SC seafood restaurateur taps into hometown nostalgia

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MAULDIN, S.C. (AP) – Don Deas, or Dontrelle, as his mom calls him, shares a first name with former all-star pitcher Dontrelle Willis, but he isn’t throwing fastballs anymore – southern comfort food is his game now.

“I gave up too many home runs, so I fry fish now,” said Deas, who owns the Low Country Shrimper in Mauldin.

The restaurant is a the staple in the Golden Strip city’s food scene and Deas is building on his success there with the addition of a second business, an ice cream shop called Pop’s Cabin Creamery next to the Mauldin Cultural Center.

It makes for an exciting, but also scary time for Deas, who never thought he’d be a restaurant owner, let alone be opening a second food establishment. When he was a kid, said his mom, Agnes Deas, he dreamed of growing up to be a baseball player and she never saw him going the culinary route, either.

But Deas, 47, said after beginning his career working at BMW and jotting down plans for a restaurant over the years, he realized when he turned 40 that he was tired of being afraid to chase his dreams.

“I woke up and said, ‘Man I just want to do something’,” he said. ” I’d rather die knowing I tried something than be on my death bed and think about the things I’ve done in my life and I haven’t really done anything … I just want to have some memories that I used this body, that I’ve used this brain.”

And with that, he opened the Low Country Shrimper in November 2015.

HOMETOWN NOSTALGIA INSPIRES MAULDIN RESTAURANT

Here where forkfuls of fried fish, Otis Redding on the radio and walls decorated with nets and anchors set the scene, Deas is evoking a nostalgia for the days he spent fishing with his dad on the Pee Dee and Lowcountry’s waterways. A native of Florence, he left for the Upstate in the 1990s to play baseball at Spartanburg Methodist College.

Florence has a different pace, it’s a simple way of living, Deas said. It’s hard to a put a finger on it, he said, but he’s tried to capture that same magic with his laid-back restaurant, which draws inspiration for its name from a place Deas used to love called The Shrimper.

“I grew up going there and it had a taste of the South,” he said. “I just realized (the Upstate) didn’t have a place that reminded me of home.”

The flavor of Deas’ food is inspired by the home-cooking of his mother, who taught him how to season food such as the restaurant’s house-made batter and its tartar and cocktail sauces, he said.

“My mom had a knack for making salt and pepper taste different,” he said.

His favorite dish on the menu, which is loaded with southern staples like po’ boys, shrimp and grits and hush puppies, is the fried fish that reminds him of home, he said.

“It immediately reminds me of going out fishing with my dad,” Deas said, recalling getting home and hearing his mom start the fryer as he took a shower.

‘IF YOU LOVE HIS FOOD, YOU’RE GOING TO LOVE DONTRELLE’

Deas crediting his mom as a main inspiration behind his restaurant means a lot, Agnes Deas said.

“Sometimes I get in chills just thinking about him, I’m just so very proud of him,” his mom said. “His seasoning could have started from me, but I think he’s taken it to a little higher level to bring out who he is.”

Their neighborhood in Florence where Deas and his three older siblings were raised was a place where almost everyone loved to cook and it was also a place filled with love, where you could borrow a cup of rice or sugar, she said.

That love resonates in the warmth Deas brings to his customers as well as his employees, many of whom are young locals he takes under his wing.

Shayla Reid, 20, said she’s loved her experience working at the restaurant. She started about three years ago after she graduated from Hillcrest High School and now she’s working full-time while studying psychology at Greenville Technical College, she said.

Reid said she’s learned patience and people skills, how to multi-task and become more responsible.

“I like seeing the end result and feeling like I made a difference in someone’s life,” Deas said, noting that he often sees young employees personalities’ and confidence blossom as they learn life skills such as personal charm and customer service.

It’s all translated into an atmosphere that has drawn a loyal customer base.

Regulars Gary and Sue Roderer, of Simpsonville, said they frequent the restaurant a couple times per week, often ordering fish tacos or the shrimp and grits. They love the quality, consistency and variety of the food, the music and “homey” ambiance and Deas’ friendly personality, the couple said.

“The taste of his food is who he is. If you love his food, you’re going to love Dontrelle,” said Agnes Deas.

NEW BEGINNINGS AMID THE PANDEMIC

COVID-19 hasn’t made things any easier, but that hasn’t slowed down Deas’ vision for his business in Mauldin. Lunchtime and catering sales have taken major hits of about 60% and 80%, respectively, Deas said, but that’s been offset to some extent by dinner orders, including takeout, that are up about 50%.

“We’ve been fortunate to keep our heads above water,” he said.

And now, Deas is thankful his leap of faith in opening the Low Country Shrimper has led to another opportunity, even amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.

He’s betting on the success of Pop’s Cabin Creamery, as the weather warms and people look for somewhere to go outside. The ice cream shop is set to open March 1 next to the Cultural Center and with it Deas hopes his relationship with the Mauldin community continues to flourish.

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