By Ivey Schofield
At 18, De’Maya Berry started selling seafood from home to earn money before pursuing graduate school. At 26, she has expanded, turning her dream into a restaurant in southeastern North Carolina.
Maya’s Crab Shack, located in the eastern Columbus County community of Riegelwood, serves crab legs, shrimp and grits, lobster tails and more – offerings that locals say aren’t available within 30 miles.
But after setbacks induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, Berry is now facing a dilemma: Should she raise prices in a community that might not be able to afford it, or should she close?
“If I keep going up, people are not going to come,” Berry said. “So I’m trying to figure out what I want to do.”
Joan McPherson, interim president of the Columbus County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said small and large businesses are facing similar pressures during this time of inflation, which has hiked prices by about 8.5%.
One in 12 families is now struggling to maintain their current standard of living.
Berry has four sources of income: running Maya’s Crab Shack, trading stocks, selling shoes and planning trips for others.
Earlier this year, Berry also opened a second location for Maya’s Crab Shack in Bladen County. She closed it six months later, not because of lack of interest by customers, but because of inflation.
“Everything was so high, I wasn’t making enough money with it,” Berry said. “I would’ve made that work without inflation.”
Now Berry said she worries about her original location. She needs a constant influx of customers, but in Riegelwood, where the average salary is $20,000, that doesn’t happen every day.
Investing in the business
James Hall, the chef at Maya’s Crab Shack, said the Riegelwood community supports the restaurant. His family and Berry’s family are regulars, and they bring their friends.
“It’s a trickle down effect,” Hall said.
Housed in a small building, Maya’s Crab Shack couldn’t accommodate social distancing during the height of the pandemic. So it went curbside, transforming its seating inside into more prep tables, refrigerators and freezers.
“Covid set a different tone for us,” Hall said. “We evolved even more and got better at it.”
Now with inflation, Hall said, customers find it hard to believe that the cost of crab legs has gone up, just like the cost of chicken at the grocery store.
So Hall has had to be innovative. He now prepares food cups – a healthier option that doesn’t cost as much to make.
“Yeah, the prices are higher, crab meat isn’t as available, and we had to scale back on some of the items,” Hall said. “But for the most part we’re still able to maintain good quality and good service.”
McPherson said many businesses have had to be creative to stay afloat during inflation.
“It’s important to realize that if you don’t continue to invest in your business, you are not going to continue to grow,” she said.
A great way to grow, McPherson said, is by using social media to increase the business’s presence online. Maya’s Crab Shack already does that.
Berry posts pictures every day of her restaurant’s food, offering specials and asking customers to share with their friends.
“It costs $0.00 to share and support my local business,” Berry wrote on Facebook. “My next customer may be on your timeline.”
But Berry said she worries there aren’t enough locals to sustain her business much longer.
“When you go out of town, you have a list of places you want to travel. Riegelwood isn’t on that list,” she said. “To make the money I need to make, I need to get to a place with a big tourist area.”
In 2020, Berry purchased a food truck to get to tourist areas like Wilmington. With her three other jobs, however, she said she didn’t have time to travel more than 30 minutes to get business.
Berry sold the truck a few months ago.
Hall has another vision for expanding Maya’s Crab Shack to help during inflation: elegant dining in a nice, sit-down restaurant.
“I’m loyal to the people, the community, to staying rooted here,” Hall said. “I just want us to grow more.”
Berry said she’s learned a lot over the last four years running Maya’s Crab Shack. Even though it’s taken hard work and sacrifices, her dream has been worth it – and she’s got faith her next one will be bigger and better.