One year after tornado, Skipper’s rebuilds
It was an ordinary Wednesday night at Skipper's Seafood on Nov. 16, 2011.
Mandy English, a waitress at the Thomasville restaurant for 16 years, thought she may get to go home early as her husband and two sons passed time at a game room not more than a football field away.
Everything changed within a matter of moments, however, and the unfolding events at Skipper's over the next year have been far from ordinary for a family and a community.
"We were sitting here and it was really slow that night," English said. "We've always heard of a tornado but it never really hit here so we were kind of just joking around waiting for customers to come in. We didn't think it was really going to hit us."
There was a loud boom at first, followed by darkness. Skipper's owner Evans Feredinos, a Greek immigrant who bought the restaurant with his wife Lynn in 1995, huddled customers and employees in the freezer as his business shook. An F2 tornado cut a path across the open field separating Skipper's Seafood and the game room at the intersection of U.S. Highway 109 and Highway 64, leaving behind a trail of destruction reminiscent of a war zone.
"There was nothing there," said Lynn Feredinos. "I came up a few minutes after and couldn't figure out why cars were on the side of the road. I guess I was in shock. There was debris everywhere and I realized something bad had happened. It was overwhelming."
Skipper's suffered extensive damage from the tornado, inside and out. High winds punctured its roof, causing water damage throughout the restaurant. The game room next door was nothing more than a rubble pile, littered with smashed cars and and tiny remnants of a nearby doublewide trailer that splintered under the tornado's wrath. For Lynn's daughter, Stacy Kroustalis, the sight was devastating.
"The next morning was very sad," Kroustalis, 25, said. "It was shocking. My parents have had this place for 16 years and every time you pull up you see the buildings and the restaurant and it was a happy thing. When I pulled up and saw the building gone, it almost hurts your feelings. I grew up with that. I remember seeing so many things that needed to be fixed and we were pretty upset. We were so happy everyone was OK."
Once the shock wore off, Lynn and Evans realized the scope of what loomed ahead. Skipper's needed massive repairs, renovations that required time and money. Determined to keep their restaurant alive, the Feredinos embarked on a eight-month journey aided by a community who didn't want to see them go.
"There was so much damage and so much needed to be repaired," said Lynn. "It took a long time but we love this area. We were nervous because we didn't know if the people would come back."
During the renovation, the Feredinos kept all 30 of their employees on payroll and ensured them a job would be there when Skipper's reopened. Laura Hedrick, a waitress at the restaurant for 18 years, wasn't surprised at all.
"It's the reason we've been here as long as we have," Hedrick said. "We have very good bosses. They made sure the insurance company took care of us. They wanted to make sure we were taken care of. We stay because they take care of us and we take care of them."
With a new look but many of the customary features intact, Skipper’s re-opened on July 10, 2012. With eight months of uncertainty in the past, the Feredinos finally could focus on the future.
"Opening back up was the best time of our lives," said Lynn. "We were all so happy. We kept everybody on payroll so they all came back. The support from the community was unbelievable."
Tragedy, however, was not done with the Feredinos quite yet. On Sept. 1, Evans, after experiencing severe abdominal pain for several days, unexpectedly passed away. The family still waits for official autopsy results as they struggle with the loss of a man who meant so much to so many. Lynn and Evans met in Greece and were married for 27 years, spending time together running their restaurant with their three children — Stacy, Antia and Steven. Like it did just a few months before, the Skipper's community rallied around its family.
"You never know how much you're loved by your customers until times like this," Lynn said sobbing. "We're still trying to make sense of what happened. He was a very good boss and he loved this community. He was very kind and friendly and would greet everyone when they came in. We get phone calls every day asking if there's anything they can do. It means everything. It's what makes me want to get up every day and come to work."
Kroustalis worries about her grieving mother but takes comfort in knowing so many people are there to offer an encouraging word or a simple hug. Lynn presses on, for her family and her husband's memory.
"She could've given up," said Kroustalis. "I think she knows that my dad wouldn't have liked that."
On the eve of the tornado's one-year anniversary, the Feredinos and their loyal customers are moving forward together. This symbiotic relationship has turned into much more than a bond between a community and a restaurant. Skipper's Seafood is home to many and has become a place where tragedy is met with love and compassion.
Staff Writer Eliot Duke can be reached at 888-3578, or firstname.lastname@example.org.