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Episode 8: The Blue Point

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

In 1989, chef Sam McGann and high school friend John Power left Virginia Beach to start The Blue Point restaurant in Duck, North Carolina. Thirty-one years later, they're still going strong. McGann discusses his culinary inspirations and what it takes to run a great restaurant.


Last year, cofounders John Power and Sam McGann celebrated 30 years at the Blue Point restaurant.


After recording this podcast, Sam McGann of the Blue Point (left) checked out the Steinhilber's garden with Brady and Alvin.


Episode Transcript

June 24, 2020

Alvin Williams

Welcome back to The Check everyone. Thanks for being here with us. Brady, how was your week?

Brady Viccellio

It was good, Alvin, thanks. The weather turned on us, but we got a really pretty weekend. So that’s always good for us because most of our business is outside.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, it can be challenging when it rains and all you’ve got is outdoor seating and a tent. Even though we have the tent when it rains, the servers get wet running from the inside of the restaurant into the tent. So that can be quite challenging.

Brady Viccellio

Soggy fish and chips.

Alvin Williams

Soggy fish and chips. I mean, it’s authentic, because, you know, it’s like the British weather.

Brady Viccellio

Well, I am pleased to welcome everybody back to listening to The Check, especially our friend Sam McGann, who’s with us today.

Alvin Williams

That’s right, and we’re just happy to have him here. Sam is a great mentor of mine and great friend, and he owns the Blue Point restaurant in Duck, North Carolina. So welcome, Sam, you want to tell us a little bit about what’s been going on down there during COVID?

Sam McGann

Brady, Alvin, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me. It’s been a puzzle every day. I think for all of us, our situation is a little different, and that we are the beginning of the vacation season on the Outer Banks. So we’ve seen a tremendous influx in the last two weeks of visitors. And that raises concern -- at the same time, it puts everybody back to work. So we’re trying to balance the two. And like all of us, we’re in new territory here. So we’re learning something new every day and hoping to get through it intact.

Alvin Williams

I think your rules are a little different to ours, between Virginia and Carolina. I think you guys were able to open up before us and have people outside and then back inside. How’s that worked out for you?

Sam McGann

Well, we’ve pretty much covered all the genres of food service in the last few weeks, as we all have. We are we started with some takeaway food, family meals, and we segue to the 50% indoor and outdoor dining. So we’ve gotten back to doing a full lunch with 50% capacity and full dinner 50% capacity, and then social distancing in the yard and our back bar. We’re fortunate to have this beautiful spot on the water over the Currituck Sound. And it’s up until this cool weather we’ve been very fortunate to have good business.

Alvin Williams

So your restaurant, Sam. It stays open all year round. Even though Duck in North Carolina is kind of a destination place for tourists. But you’re there whole year round. Is that right?

Sam McGann

That’s right, Alvin. When we opened in 1989, John and I made a commitment to ourselves that we were going to be part of the community as much year-round as possible. Back then, the standard schedule, I think, for a vacation resort beach restaurant was to open at Memorial Day and close on Labor Day. And we realized that that’s not what we wanted for ourselves. So we stayed open through the winter, and we became part of the community. We became known as a restaurant that could sustain a staff all year and that was our goal. And we were lucky enough to find enough visitors in the winter in the offseason, whether it be weekenders or homeowners that were fortunate, I guess, for ourselves and for them to find a place that they could enjoy all winter long. And we became, I think, a bigger part of Duck and the Outer Banks. By doing that, and of course, this is what we do. As restaurateurs and cooks, this is all we know. And that’s why we committed ourselves to that.

Brady Viccellio

Sam you’ve been you’re celebrating--or you’ve just completed--your 30th year in business. You’re now working on year 31. You opened the restaurant with your high school friend, John Power. And I know you all were both in the restaurant business before that, John at Rudy’s, and you at Crawdaddy’s. What was it like in those early days when you took the leap of faith and opened up the Blue Point?

Sam McGann

When John and I went to Duck for the first time, for that first visit together, it was February of ‘89. And we got there and it was sleeting and raining. And then we are on this boardwalk in the dark, looking at a body of water that we really couldn’t see. And I thought that maybe we kind of made a mistake. We spent the night, got up and went back to the waterfront shops where the space was that eventually became the Blue Point. And of course, the sun was shining and it was a gorgeous morning. And we’re looking over this beautiful body of water, the Currituck Sound from this deck in this little town called Duck. And all of a sudden, the idea didn’t seem so silly anymore. And we were fortunate enough to have a landlord – the Breathwaite family from Virginia Beach, by the way, who were there to guide us through the space and allowed us to expand it enough to make it into a restaurant with that beautiful view. And in June of that year in 1989, after about six months, we opened it. Fifty-two seats, six barstools on the water, in Duck, the Blue Point Oyster Bar and Grill. And we’ve evolved from that space ever since. The nice thing for us is that so many friends and our neighbors, and our family and childhood connections were only an hour and a half away. And the Outer Banks had been a very popular surf destination for so many years, going back to the 60s, that that drive to the Outer Banks and Duck was not very long. And we became a place that people look to get away from the city and come to the beach. And when they cross that bridge, we want them to think of the Blue Point first.

