(To hear the story of Fisherman’s Inn straight from an owner’s mouth, check out the episode of the Delmarva’s Own podcast below.)
Nobody would argue that when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was completed in 1952, the world rejoiced because it was now easier to get to Kent Island and Kent Narrows. Even the locals would chuckle with you and admit the bridge was built for the greater purpose of allowing easier travel over the Chesapeake Bay. For sure, as vacationers head east from the United States mainland towards Ocean City, Chincoteague, Assateague or other final destinations, or as Delmarva residents head towards Washington D.C., Baltimore, Annapolis or any other busier-than-necessary metropolis, it can be tempting – perhaps even understandable – to pass by Kent Narrows in Queen Anne’s County without a thought.
But to do so would be a mistake.
Especially if you like food, drink, views, people, history, or a blessed combination of any of these. For, sitting just off Route 50 is a plethora of opportunities to take in the freshest local seafood Maryland has to offer – anywhere. Further, it’s the first opportunity east-bound travelers have to taste food prepared with an Eastern Shore flare. It’s been like this for almost a century.
Fisherman’s Inn was established in 1930 by “Captain” Alex Thomas and his wife Mae. It is unlikely that at the time the unassuming couple had any idea what part they were playing in the historical development of the region and the welcoming mat they would be setting out for visitors to Delmarva for generations to come. To understand the significance, we need to understand just what “the narrows” is.
The community of Kent Narrows, Maryland is named after the narrows, a body of water separating Kent Island from the rest of the Delmarva peninsula. Connecting the Chester River to the north with the Eastern Bay to the south, it was a naturally shallow, marshy area. So shallow in fact, that legend has it people could wade across the narrows at low tide. In due course, a causeway was built in 1826 to connect Kent Island to the rest of Delmarva making transportation upon dry land possible. Eventually however, the powers that be determined the benefits of the fishing industry in the area outweighed the benefits of the causeway. It was demolished in 1876 when the narrows was dredged for boat traffic, much to the watermen’s delight.
Kent Narrows developed into a hub for the fishing industry, driven by the 18 or so packing houses where waterman would bring their catch. In 1930, this is where you would find Captain Alex and Mae Thomas. They’d be shucking oysters, picking crab, or otherwise processing watermen’s catch in the back of their home. The couple would process the catch depending on the season and ship the product up and down the east coast.
Eventually, Captain Alex and Mae began serving meals out of the house. With bellies full, guests began asking to rent a room to sleep in. So, they rented out their own bedrooms, themselves sleeping on the front porch swing. Just like that, Fisherman’s Inn was established.
It wasn’t long before the little home business began to grow. In 1939 they added a second floor with guest rooms. Later, they added a small grocery story and gas pumps. They began to use small, one-room cabins dotting the shoreline for watermen guests. Then, with the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952, they added a back porch eating area to feed not only watermen, but also the influx of visitors now making their way to the area. Fisherman’s Inn became a well-known establishment throughout the region.
As the years went by the operational reigns passed from one generation to the next. Alex and Mae’s daughter Betty took over in 1945 when her parents separated, and her husband Oscar “Sonny”
Schulz joined her in leadership when they were married in 1956. As the restaurant portion of the business flourished, the “inn” activity became less and less frequent. When the family purchased additional land and built the first dedicated restaurant in 1971, the one-room cabins were demolished to make room for the new restaurant where Fisherman’s Inn sits today.
The family business wasn’t without its challenges, however.
As Christmas approached in 1980, the temperatures grew blustery earlier than usual that winter. On the night of December 22, the temperatures were in the 20s as the pagers of members of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department began to sound. Two of the volunteers – Jody and Tracy Schulz – looked at their pagers with an extra bit of concern as the pagers indicated there was a fire at their family’s business, Fisherman’s Inn. As they rode through the frigid street on the back of the open-air firetruck of the day, sirens and lights on full-blare, they were passed by one car, that of their mother Betty.
While kitchen staff would later state they thought they smelled smoke earlier in the day, it is unknown what caused the fire which ultimately burned the building to the ground. It wasn’t long before the fire department shifted from fighting the fire to simply trying to salvage what goods and belongings they could. It wasn’t much.
Undaunted, with the kind of work ethic and community support Delmarva is known for, the Schulz family was back up and running in July, just over 7 months later. They recovered to a point beyond what might have been expected and by 1991 were in a position to expand once again.
Located across the parking lot, visitors can find The Crab Deck, a dining experience with a more casual atmosphere. The restaurant is aptly named, as the one-level facility mostly open-air with a definite summertime vibe. Visitors will find the bar located to front and center as they walk in with tables spread throughout. Water views are the norm, and one side of the restaurant is reserved for crab feasts for people bussed in from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other regions where Captain Alex and Mae began sending their fishing products years ago.
These days the businesses are run by Sonny and Betty’s three sons, Andy, Jody, and Tracy with continued strong support of their children, the community and surrounding business associates. Growth continues to be the rule of thumb. Around 2011, the Schulz family began to consider whether they wanted to get back into the “inn” business and began to make plans for a hotel located on the premises. They came to terms with Hyatt Hotels Corporation and construction of a new hotel, Hyatt Place, with an expected opening in 2022.
Jody Schulz continues to grow the family tradition of business ownership and joined up with local partners in creating two additional businesses not officially affiliated with Fisherman’s Village. The first is the Kent Narrows Boatel, an endeavor Jody began with partners Rob Marsh and Jeff Kogok. The Boatel is an indoor boat storage facility for 400 boats and replaces the usual slip at a marina. Instead of leaving your boat in the water, patrons contact the boatel by an app on their phone, let the boatel know when they want to use their boat, and then arrive dockside with the boat waiting for them to use. When done, the boat is lifted out of the water with a forklift, rinsed down and flushed out, and then placed back in its “bunk” until the owner is once again ready for a day on the water.
Next, Jody joined with local businessmen and partners Justin Kieran and Ron Kirsten to launch yet another restaurant, The Dock House. Situated just behind the Kent Narrows Boatel, The Dock House is a 6,000 sq. foot, upscale dining facility. Where The Crab Deck offers a more casual dining atmosphere, The Dock House is a step in the other direction and will offer a dining experience on the more elaborate side of life. According to general manager Jasper Singa, the food offerings will be influenced by Betty Mae’s Fisherman’s Inn cookbook, though the chefs will place adjust each some according to their own culinary flare and experience. In addition, The Dock House will be introducing drinks called “The Wading Place” and “The Grist,” named after stories of local historical lore.
Lastly, for those ultimately committed to the entire Fisherman’s Village experience, there is even a quiet, 2-bedroom houseboat available on Airbnb. “Cass Away” is the perfect way to eat, drink, and see both the sunset and the the sunrise at the narrows.