a conversation. Normally we’d slurp them just as fast, but needing to get a good line up for a photo I was just able to restrain Russ long enough for a shot.

How it all began

There was a story here and to find out as we sat down with the husband-and-wife team of Hunter and Olivia Stonesifer Stuart. It was not too easy to do because he is a man on a mission.

Opening the restaurant is the latest of successful seafood sales ventures. Hunter and his sisters are the third generation in his family to take up the trade.

Like many of those who make their career on the water, Hunter started young. What is a little different is he was also selling his catch directly to the public before entering first grade.

I Got Your Crabs
Shellfish Market and Oyster Bar
3809 N Croatan Hwy, Kitty Hawk
(252) 449-2483
http://igotyourcrabs.com
Open 7 days a week
11:30 am to 9:00 pm

At age 5, with the gift of a small boat and three pots, Hunter would pile the crabs he caught into his Radio Flyer wagon and sell door-to-door along his street on Bells Island, and a waterman-turned-entrepreneur was born.

One of the photos on the wall is of his grandmother Nell Stuart with her catch. She and Hunter’s Grandfather Harrel played a large part in his formation and direction.

The second generation, Watson Stuart, is not only a crabber but also operates the well-regarded Stuart’s Hunting Lodge on Bells Island.

Hunter became an integral part of his father’s operations, working all summer and before and after school, working on the path of one day having his own crabbing business.

The people in his life provided the example and the inspiration to make it happen.

Another move to sell directly to the public was a trailer. Obviously holding many more bushels than the old Red Ryder, Hunter and his sisters Amber and Katelyn would load it up and park it at the Border Station at the state line and the sisters would sell to passing motorists.

Some came solely for the purpose of buying their crabs from as far away as Richmond and Culpeper, Va., such was the pricing difference. That practice has been going strong for 12 years.

“This is what really went on,” Stuart said. “People kept calling me at my house wanting crabs, non-stop.”

“Surely there’s a demand if there’s 15 people calling on me every weekend,” said Stuart. “So we put that up (as the name).”

The Kitty Hawk location took a little time to take shape. The Stuarts originally intended to merely have a local outlet for in-house live crabs and perhaps some sandwiches.

They had rented the space for a year before opening and in the intervening time, the plans kept growing.

“We’re in love with C and H Oyster Bar in Elizabeth City,” said Olivia. “They talk with the Weeksville accent. It’s old school and people drive from here to there.”

Hunter Stuart, Lynn Corbell, Vernon Ward, Randy Turner, Brian Lesinksi, and others make the best of Hurricane Sandy flooding in 2012. (Olivia Stuart)

Seeing an opportunity for a similar operation on the northern beaches, they had a basic model for their new business.

Once the menus and kitchen were all worked out, they opened the Kitty Hawk restaurant in July 2012, carrying forward a family tradition with Hunter’s unique stamp.

The restaurant had only been open a couple of months when Hurricane Sandy inundated much of Kitty Hawk between the highways. The Stuarts were able to save the newly purchased restaurant equipment from the flood waters by putting it all up on the counters.

And rather than see all their inventory go to waste, they held an impromptu paddle-in seafood feast that became an iconic photograph of Outer Bankers resiliency during the historic storm.

“Nobody turns lemons into lemonade like my hubby,” Olivia said in October 2012.

The photo remains the restaurant’s Facebook page profile picture to this day.

A true family operation

Plying the waters on both sides of the state line, from Back Bay and North Landing River in Virginia to the Currituck and Albemarle Sounds fills much of Hunter’s days, so it is rare to find him at the restaurant.

Amber Tice and the restaurant’s namesake.

His mother, Kathy Chilton, and his sister, Amber Tice, manage the day-to-day operations there. Friends and cousins round out the staff. Amber maintains their website and stays on top of sites such as TripAdvisor reviews.

Olivia, who seems to have the energy reserves of three people, is a behind-the-scenes dynamo.

She cares for the couple’s two small children, owns and operates Salon Swank just up the road, and besides T-shirt and other merchandising, handles the bookkeeping and outside promotions such as The Big Curri-shuck, the Crabdaddy Seafood and Wine/Beer Festival and other benefit functions.

“I’m the brainstormer with the wild ideas and put into my husband’s head,” Olivia said. Her enthusiasm for the business and the family is infectious.

“We are a great team together because that’s what family does,” Olivia said. “We couldn’t do any of this without them all.”

As to that license plate we mentioned before: It was the plate on the truck driven by Hunter’s older sister, April.

According to Hunter’s mother, Kathy, she too was an “overachiever.” Olivia explained that April was Hunter’s “rock and shield.”

As the family endured struggles, as many do, April smothered him with love and took cared for her young brother. She was Hunter’s champion and the two shared a close bond.

April Stuart was Currituck High School’s Valedictorian in 1996, and held a Bachelor of Science degree at Wake Forest University, where she majored in biology and minored in chemistry.

She had just graduated from the Mercer University Walter F. George School of Law in 2003 and was preparing to take her bar exams when she succumbed to a sudden illness, passing on at age 25.

It is easy to see the memory of her at work in the drive and determination in her family, working hard to make every day count.

The license plate serves as a silent tribute and honors her family connection to a way of life on the water. A life well lived.

Epilogue

It is a bright day in early spring. We have returned for a light lunch.

A woman and her boyfriend enter and take stools just down the counter from us. Her excitement is spilling over.

Returning visitors to the area, she had been here before and one of the goals of her stay was to introduce her new boyfriend to his first raw oyster.

He resigned to the task as his girlfriend’s insistence would not diminish.

He took a breath, tossed it back, and just like that there was another oyster lover in our midst. With that feat accomplished, we leaned over and fist bumped.

Those moments in life deserve a celebration, however humble.



See what people are saying:

  • Bonnie Brooks

    The best seafood we’ve had in a few years 🙂 We were there in early July 2017 and had one large family seafood feast and a smaller gathering at the end of our vacation. Between the two visits, we had 1 1/2 bushels of steamed crabs, several pounds of steamed spice shrimp, several dozen of steamed clams and a few pounds of steamed snow crab legs.

    Sunday, Jul 16 @ 7:50 pm