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High Hammock: Opened with optimism, restaurant closes quietly

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

When Maverick Southern Kitchens opened High Hammock nearly two years ago, it was with great optimism and high expectations.

Company officials were confident the restaurant, located at the Hammock Shops, would be a success despite a dismal economy.

“We thought the signs of economic downturn would not adversely affect coastal South Carolina and that was a miscalculation,” said Dick Elliott, the company’s president.

High Hammock quietly closed its doors on Tuesday and a “for sale” sign went up at the building, which the company remodeled before the restaurant opened in January 2009.

Maverick tried to create “a Pawleys Island version of the comfortable fine dining restaurants” it has in Charleston — High Cotton and Slightly North of Broad. Those restaurants already had a following in the area, which was another reason company officials were comfortable opening a new restaurant during a recession.

“We attracted a significant customer base and we appreciate that support,” Elliott said.

But it wasn’t as much as the company anticipated going in.

The company also miscalculated when it predicted seasonal fluctuations in population were diminishing, as they have in Charleston.

“The seasonal changes remain significant and that is a major challenge for our type of business, which requires a well-trained and consistent work force year-round,” Elliott said.

Though there were rumors of the restaurant’s closing earlier this summer, the news came as a surprise to many. Other tenants at the Hammock Shops were notified on the day of the closing in a letter from Elliott and the restaurant’s general manager, Kevin Desmarais.

Market research indicated a restaurant like High Hammock would be “a welcomed change of pace from the many great casual choices in the area,” according to the letter. While many regulars agreed, others said High Hammock didn’t fit with the relaxed atmosphere of Pawleys Island and did not satisfy expectations, it continued.

“As we tried to accommodate the variety of tastes, we confused everyone and our efforts were inconsistent — not a good recipe for success,” the letter said. “We’ve concluded we should stick to the dining concepts we do best and allow [the] Hammock Shops to provide a restaurant with greater appeal and drawing power for your benefit.”

Having a restaurant open in that location is important to other businesses at the Hammock Shops. The spot was occupied by Louis’s restaurant before High Hammock moved in.

Louis’s closed in September 2008 and for the next four months, shop owners noticed a drop in traffic at the Hammock Shops, especially on Sundays.

“A lot of people will combine a shopping trip with their lunch,” said John Henry Whitmire, owner of Whitmire Fine Jewelry. “We’re fortunate that Roz’s [Rice Mill Cafe] is still open and has an excellent following.”

Whitmire’s store has been at the Hammock Shops since 1977 and he said he’s seen a number of restaurants come and go. It always hurts business when they close.

“The restaurant is one of our main anchors,” he said. “I hope they replace it with something like Louis’s.”

Whitmire said he believes the spot can be home to a successful restaurant, but High Hammock wasn’t a good fit.

“I think they missed the idea that Pawleys Island is a very casual place; that we like our fun and we don’t like to get dressed up to have it.”

Elliott said he is collaborating with the owners of the Hammock Shops to find a buyer for the restaurant.

“The Hammock Shops is an exceptional retail center and the owners are great to work with,” he said. “For the right concept and operator, this restaurant presents a great opportunity.”

High Hammock was a good neighbor, said Darlene Adams, manager at The Original Hammock Shop. She’ll be sorry to see it go, but said they left with class.

“I like that they passed around this nice letter rather than just closing the doors and leaving,” she said. “They’re not burning their bridges.”

She, too, wants to see a new restaurant move in soon, but she said she expects the Original Hammock Shop won’t be hurt as much by the absence as other shops.

“We’ve been here 30-plus years and we’re right here on the highway,” she said. “We probably will feel some effect of not having a large restaurant back there, but not like the other shops farther back.”

The date of High Hammock’s closing came just one day before the two-year anniversary of when renovations on the building started. Plans are for employees to spend this week packing up and cleaning out the building.

All of High Hammock’s employees will receive severance benefits, continuation of health insurance coverage and assistance in finding new employment, Elliott said.

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