Jan. 25—The present slow season aside, Ben Hankey, chef and general manager of Wolf Island Oyster Co., said the new Redfern Village seafood spot has had nearly nonstop brisk business since opening in July of last year.
"We hit the ground running," Hankey said.
Looking at the interior, you can hardly tell it was ever anything else — a modern, open dining area and a substantial bar replace what was once a dark, wood-heavy décor installed by past inhabitants.
"It was this old-school, privacy-while-you-eat kind of aesthetic," Hankey said, which works for upscale fine-dining places. He didn't think it suited Wolf Island's fast-casual seafood offerings, though.
"Even when you go to Halyards, there's a buzz in the air that people just enjoy," Hankey said, referencing the floor layout of another St. Simons Island restaurant.
Since its opening, Wolf Island has experienced very few of the growing pains a restaurant normally endures, he said. At least one of three things usually poses a problem for a new restaurant — nailing down consistency in the food and service, and assembling a team that's on the same page, all working toward the success of the establishment and not a paycheck.
"We were pretty lucky with that," Hankey said.
After thinking about it for a second, though, he amended his point. It wasn't so much luck as it was good people.
Hankey is a 22-year veteran of the St. Simons Island restaurant scene, having worked primarily for Sea Palms Resort and the Sea Island Co. His career stretches back much further than that, though, to his first food-service gig as a dishwasher at 15. He can do a little bit of everything, which he sees as a great asset to leading a restaurant crew.
The biggest part of the success is the rest of the team, which is similarly steeped in the business. It's a good mix of fresh faces and old timers, he says.
"This is hyperbole, obviously, but there is 1,000 years of restaurant experience in here combined," Hankey said.
Even he was selected by the progenitor of Wolf Island Oyster Co., restaurant group FG Squared — or Fat Guys Food Group. The three men who started the group — food service veterans Allan Tullos and Connor Rankin, and Realtor Josh Nichols — are the kind of people Hankey wants to work for and, hopefully, impress.
He worked his way up from dishwasher to executive chef at Sea Palms before deciding to take a leap and help get Wolf Island off the ground. By going back to school and learning from some of the top-level international talent, he's had the fortune to work alongside, Hankey says he's familiar with running a restaurant front to back.
He and the rest of the crew put everything into Wolf Island. Recognition is great, but as GM he just wants it more than anything to represent good food and community engagement.
"But we wouldn't turn away a James Beard Award," he laughed.
For a hint of the fare offered at Wolf Island — aside from the big posters on the wall detailing the different types of oysters and clams the restaurant cooks up — he suggested trying out the restaurant's drunk clams at home. Incorporating chorizo, bell peppers, jalapeños, a bunch of spices and one's favorite beer, it's a savory and creamy dish sure to please in any context.
Wolf Island drunk clams
10-12 fresh littleneck clams
1 oz. blended oil
3 oz. of your favorite beer
1/4 oz. sliced yellow onions
1/4 oz. sliced red peppers
1/4 oz. sliced fresh jalapenos
2 oz. cooked chorizo
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 oz. guajillo butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Directions: Heat oil in pan until smoking. Add clams, peppers, onions, and jalapeños. Sauté one minute and add salt and pepper. Add garlic, sauté 30 seconds, then deglaze with beer. Add chorizo and cover to steam. When clams are open, add guajillo butter and stir until combined. Pour into a bowl and serve with toasted bread.