Food & Drink

Rock Stone brings the coast to Charlotte restaurants

If you’ve ever eaten fish at a handful of Charlotte restaurants, including Customshop, Vivace and Rooster’s, this is how it got there:

In a 300-pound white cooler strapped into the back of a 1998 Chevy S10 pickup.

The loaded truck rides so low, it can barely clear a speed bump. The clutch is so iffy, it sometimes lurches like a drunk. Melting ice drips from the back.

Every Thursday night, the beat-up truck travels from a tiny fish store in China Grove to the uptown Charlotte towers and beyond, to the Arboretum, SouthPark and Elizabeth. In the hot chaos of restaurant kitchens, bus boys and dishwashers look up and grin, and waitresses rush over for hugs from the fish man.

Chefs look over the bags of fat shrimp and just-cleaned fillets of snapper and grouper and never frown, even when they write checks and give them to the big guy with a scraggly red beard and a ball cap pulled low.

This is Rock Stone, Charlotte’s seafood cowboy, and this is how he rolls.

Jim Noble, owner of two Rooster’s and King’s Kitchen, calls Stone “a star in the Charlotte culinary scene.”

“I’m only as good as my purveyors,” he says. “He’s a partner in making this whole thing work.”

Ask Stone about chefs and you’ll hear a lot more. Ask Stone about anything, actually, and you will get an earful. If words were water, he could make an ocean, delivered in a gravely twang that could sometimes use subtitles.

Mostly, what he talks about is the difficulties of the fish business:

“I’m in favor of regulations if it saves the fish,” he’ll say. “But too many are about stopping fishing. You can’t stop people from doing their jobs. Do you think (a commercial fisherman) wants to catch all the fish? When they’re gone, he’s gone.”

First, the most obvious question: Yes, his name is Rock Stone. He has another name, a family name with German origins, but it’s so obscure, he begged us not to use it.

If your real name was Hydrick, would you want anyone to know?

Stone is 41, he lives in Mount Pleasant, N.C., and he’s married to his eighth-grade girlfriend, Jennifer, a nurse at a surgical center. They have two kids, son Luke, 11, and daughter Banks Caroline, 2.

Yes, he loves fishing so much, he named his daughter Banks, like a fishing spot.

“My wife stopped me before I got to River or Creek.”

First stop: At the shop

Thursdays start at 6:30 a.m. at Stone Seafood, a two-room prefab building on the outskirts of China Grove, 35 miles north of Charlotte.

It takes most of the day for Stone and his two employees, