MILTON — Deep in the land of the Bobbie and the boardwalk fry, Lee and Amy Stewart planted the po’ boy.
The Stewarts opened a small Cajun restaurant, Po’ Boys Creole & Fresh Catch, around the corner from a dollar store in the summer of 2009. It was right in the middle of a recession. Lee Stewart had lost his job at a Rehoboth Beach restaurant when it closed.
“When we opened, it was out of necessity, because we were about to lose our house,” Amy Stewart said Friday.
The restaurant become an improbable success, voted as the town’s best restaurant by readers of one publication. But now, after four and a half years of daily preparations of gumbo, jambalaya and crawfish, the Stewarts are selling the place; today is their last day in the kitchen.
“Opening this restaurant and seeing the success that it has brought, and that our hard work has paid off, has given us the courage to take our next dreams and pursue them,” Amy Stewart said. “We really can’t do that and maintain this at the same time.”
The Stewarts announced Po’ Boys was for sale over the summer, a development that made locals who’d gotten used to the taste of their uncommon dishes – fried crawfish tails, oyster and shrimp po’ boy sandwiches, beignets for Sunday brunch – very, very nervous. “You are one of the reasons for us returning to Milton for vacation,” a Po’ Boys Facebook follower sighed.
Milton is only a few miles from Lewes and Rehoboth Beach, but its restaurant scene is much more sedate, more chicken salad than chicken cordon bleu. Both Stewarts had worked in the open-late, boozy beach restaurant scene for years, but Amy Stewart said Miltonians’ habit of eating dinner earlier helped them spend more time with their young son in the evening.
Since Po’ Boys opened, the town has seen more adventurous eateries arrive, like The Backyard, a modern American and restaurant and bar that opened this month.
“They established a foothold with cuisine they did very well,” said Ellen Passman, a Milton resident and frequent consumer of Po’ Boys gumbo. “It was a cross-cultural restaurant. Everybody met everybody in there.”
The owners embarked on a search for someone who would take over the business without swatting all the Creole meals off the menu. They turned down some suitors.
“We had a couple from D.C. who wanted to turn it into a Frogg Pond,” said Amy Stewart, a Rehoboth spot known for burgers, drink specials and live music – locally liked, but not a culinary gem. “And then there was another guy who was just a hothead chef.”
Allowing the restaurant to evolve away from Cajun food, they worried, would be a betrayal of their customers.
“We don’t have a death wish. People know us,” Amy Stewart said. “There’d be a lot of angry people running after us at Food Lion!”
Then an advisor at the University of Delaware’s Small Business Development Center connected the Stewarts to Michael Clampitt, 45, executive chef at Baywood Greens, a ritzy golf course near Millsboro. Clampitt was interested in owning his own restaurant; he also remembered working with Lee Stewart in the 1980s at Tijuana Taxi in Rehoboth.
“I flat out told him, you’d be an idiot to change the concept,” Amy Stewart said, and Clampitt agreed. He and the Stewarts soon sealed the deal. After a holiday break when the restaurant will be dark, Clampitt will put on a meet-the-new-guy evening on Jan. 9, with free food and cheap drinks. Then he’ll reopen for real on Jan. 10 with the same hours, the same menu and the same waitstaff as before.
“Everything they’ve done has been spot-on,” Clampitt said Friday. “That’s why I want to keep it.”
The Stewarts said they’ll use their new free time to take their son to kids’ resorts in Florida, then pursue other avocations. Amy Stewart has authored a children’s book, and “Chef Lee” intends to consult and teach.
“I need a break,” Lee Stewart said, sitting briefly in the restaurant Friday before returning to bubbling pots in the kitchen. “It’ll probably be awhile before I cook Cajun food at home. But after awhile I’m sure I’ll get a craving for gumbo.”
Contact James Fisher at (302) 983-6772, on Twitter www.twitter.com/JamesFisherTNJ or firstname.lastname@example.org.