Alvin Williams

Awesome. Well tell us about some of the ways that the Blue Point has grown and evolved along with Duck and the rest of the Outer Banks, be it cuisine or whatever else. How have you evolved down there?

Sam McGann

Over the years as the town of Duck grew and the vacation population grew and the year-round population grew, we were able to grow with them. And so the restaurant evolved over time. First we opened a porch on the water, then a screened-in porch, then a plastic drop-side porch and then a completely enclosed, air-conditioned porch. The change in cuisine was happening at the same time. I think you Brady have been part of that as well, and have seen that. I think we were very fortunate to be part of this American cuisine growth and this awareness and interest in seasonal and local American foods. It made a big difference in our perspective as chefs and restaurateurs as we grew.

The Blue Point's backBAR

Alvin Williams

So one of the things that I really like about Sam is his passion, and his drive. While I kind of like it and hate it, because if we go out for dinner, Sam wants to order everything on the menu because he wants to see it, and he wants to taste it, and he wants to experience it. But then when the bill comes, and you’re like, that’s a lot of food Sam. But I but I’ve always liked your passion and your drive. You’re a graduate from Johnson Wales -- is that right?

Sam McGann

I am. The campus in Providence.

Alvin Williams

And I understand that you visited some other cooking schools, maybe Thailand, Bangkok and the Perrier-Jouët House in France. Is that right?

Sam McGann

A long time ago. But the wonderful thing about our business, and we’ve all experienced it, and we hope that everyone in the industry will take advantage of it, is the opportunity to learn something new about food by traveling. And I think we’ve learned to absorb as much as we possibly can, for whatever short period of time we have when we travel, and bring those ideas back to our business, and inspire ourselves and inspire our chefs in our restaurant. Whether it be about the food or whether it be about hospitality, or about a culture. And I feel very fortunate to have been able to travel and do those things, and they’re always an adventure. Thailand is amazing country, an amazing place. It’s hard to believe I was there. But I never experienced a culture and a cuisine like that in my life, and of course those memories last a long time.

Brady Viccellio

Sam, is that where you find your inspiration, from traveling? Or is it other places?

Sam McGann

I think it’s wherever we find it. You know, it’s when we have a conversation at the table, eating our own food or each other’s food or at another restaurant. It’s a book that you heard about. It’s an article in a magazine. Fortunately, now we have access to the Internet, but cookbooks for so many years for us, really was our access to something that’s going on outside of our small world. And then travel became easier.

Alvin Williams

But your cuisine is somewhat regional, I would say, and you do Southern cuisine. How does it resonate when you try all these other kinds of cuisines to what you do at your restaurant?

Sam McGann

I’ve always told people that I’m a white kid from a white bread town. I’m Scotch Irish. So French was not in my blood or Italian. I suppose what you might say what was in my blood is the food of my region, and my parents, the food we grew up on. And I started to recognize that the more I looked at other cultures, the more I studied our own. We all have memories of what we ate when we grew up. And it was steamed crabs in the summer, ham and oysters, or softshell crabs, sweet white corn, summer tomatoes. All those ingredients started to really resonate in your mind and that’s what I’ve always known. And that to me becomes the cuisine that you’re most comfortable with. As we get older, I think we start to recognize more about our own backyard than we than we did when we were younger. Now maybe you took it for granted or you didn’t recognize just how fortunate you are, and as you as you age and study where you come from, and become a little bit more ensconced in understanding it. The food is always there for you. And that food doesn’t get old, I don’t think. And the same goes for yourself and for Brady as well.

Brady Viccellio

I think what we’re hearing is this consistency with you today, just like your friend and partner, John Power, mentioned in an interview from OBX This Week. “How do they do it after a quarter-century? John’s quick and certain answer is Sam’s passion. ‘That guy hasn’t lost one bit of his passion for not only the food, but also the business of Blue Point. He keeps it every single day for every single detail. Of course, that’s how he lives his life too -- studying every angle, finding the edge.’”

Sam, can you elaborate on what John was talking about?

Sam McGann

To me, it’s a puzzle every day. It’s a challenge every day. It’s mentally and physically the biggest challenge that anyone can have in their life. And it’s dynamic at the same time. It works our minds in a way that most minds aren’t asked to work. You have to have discipline. You have to believe in consistency. You have to have compassion, and guts. You have to recognize that you can’t do it by yourself. No restaurant is a restaurant of one. It’s a restaurant of many. I think one thing that I’d say and you all can elaborate on is that the importance of our restaurant family, we should treat ourselves the same way we treat our guests. There’s no time more important than that right now, in trying to bond ourselves together--recognize that we all need help and support to get through it. And I think that’s one thing at the moment that I have to remind myself, you know, I have to have the answers, I have to come up with solutions. And that’s what keeps me mentally challenged and focused and focused every day.

