Dace Camp was a registered nurse working with transplant patients in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic when he started building The Camp Seafood Market and Patio in Gonzales.
He loved his job, but running a seafood restaurant had always been his dream, and he wasn't going to let any coronavirus curveballs get in the way.
So when Camp wasn't working shifts at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans this summer, he was building his new restaurant in Gonzales.
The Camp opened at 40529 Sycamore Ave. on Aug. 17.
"Our opening day was almost immediately met with some adversity," Camp said. "We had Hurricane Marco in the gulf, then Laura came right behind it. And being brand-new in the restaurant industry, we try very hard to serve fresh, high-quality product."
But how do you do that when a storm could knock out the power at any minute?
"It was very frightening how to navigate that," Camp said. "You don't want to get a whole bunch of fresh product in the cooler and lose electricity. Lake Charles was hit, but it could have easily been us, and you don't how long you're going to be out with power. So, that kind of shut us down, just waiting to see what the weather was going to do."
To say Mason's Grill is a family restaurant is a bit of an understatement.
The 1,900-square-foot restaurant is back up and running with drive-thru and takeout orders of daily specials and fresh seafood selections. But Camp is already planning for the future.
"That's going to be an enclosed patio," he said, pointing to a new space under construction. "It was originally going to be open-air like a true patio, but then I decided to close it in and make it more climate control. I still want to bring the outdoors in, so when we get that first cool front that comes through or in spring, I'll raise all the windows up, and we'll have TVs and a sound system out there playing the football games for everybody."
In the meantime, Camp is focused on keeping everything fresh, something that has been important to him ever since he first started talking to family friend Marshall Brown about his restaurant idea. Brown is co-owner of A&B Seafood in Camp's hometown of Houma.
"I stood back and watched how their business was and how they grew it and enjoyed it," Camp said. "And one day we got to talking and decided to form a little partnership, because they're all fishermen. They all have their own crab boats, shrimp boats and they run their own crawfish traps, as well. So, they basically farm fresh seafood right outside of Terrebonne Parish."
Camp said getting into the restaurant business wasn't a way to escape nursing. It was a long-held wish coming true.
"It will always be in my blood to be a health care provider, to be a nurse," he said. "But if I wouldn't have tried opening a restaurant, I would have always wondered 'what if' and regretted it. I never want to do that. Who knows? Maybe someday I'll go back to nursing when I get this place up and running on its own. I did it for 13 years and enjoyed it."
Right now, Camp is enjoying shaping The Camp to meet his vision. In addition to enclosing the patio, fencing is going up around an outdoor slab to provide a safe space for families with children. The idea came from a very practical place — eating out with a child.
"So, my wife and I would take turns eating boiled seafood," said Camp, whose wife Anastasia is co-owner of the restaurant. "Whoever wasn't ordering boiled seafood would just order something else off the menu to keep an eye on Carter. I wanted to create something where mom and dad could both eat boiled seafood, and it's OK for the kid to get down from the table. So, I fenced in the outside patio."
Elton and Randee Hyndman, owners of Nino's restaurant, have so far weathered the coronavirus storm.
Camp, who lives in Metairie, hired French Quarter chef Nicholas Gallo to create Cajun-style recipes for The Camp.
While crabs are dominating the boiled seafood menu right now, The Camp offers all kinds of seafood dishes, from fried shrimp platters to fried shrimp po-boys, crabmeat jalapeño poppers and daily specials, like hamburger steak with mashed potatoes and Gulf shrimp pasta, which are posted on the restaurant's Facebook page.
"We've been operational about a month, and we've already tweaked a lot of things," Camp said. "We looked at what the public responded most to, and what made the most sense to keep carrying. I knew we needed to get more efficient, so I condensed the menu down some."
And now that he's in the restaurant business, Camp is dealing with a different side of the pandemic.
"Things change so much for restaurants with the state's phases," he said. "They change some regulations, then change them again a week later. You're trying to run your day-to-day operations, and it can become a fulltime job just trying to keep track of all of that. And at the same time, you want to keep your employees and customers safe. it's just another big thing to throw into the mix of everything else."
Camp is looking to the future, planning events, such as tailgate parties, for when state regulations are lifted.
He also wants to host theme nights and make the patio areas available for group events.
"I envision it to be a family environment," he said "I don't want it to be a place where you just go to eat. I want to create some sort of experience, where people can actually come and have a good time. We're humbled and appreciative of the support of the community, and we hope they keep on coming back to get some good Cajun food."