When we first started going to the beach in the Morehead City area — to Atlantic Beach or Pine Knoll Shores — the Big Oak served the best shrimp burger around. I posted in 2016 about its superiority over El’s, the then main competition here.
Oh! how the mighty have fallen! Now, the Big Oak is a shadow of its former self.
Nothing has changed on the outside. The Big Oak is still an attractive place, with that look that makes you want to stop in and give it a try.
I tested the Big Oak this year with a shrimpburger and some hushpuppies. I also ordered a fried clam sandwich because … I hadn’t had one in a long time.
(At the top of the photo are some delicious peaches I got at Island Produce on the causeway.)
The sandwiches: Note the absence of shrimp overflow. The shrimp all fit comfortably within the bun — a nothing special bun. I think the Big Oak may actually have reduced the number of shrimp on each sandwich, The shrimp were topped by slaw that in 2016 was perfectly good, but this time was grossly overloaded with dressing. The shrimp simply were lost in the sandwich. The shrimp flavor was an afternote.
The clam sandwich had similar flaws. The clams were just strips, there were no bellies. There was a very high ratio of breading to clam, and the clam flavor was, again, an afternote.
And take a look at the hushpuppies. They came out of the deep fryer not with a the golden glow on years past, but with a Magda tan. Not surprisingly, the one I ate on the drive home was a touch greasy. Where are the hushpuppies of yesteryear?
The Big Oak continues to boast low prices, about $6 for a sandwich, as I recall, but its former glory definitely has faded. How did this happen? Did the advent of the Captain’s Kitchen, just down the road, with shrimpburgers raised to new heights, crush the spirit of the Big Oak? Where is the friendly, efficient service of yesteryear? While the Captain was finding new sources of shrimp that allowed him to dwarf the Big Oak’s sandwiches, why did the Big Oak sit idly by?
I can’t help but think of Eric Zabiegalski’s The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization, where he writes, “As organizations exploit the market by doing what they do best for profit and market share, they stop exploring and looking for new ideas: they stop learning in critical ways that could guarantee future success.” Think of Eastern, Pan Am, and TWA failing to adjust when Southwest came along.
Whatever the cause, the Big Oak shrimpburgers have fallen to third runner-up, far behind the Captain’s Kitchen. Like the Shark Shack, the Big Oak needs to shake up their operation.
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