Big Ray Goes Full Circle, From Catching Crabs to Cooking and Serving Them
By J.R. Rosenberry
Ray Rogers knows a little something about seafood, especially crabs, and he has no problem accepting heavenly directions. “Big Ray,” as he is called, is co-owner of the Tybee Island restaurant Sting Ray’s, which features seafood, live music and a relaxed atmosphere under the shade of beach umbrellas on a large deck beside Butler Avenue.
His partner and son is “Little Ray,” who provided the inspiration and most of the hard work for Sting Ray’s startup in 200l. Little Ray, who had previously worked in several area restaurants, suggested they purchase Poor Pat’s, a small outdoor eatery formerly located on the site, when it came on the market.
”Are you crazy!” was Big Ray’s response. After reflection, however, he said: “If you really want to do it, you get the paperwork all lined up and see all we have to get and we’ll go in as partners.”
Looking back now, Big Rays says: “I don’t really know what I expected I just knew I was going to crab and be a partner to him and he was gonna run the place.”
Big Ray knew little about the restaurant business at the time but he did know crabs, having operated a boat for more than 25 years, running his crab traps out of Tumees Creek on Wilmington Island.
After purchasing Poor Pat’s, the new owners completely remodeled it both out-• side and in. They also acquired an adjacent surf shop on the comer of 15th St. and Butler Ave. incorporating that space into the restaurant.
Purchasing that shop and expanding to the corner “just opened everything up,” according to Big Ray.
Installing the massive deck and providing live musical entertainment outside, along with the installation of a comfortable bar and seating area in the air-conditioned area inside also helped.
“The outside music really started making things happen because you need entertainment,” he says. “When people are sitting here waiting on their food, to have somebody entertain them, it doesn’t seem it takes so long. Making people take their mind off how long they are waiting on their food makes a big difference.”
“We have a very small kitchen back there and what we produce out of that kitchen, some people would think it was a miracle.
Sometimes I think it’s a miracle.” He says the restaurant business grew quickly, based primarily on word of mouth from satisfied customers.
Initially, it was operated much like Poor Pat’s had been, with only three employees. Things changed considerably in the following five years.
”At a peak we probably have 45 people working for us now,” he says. “Of course as the season ends, you go thinner. You have a lot of summer people and it slows down and they all go back to school and you don’t need as many people do in’ everything.”" In this business, most of these kids don’t want to work five or six days a week. They are in it for three days, maybe four, so you’ve got to have a lot of people so you have enough.”
“What people you usually see here are here for a good long time. If they leave or go off to school, when it’s time for their break again they come right back, which is a great thing. What’s’ the hardest thing is keeping good people, especially in this business because you only schedule what you need that day and all it takes is one person to call in to throw a wrench into everything.”
“If you can’t find somebody to fill in for them, with the waitress that means you have to give everybody else an extra table to cover for the one that’s missing.”
“If the cook’s missing that means me or my son have to get back there in the kitchen and pull time back there.”
Big Ray says he has no idea how much money they have invested in improvements but “if I knew when I bought it how much it was going to cost, since I didn’t know it would do this well, I never would have gone into this.” Now he is glad he did.
“We thought last year was a great year,” he says. “You say to yourself there’s only so much you can do and you think what you did last year.” Everything on the island is on an upward trend. If you didn’t make money this year it was because you weren’t open.” Sometimes, Big Ray says he looks at the place and says:
“Wow, I own this, but most of the time I don’t think about that. To me it’s just like you doing your job.”
He gives most of the credit for the restaurant’s success to Little Ray, who ran the operation while his father continued to operate his crab boat.
“In the beginning and tor the first couple of years he ran this place mainly by himself,” says Big Ray. “I mean cooking, all of that. He’s the one who set the groundwork and took this thing off.”
“He was the only cook back there. I would stop by after crabbing and help out with things but I didn’t even know how to operate a fryer.”
Big Ray was born in Savannah where his father worked as a butcher, starting out in the Colonial Grocery Store. He says the family shopped for groceries wherever his father worked, which had some real fringe benefits.
