By Mary Perez, Sun Herald email@example.com
Gulfport— Work hard, have fun, give back. Those are the guiding principles Ron Ladner and Rimmer Covington Jr. live by and share every day with their customers at Shaggy’s.
With the April opening of Shaggy’s on the beach in Gulfport, the Shaggy’s brand now has four waterfront locations — in Pass Christian, Biloxi, Gulfport and Pensacola Beach — and they are looking to grow.
“Every location county-wide has the same menu and same concept,” Covington said, “but there is no doubt that each has its own personality.”
Much of that is driven by the employees and the Shaggy’s culture of giving back to the community.
The restaurants are the sort tourists look for and hometown people take visitors — colorful, breezy and with a menu that is big on local tastes. All are open-air, spreading light conversation and the aroma of fresh seafood mixed with tropical drinks in island style.
“People just want to be outside,” Ladner said.
Shaggy’s has created “a place where you can come in and leave in a better mood than when you got there,” Ladner said.
It is the closest thing to being on vacation without being on vacation, he said.
“Our customers are people who are looking to escape at home,” Covington said. “We let our customers drive their dining experience.”
They can sit inside or out, in the sun or in the shade of an umbrella during the summer and near the fireplace in winter.
The restaurant is known for seafood, with choices such as beach tacos, blackened mahi, boiled shrimp and po-boys, but Covington said, “Our No. 1 seller is a cheeseburger.”
The menu says the cheeseburger is “so good we named our boat after it.”
Cheeseburger the boat
Fishing is what brought the business partners together. Ladner is 52 and a native of Long Beach. Covington is 33 and from Pass Christian.
“He helped me buy my first boat,” said Covington, who later joined Ladner as co-owner of Shaggy’s.
The original Cheeseburger 50-foot charter and fishing boat, purchased in 2012, recently was replaced by a 60-foot boat. The Shaggy’s team tries to fish eight or 10 tournaments a year in the Gulf of Mexico, Covington said.
Last weekend, Team Cheeseburger Sportfishing earned second place overall and Top Lady Angler in the 2016 White Marlin Shootout in Pensacola, with five white marlin and one sailfish released. The Top Lady Angler was Covington’s wife, Taylor Covington.
Fishing and marine life are the basis for Shaggy’s Kids Foundation as well, which led Shaggy’s to receive a Governor’s Cup for community service and the GIVE award for the top company in the state for community excellence and volunteer work.
“I’m very surprised by how many kids who live here on the Coast have never been fishing, much less out on a boat,” Ladner said.
Shaggy’s committed $5,000 a year for at least three years to give kids this experience.
In two weeks this summer, 35 kids had the chance to go through Shaggy’s Angler Camp, a summer program of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.
Shaggy’s is the first corporate sponsor in the program’s history, and Covington and Ladner also paid for charter boats and took the kids out on the boat fishing both weeks. Every kid caught a fish — many of them their first.
“We feel like we have a responsibility to actively participate and help people when we can,” Covington said. “It’s a big part of who we are as individuals and who we are as a company.”
Shaggy’s also was the first company to donate to Hiller Park, said Biloxi Councilwoman Dixie Newman, who has made it her mission to restore the public park.
The company donated a portion of its profits, or about $3,600, then installed a Buddy Bench at Hiller Park and at schools in Gulfport.
The Buddy Bench was the idea of Gulfport Elementary School student Marissa Wingerter to give kids an easier way to make friends. Classmates pledge to invite children who sit on the Buddy Bench to play. Shaggy’s employees assembled and painted the benches, Covington said.
Newman said Shaggy’s also sent volunteers out several times to help her clean Hiller Park.
“They’re the most involved small business along the Gulf Coast,” she said. “I think because they got involved, little by little other people tried to get involved as well.”
Shaggy’s donates to the Boys & Girls Clubs, Feed My Sheep soup kitchen and several other area programs, and most recently showed its support for local law enforcement with free meals. The restaurant group has also sent supplies to flood victims in Louisiana.
A taste for business
After a successful career in the software business, Ladner and his wife, Laura, moved back to South Mississippi shortly before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Their plans to transform the bait shop at the Pass Christian Harbor into a restaurant literally were washed away by the storm.
“We lost our homes, we lost our town, we lost friends and we lost our spirit,” Ladner says in the history of Shaggy’s. He eventually bought the bait shop site, started construction and in 2007 opened the first Shaggy’s at the Pass harbor.
Opening the Gulfport restaurant this year was an opportunity to help with downtown revitalization.
As the owners prepare to celebrate the 10th anniversary in June, they aren’t done yet.
We’re one store away from serving 1 million people a year.
Ladner is not sure where the next Shaggy’s will be, but he said it will be part of the community.
“That’s one thing we won’t compromise on,” he said.
He runs the restaurant business like he did his software company, and keeps close watch on trends. Nationally, the restaurant index is down.
“Year to date, our same-store sales are up,” Ladner said. “We’re blessed to be as successful as we are.”
Ladner and Covington always are innovating and improving the guest experience, but Ladner said, “Our big appeal is our culture.”
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