Picture a blustery March morning in 1983.
It’s cold and windy, but that’s no deterrent to Rufus and Roxie Pritchard, new owners of The Dunes Restaurant, because it’s their opening day. Their very first opening day as owners of a restaurant. Rufus is up at 4 a.m. to get things ready to greet guests at 5:30. The first two diners to come through the door are local brothers whose father had been a mentor to Rufus for years. “To think that these guys got up that early to be the first ones to give me a dollar bill in support of this endeavor ... well, that just meant more than I could say,” says Rufus. Yet, the day was only just beginning, and there was lots more of that type of support and outpouring to come.
Roxie got there around 8 a.m. to greet guests, and pretty soon the dining room will filling up – with locals (remember, this was March of 1983, and not too many tourists found their way to the Outer Banks during winter in those days) and flowers from good friends and others who just wanted to wish them well. Around noon, Rufus was in for a surprise when lots of his past colleagues from East Carolina Bank, where he had been a manager be- fore buying The Dunes, started filing in. They brought with them a belly dancer to make the mood festive and gifts to congratulate, one of which was a chef’s hat embroidered with Banking to Baking. As Roxie tells the story, by the end of that first day, she and Rufus were almost overwhelmed with gratitude. And it was the first inkling they had that this business made them part of something bigger than just the serving of good food. It was about community and generosity, receiving it and giving it.
Since that first day, they’ve served well more than seven million meals. That’s an astonishing number when you think about it, and it is proof positive that this community give and take is working incredibly well. Had Rufus and Roxie been presented with that number four decades ago, they might have shaken their head in stark disbelief. That’s a whole lot of cooking and interacting with guests. But as the past 40 years have flown by, they would both say that, even with ups and downs that a seasonal business is prone to, many of the guests have become like family. And their family, which included three children younger than 5 on that opening day, has been defined in significant ways by the experiences afforded them by the restaurant.
At separate times, each of them told me of their exact same, all-time favorite memory. Back in the early days of the restaurant when their children, Patrick, Davis and Sarah, were little, Roxie would take them to church on Sunday mornings while Rufus went off to work. After, in their church finery, they would burst into the restaurant, yelling for their Dad, anxious to give him hugs. The guests found it charming. After getting the attention they felt they deserved from their Dad, they spent the rest of the morning making the rounds at tables, “helping” at the cash register or just doing what kids who grow up in a restaurant do. All these years later, now it’s the grandchildren — Neal, Blake, Ford and Kizzie (named after Rufus’s grandmother) — who run in the door excited to see their grandparents and parents working at The Dunes.
As much as things change, though, the more they stay the same. And by that Rufus points to the family traditions they’ve been privileged to be a part of through the years. He says there are families who’ve come on vacation the same week, year after year, and make trips to The Dunes part of the experience. One particular story stands out: It was the summer of 1984– just their second season in business, mind you – and a family of six came in. One of the kids got it in his head that he had to have a milkshake. Well, the Dunes didn’t serve milkshakes. But before the family fully stood up to leave, Rufus saved the day. As the rest of the family ordered their meal, he ran down the street to the Dairy Mart and procured the desired milkshake. Now that kid comes to the restaurant every summer with his kids. That’s how you build a loyal clientele. And, Rufus says with a grin, that’s how you paid your mortgage in the early days ... by not losing one single table of eaters!
The desire to serve the customer – and to be forward thinkers – has shown up in various other significant ways over the years. The Dunes was the first restaurant on the beach to go completely non-smoking. In 1992 Roxie was the pioneer of dining room retailing. Customers still love Roxie‘s retail, which has grown to become a major part of their business.
We’ll end this story with something Rufus and Roxie are most proud of: their staff. They have staff members who’ve been with them almost from the beginning, and now two of their children are integral parts of the daily operation. Currently their son Davis, who now has three children with his wife, Sarah Neal, manages the dinner-time kitchen and does the ordering for both the breakfast and dinner shifts. At night he can also be found on the line working the grill. Davis takes a lot of pride in the food he serves and cleanliness of his kitchen.
Other son Patrick knows the mechanics of running a restaurant and the correct order of operations. He manages the dinner shift and makes some of the best margaritas and fresh orange crush drinks on the beach. Together Patrick and Davis have been working in the family restaurant a combined total of 43 years. The Pritchards’ daughter, Sarah Blake, worked in the restaurant during summers while in high school and college. While she sells Outer Banks real estate now, she still helps critique the food and menus and shares her opinions about making The Dunes the best it can be. The grandchildren will one day be busboys in training or grin & greeters at the front door of The Dunes. Rufus and Roxie can count plenty of kids who put themselves through college working for The Dunes in the summer.
“Simply put, we’re fortunate,” says Roxie, with a tone in her voice that makes it clear she means it. “This restaurant has shown us over and over how wonderful and giving Outer Bankers and our visitors are. It’s actually enabled us to feel more a part of this community by interacting with so many of our neighbors when they’re here for a meal. It’s allowed us to reach out and give back. It’s shaped our family’s traditions and allowed us to be a part of other families’ for the last 40 years.”