Serving Up True Southern Hospitality
Throughout the Southeast, and more specifically, the Lowcountry, there are people who epitomize what is great about our region. They have grace, charm, humility, and a relaxed demeanor that just draws others to them.
Hilda Gay Upton is one such person. Born on Ladys Island, Hilda's family, and her husband Robert's family, have all been born and raised in the South Carolina Sea Island area.
Their family's celebrity has grown by virtue of their famous restaurant, The Shrimp Shack, found on Highway 21 on St. Helena's Island, where cars consistently fill the sand-covered parking lot to get a taste of Hilda's mouth-watering shrimp burgers and other fresh-off-the-docks fare.
Hilda tells Pink about how her family got into the restaurant business more than 30 years ago. "My husband, who everyone calls 'Cap'n Bob,' was a shrimper, and we couldn't understand why we were shipping our shrimp off, frozen, to restaurants out of our area. So we decided to open The Shrimp Shack near the docks where our boats come in, and serve fresh seafood caught that same day!"
Ever since, their reputation for delicious food, sweet tea and a heaping side of southern hospitality has grown. Fans include family-friend Pat Conroy (who still tries in vain to get Hilda's shrimp burger recipe, but she's not telling), who has written about The Shrimp Shack on numerous occasions. Also while filming Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson and their children came to the family-friendly Shrimp Shack quite often. In fact, in the dock scene with Lieutenant Dan, you can see boat "Lady Hilda" owned by who else - real-life shrimper and Hilda's husband, Cap'n Bob!
Other superstars have frequented the Lowcountry gem when filming in the area: Robert Duvall, Meg Ryan, Dennis Quaid, Barbra Streisand, Nick Nolte..the list goes on.
Delectably fresh seafood served in a laid-back atmosphere, with a breezy screened porch as the dining room, completely caught on with both locals and visitors. But the attraction is more than that. This endearing southern family, with Hilda as matriarch, treats people like part of their own.
It's no small family either. Her four grown children have given them ten grandchildren (five little ones between the ages of three and 11, and then five adult grandchildren as well). Family vacations sometimes include the whole crew, schedules permitting! Their trips have included traveling to Disney World, going on cruises and venturing to the Florida Keys. "There's nothing better in life than having everyone together, and seeing them happy," commented Hilda.
When Hilda graduated school, she fleetingly had visions of leaving the area and chartering new territory, but that didn't come to pass. "Looking back, I realize this is where the Lord wanted me. My mother had Alzheimer's and we were blessed to be able to take care of her. And it's been a wonderful place to raise children, and have our business," Hilda explained.
In addition to the restaurant, the Uptons and Hilda's two brothers own the Gay Fish Company, named after her side of the family, also a long-time Lowcountry family that goes back for generations. "Having the restaurant, the fish company, and the docks right near our home, has made it so ideal through the years, especially when the children were young." Hilda is active in both the Shrimp Shack and the Gay Fish Company businesses, doing bookkeeping and payroll. Her two eldest daughters now run the Shrimp Shack.
Though she has seen many changes to their hometown through the years, one thing has remained a constant: church life has always been important to Hilda and her husband. A dedicated and long-time member of St. Helena Baptist Church, at the time of this interview, Hilda was getting her home ready to host her church's July 4th party.
Welcoming others is second nature to Hilda, and those in her graceful presence sure want to pull up a chair.
Born on: Ladys Island
Lives on: St. Helena's Island
Favorite Authors: Pat Conroy, Catherine Wall, Mary Alice Monroe
Best Vacation: "They've all been great!"
Motto to Live By: "You do what you know is the right thing to do, and don't worry about what others do that might not fall in line with that."