Only blocks away from the epicenter of what Southern Living calls one of the South’s Tastiest Towns, the Saltbox Seafood Joint at 608 N. Mangum St. sits nestled comfortably in Durham’s Old Five Points neighborhood.
“I live in Chapel Hill,” said businessman and Saltbox patron, Tom Vickers. “But I always try to time my trips to Durham to get here before they sell out. This is the best seafood I’ve ever had.”
The owner, chef, manager and one-man cleanup crew, Ricky Moore, opened the Saltbox Seafood Joint in October 2012 with the intention of bringing quality food to all who would care to venture down the oyster lined aisle to his outdoor order and pick up windows.
“People want something authentic regardless of your economic background or where you come from,” said Moore. “You come here because you want quality and everybody deserves quality food.”
But some in the Old Five Points community claim that although the quality is good, the high prices will deter those nearby who are looking for cheaper options.
“It should be moved somewhere else because too many people are having to walk from downtown to eat there,” said Karen Joyner of the Durham Economic Resource Center, located right around the corner from the Saltbox. “I don’t think too many people from around here go there because it’s expensive. You got to pay too much money for a fish sandwich.”
According to the Durham County 2014 Health Assessment, high obesity rates are representing 65 percent of the Durham population. In addition, the report also shows that 16.6 percent of Durham residents are within poverty range including 40.6 percent of female single parent families.
“There are some people choosing between medicine and food,” said Kelly Warnock, Program Manager for Durham County’s Nutrition Communications and Health Promotion office.
“Marketing gives off this idea that eating healthy has to cost more. Right across from the Saltbox, we are working to get healthier options,” said Warnock. “Both farmers’ markets in Durham are accepting SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and we have a nutritionist that’s going around trying to get healthier food in stores, but it’s going to take time to change this mindset.”
Chef Moore understands how expensive it is to eat healthy.
“Seafood is the most expensive protein in the food service world,” said Moore. “But foreign fish are handled and fed differently than local, and they sell this stuff to us and it’s cheap. I don’t have frozen fish. I don’t do quality to exclude, I do it because it’s what I know.”
Chef Moore says that although he knows prices may deter some from eating at his restaurant, he hopes the Old Five Points community will begin to think of the Saltbox Seafood Joint as one of their own.
“I’m a neighborhood joint first,” said Moore. “Neighborhood spots are the cornerstones of building and redefining communities. I want people to take ownership of this spot, to want to bring people to ‘their spot.’”
As the afternoon progresses, customers continue to pour into the front yard, lining up to place their orders in the afternoon sun— many of them regulars who chat casually with the chef while deciding what they want to eat.
“I come here as much as possible,” said Joseph Ross, who heard about the Saltbox from a coworker in Durham. “I know how early you have to be here to get crab grits on Saturday. I wasn’t a huge seafood fan before, but I am now.”
Chef Moore reaffirms that The Saltbox Seafood Joint, which is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. or until the fish runs out, is built on customer service and a small town feel. Although some may have their doubts, he said he isn’t worried about its future.
“I believe in what I’m doing because this is coming from a good place,” said Moore. “The constant interaction with customers is what keeps me going.”