“I grew up thinking everybody ate T-bone steaks and baked potatoes for dinner,” he laughs.
Big Ray finally sold his crabbing operation last year and is now devoting a bit more time to the restaurant.
“It takes a strong back to run a crab boat and I don’t have one anymore,” he says.
Both of his sons, the youngest one now studying to be an engineer, “grew up working on the crab boat with me,” he says, adding: “It’s a good life for a kid. They always knew they had a job and could make money.”
Reflecting on his quarter century as a crabber, he says: “You miss being out there on the water. You miss going out there with your dog on the boat, just riding through the alt air, feeling free on nice days when it’s not too hot, not too cold and not too windy.”
The bad part is in foul weather when you have to go out because the market is up and “you have to make your money” or the good days when “you had to take off because the market got flooded.”
Big Ray says he got into crabbing working with a neighbor on his boat, then joined another crab boat operator who was looking for “someone he could depend on.”
“After a while he got to where he didn’t want to be on the boat and we went 60/40 on the operation.”
After a few years I bought a boat from somebody just to buy it and he thought I was going to go out on my own and he panicked.”
The man offered to sell Big Ray his entire operation, which he immediately purchased.
Emulating the former owner, Big Ray initially sold all his crabs through a Wilmington cooperative, but later became an independent operator where “I had an open market and could set my own prices.”
The change required him to purchase a truck and make his own deliveries “but in the long run it came out better,” he says. “I never would have found the markets I did and met the people I met. It made you more of a business person.
“Prior to his work as a waterman, Big Ray signed up for a three-year stint in the army shortly after marrying his Savannah High School sweetheart, Susan, in 1973.
“I thought I wanted to be a medic,” he says. “I thought I would be in a hospital, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t lucky.”
“I got assigned to an infantry unit. I was a medic out in the field. I went in with two other buddies and they were in a hospital. .. Nice whites, clean. I’m out there with the grunts, crawling in the dirt.
“He says ROTC training at Savannah High helped him in the army, leading to his rapid promotion to the rank of E4.
“I wasn’t the first one they chose but two days after they chose the other guy, they called us up there, ripped off his stripes, and said “Roger’s you’re it now. You’re grown. You know how to march.”
After completing basic training at Ft. Jackson in Columbia, SC, and medical training at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX, he was assigned to Ft Stewart for the remainder of his service.
“My two buddies, one went to Germany the other to Hawaii, and I said: “This is it? I don’t get to go nowhere?” “They said if you re-up we’ll send you anywhere you want. I said nah, I think I’ve had enough.”
Before rejecting the offer, he admits, he did give it some serious consideration because “ back then, if you went to school they paid for everything and the bonuses were good and they’d send you anywhere you wanted to go.”
“I guess I made the right decision. Of course, I could have been retired by now. I could have had 30 years in and still done the restaurant.”
“The scariest part then was not knowing what I was going to do.
He says his Susan, who will retire this year from her position as an engineer with the Georgia Department of Transportation, had nothing to do with his decision.
“I think she would have probably gone along with anything I wanted to do,” he says. “She is a one of a kind. Of course, she’s gotten older and wiser. When she was young it was different. “
Big Ray believes both crabbing and operating a restaurant “have their goods and they have their bads.” “Anybody can tell you in the restaurant business you’re going to put in a lot of hours, even if you’re not here, and the same thing with crabbing.”
“With crabbing there were things to be done after work besides delivering and repairs and maintenance. Stuff was always breaking and you would go out there and your traps would be robbed, which was like the biggest headache you had, or they would be stolen or they got run over accidentally by a boater.”
“But you come here to the restaurant and you still have the same things. Things break. You’ve got to have repairs, and people not showing up.”
“I’d say it was fifty-fifty after you look back and see what all you had to do.”
Big Ray says he might try a little crabbing again this fall if things are not too busy, but he’s pretty much convinced he has made the correct decisions all along.
“All I can say is you look back at a lot of things that have happened and you say “God must have known what He led you in the right direction somehow to make the right choices.”
“You got to feel sometimes that He’s up there and He actually is looking over you and making things go right.”