Joe Sutherland with Joey's Riverwalk Grill

Joe Sutherland is busy planning for Joey's Riverwalk Grilll's return with a new entry and larger porch.

Joe Sutherland doesn’t own the building where Joey’s Riverwalk Grill was located, but a fire that left charred rafters pointing toward the sky robbed him of a long list of irreplaceable things.

His grandmother’s antique mirror, his children’s pictures, a glass mini-bottle collection, golf clubs that he had collected over 30 years, signed collectible bottles from California, personal awards and fishing rods that were on display are all gone forever.

While they might not have been valuable to other people, Sutherland says they certainly were to him.

He also owned the furnishings and equipment inside the restaurant, but is more worried about what he called a “great crew” that found themselves suddenly unemployed or working only part time.

“It’s a blow that all of our momentum that we had worked for is gone. When we reopen we’ll have to start over to rebuild that,” he said earlier this week as he talked about the restaurant’s future.

Sutherland, a Conway native and 1978 graduate of Conway High School with lots of extended family still living in the Pine Grove section of Horry County, lives in North Myrtle Beach now where he once owned the Tidewater Grill. He sold that business in 2019 before deciding that Conway was a great place to start a business. His landlord, Randy Beverly, offered him the building and “I kind of decided to go for it,” he said.

He first opened the restaurant as Joey Doggz Burgers and Fries with a menu featuring hot dog, hamburgers and sandwiches with counter service.

He had opened a similar restaurant in Surfside in 2009 and sold it after about a year.

“Ever since then I’d been wanting to do another one, but this location needed more than burgers and dogs, and it deserved more,” he said.

About six months after that he began taking another look at the business and its name. He changed the name so customers would realize that he served more than just hot dogs and hamburgers.

He put in a full bar and added to the menu, changed the name and the sign.

Instead of counter service, they moved to table service.

“After we changed, we tripled our sales and we focused on the guests and the food and that, you know that seemed to work for us because our sales increased. Every week was better than the previous one, until the coronavirus,” he said.

They were forced to cut back to take-out and curbside service about a week before the destructive blaze hit.

Even the new scaled-down system was working pretty well for them. Of course their sales dropped to about half of what they had been, but the cost of labor and other expenses were gone, he pointed out.

“You don’t have to wash dishes,” he said of the curbside service.

Then it happened.

They closed on the night of March 24 at about 7:30 p.m. and Sutherland went home to North Myrtle Beach. At about 10 p.m., one of his servers called to tell him the building was on fire.

“I said, ‘No it’s not. Don’t mess with me.’”

But when a second staff person called saying she could see the flames, he rushed to Conway.

“It was like a war zone, fire trucks everywhere, firemen everywhere. I mean if was just heartbreaking,” he said.

An electrical problem with refrigeration equipment located between the bar and the wall was determined to be the cause of the fire, according to Sutherland.

“You could tell that’s where the fire started,” he said.

He points to the beautiful varnished pine used in the building that he believes served almost as kindling for the fire.

“I guess it went straight up to the roof and spread, but it’s destroyed in there…There’s nothing to save,” he said.

He often wishes he had been there when the fire started.

If he had been, he said, “I would have put it out…We got fire extinguishers. That’s what fire extinguishers are for. We could put this thing out.”

Not one to give up or be discouraged, Sutherland is busy planning for the restaurant’s return.

He plans to rotate the front of the building about 90 degrees to the left where the side entrance is now. He thinks that will provide a much prettier view citing the Cypress Inn, Riverwalk and Riverfront Park, as opposed to the pond behind the county’s government and administration building that the restaurant faces now.

And considering the building’s address of 5 Laurel St., he thinks it makes more sense.

The porch now across the front of the building will be extended around the side, past the new front and all the way to the end of the building, to make outdoor dining a more attractive option.

He says the current building always reminded him more of a lawyer, dentist or doctor’s office than a restaurant, and he plans to remedy that by creating an old fish house ambience in the fashion of the Peanut Warehouse, Ocean Fish Market and Jerry Cox Warehouse along the Conway Riverwalk.

He expects to save the building’s slab, foundation, handicapped ramp, steps, porch and much of the landscaping. The walls and roof will be torn down and replaced.

He points out that the building is 10 feet above the street as he recalls a time when the building was surrounded by water.

“I always thought flood would be our biggest nemesis. I never thought about a fire. I never dreamed of this,” he said.

He’ll have the same name and use the same signs that he rescued and put into storage after the fire.

“It’ll be a brand new building, but it will look 100-years-old,” he said, or at least, that’s what he’s hoping.

Just before the fire, he had begun offering live local entertainment that, he says, Conway didn’t have a lot of. He hopes to continue that when he reopens.

The menu will be expanded with much more seafood, baby-back ribs, prime rib and oyster roasts in season, plus the ever-popular hamburger, hot dogs and sandwiches.  

“Once construction starts, I’ll be here everyday to move things along and answer questions to move it along,” he said.

He’s hoping to rebuild and reopen in about six months, but says an insurance adjuster has told him he thinks his plans are a little ambitious and he should be mentally prepared for the entire process to take about a year.

Before the fire, they had a loyal customer base and a great staff, he said.

“…the fire just took it away, and we’ll start over. We’ll start over,” he said.

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I'm the editor of the Horry Independent, a weekly newspaper in Conway, South Carolina. I cover city hall and courts, among many other subjects. Know of a good story? Call me at 843-488-7241.

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