Alvin Williams

I think that lately I’ve come to realize that’s kind of the true meaning of a family restaurant. I don’t think they just mean it’s a place where you take your family to eat and dine, but it’s everybody that encompasses that. So it’s the staff, it’s the cooks, it’s front of the house, the back of the house, and the guests all coming together under one roof. And it’s kind of a family environment. You know, they’re happy to be there with you dining and you’re happy that they’re there with you and they trust you to provide them a good meal. It’s familiar and comfortable place for everyone. I think that’s what we’re giving right now in these uncertain times, people are feeling a little shaky, but they can go to their favorite restaurants and meet their favorite server and say hi to the chef that they know back there. And it just makes everyone feel that little bit better.

Brady Viccellio

People ask, “Why do we stay in this business?”

Alvin Williams

I ask myself that every morning.

Brady Viccellio

But I think Sam touched on it a little bit. It’s what we do. It’s where we’re comfortable. But it’s also hard. We’d be hard pressed to find another environment that’s so dynamic, so challenging, and can be so rewarding. Like you just said, every day is a puzzle. Every day is completely different. It’s not a business in which you get bored.

Alvin Williams

Well, we get to we get to express ourselves, you know, on the plates. As you do, Sam. That’s a great thing. And it’s also a very social, you know, we have guests and family and friends coming in, so we get to see them. And we get to express our creativity through food and cocktails.

Brady Viccellio

There are so many problem-solving aspects. I mean, on the hottest day the air conditioner doesn’t work. And it’s on a Saturday and the guy’s not there to fix it.

Sam McGann

And everybody’s looking at you for the answer. And you have to walk them down. And you have to step up and remind yourself that you can do it, you can fix it. But first of all, you’ve got to get through it. We learned patience in a way that very few people have learned it. And we’re still here. And we add up the years that we’ve been doing this together. And it’s between us it’s about 80 years, at least.

Alvin Williams

A lot of experience. But things always happen. Like I was telling you this morning, you know, my fridge went down and my head chef called out this morning. And you had an issue last night, Sam. I’ve spoken too much today, Brady, but I’m sure something’s going on in your house.

Brady Viccellio

Every day.

Alvin Williams

But it makes it interesting and it makes you stronger. And these challenges become a little smaller because over the years we go through them time and time again.

Brady Viccellio

And it’s magic too. It’s a performance with all these things going on. The trick is to never let never let them see you sweat. The show must go on every day. The curtain opens and you’ve got to show to put on. And it needs to be just as good as the last, regardless of the condition of your walk-in cooler, or your air conditioner, or construction out in front of your restaurant or whatever might be going on. It needs to be as perfect as we can get it—consistently, every day.

Sam McGann

That’s the answer. Never let them see you sweat. Remind your staff and yourself. That’s the magic of it. At 11:30 for lunch today, we open the doors regardless of what went on this morning to make it happen. And at five o’clock tonight, I’ll open the doors for dinner. And we hope that we’ll be ready, as we always have been. And the guests don’t see that. They don’t need to see it. They don’t really want to know too much other than the fact that we’re doing everything we can to make their experience just as good as the last one.


Alvin Williams

So speaking of dinner, what’s your favorite dish on the menu right now? What are you looking forward to serving the summer?

Sam McGann

Well, we’d like to say that everything’s special. And of course it is. It’s the seasons that we always look toward to. So the crab meat is beautiful right now, of course the softshells. We’ve all been through that season. It’s just about ending but I was lucky to get a tray of 36 tonight. We’re doing a boneless short rib dish that we smoke for three hours and we get a nice bark on it and we slice it with some grits and some of our own pickled vegetables, horseradish crème fraîche. Even though it’s not a summer dish, that’s one that we’ve enjoyed simply for the technique and the slow and low idea of the dish. You know I’m proud of Jack Balmerr and Joe Santoro. These are my two bread bakers and pastry chefs that have been with us over 15 years. And nobody meets Joe and Jack because they come in so early and they they’re done just after lunch, but the bread that we serve, the English muffins that we make, the cookies, the ice creams, all the desserts. Those are the little things that that I look forward to giving my guests every day that we do at the Blue Point that that other restaurants may not. So those things are special to me.

Alvin Williams

You have a great staff, very professional, an awesome staff, and I’ve been fortunate to work in your kitchen a couple times. So I’ve stood in the background and maybe helped a little bit. I’ve learned a lot of things. And it was always fun to be in your kitchen. So thank you for that.

Sam McGann

And I’ve enjoyed your kitchen as well and your staff and we’ve been very fortunate to be able to work together with each other’s teams.

Sam McGann

Maybe we can crash Brady’s kitchen sometime. We need to put that on the calendar here shortly.

Brady Viccellio

Sam, you said that innovation is one of the things that’s kept Blue Point rolling. And learning and adapting is one of any restaurant’s strengths. What are some of the ways that a diner might experience creativity and innovation at Blue Point?

Sam McGann

You know, trying to identify yourself as a unique individual restaurant is not easy. There’s so many different cultures and styles of food that people have to choose from today. I’ve always wanted to try to give them something personal that may be unique to what we do, that’s different from what someone else does. And you’ve got to be reading and studying, whether it be a style, a technique, a region, even an individual product, to draw out some inspiration from one of those areas to create something that becomes personal. Personal to the restaurant that I hope we are doing that sets us apart, that people recognize is a little bit different. Everybody, well, I won’t say everybody, but let’s say a ubiquitous pork dish like a pork chop that might be served at many restaurants today. But is that pork chop being brined in house for four hours? And being cared for in the same fashion? Then in the wintertime, we’ll cold smoke that pork chop before we put it on the grill for a richer, different flavor profile that we think goes well in the winter time for a pork chop. In the summertime, make a chow chow for that pork chop with corn and squash and onion and cabbage, where in the winter we’ll make sauerkraut with that cabbage instead. And instead of buying that sauerkraut, we’ll ferment it for three weeks and we’ll make it ourselves to give that dish something unique that you can’t find in the next restaurant that has a pork chop. We’ll do the same thing with apples. In the winter we’ll make apple butter for that pork chop instead of just your standard bottled barbecue sauce. Trying to think of ideas that we can create ourselves. And in this case, it’s a technique of trying to learn to make sauerkraut which you would get on your hot dog in any good hot dog joint. Instead of buying it, we’re going to make it. So I hope that each of us in our restaurants, try to find that something that’s unique and personal, whatever it may be, wherever it may come from those ideas, set ourselves apart. I would use Alvin off the top of my head with his vindaloo. That is a dish that he’s created that many guests probably have heard of it and have enjoyed it, but never had it the way Alvin makes it. And that to me, sets his restaurant apart in that respect. And Brady with his technique of cooking his shrimp, along with so many other dishes that are so unique to Steinhilber’s that have been so successful for so long. Their restaurants are an adaptation of their personalities. What personalities do you evoke in your restaurants that you think you can see in your own minds that make what you so unique?

Brady Viccellio

You know, to me, the most important thing my grandfather and my mother both had--my mother has, my grandfather had—was an incredible work ethic. just work, work, work. And for me, if you’re doing something the easy way in a restaurant, it’s the wrong way. You know, tablecloths on outdoor tables, waiters in dinner jackets, who still serve you outside, aging our beef. Just things that are difficult, sometimes painful, tedious, that make the difference and sometimes it’s just a subtle difference. But that difference when it’s added with all the other subtleties creates some something that’s unique and special.

Alvin Williams

For me, Sam, I’ve always liked to introduce people to other people, you know, and make new friends. And my cuisine is a little bit like that too. I like to fuse things, you know. So fusion food comes to mind. So my background was my parents are Jamaican and I grew up in England and now I’m in America and I like to kind of fuse those cuisines together. And then if we travel somewhere … I learned French cooking to kind of intertwine those things in. A nice meal is kind of a melting pot thing for me and that’s where I like to show my direction. Just bringing everyone together, but harmoniously on a plate. That’s really important to me.

Sam McGann

And I think those are perfect answers for these two successful restaurateurs, because that that’s what I feel and see and when I experience Cobalt, and Steinhilber’s. That’s what I feel. I really like what Brady said, is that we don’t do it the easy way. We want to do it the right way. And in keeping it personal, we adapt our styles to what we believe in and believe in it, doing it the right way. Not the easy way, is what I think keeps us successful.

Brady Viccellio

Thank you, everybody for listening to another episode. And thanks to Sam, for joining us.

Alvin Williams

Thanks for being here, Sam. Appreciate it. Good to see you again. It was a real pleasure.

Sam McGann

Great to see you all.

Brady Viccellio

I’m Brady.

Alvin Williams

And I’m Alvin.

Both

And this is The Check.

Brady Viccellio

If you’re in Duck, North Carolina, make sure you give Sam a visit at the Blue Point. You definitely won’t be sorry. And if you’re in Virginia Beach, please come by Steinhilber’s, La Bella Italia on Laskin or stop by and see Alvin at the Cobalt Grille. In the meantime, you can catch up on past episodes, see pictures, read transcripts and make suggestions for future shows at thecheckpodcast.com and thanks again for listening to this week’s episode.

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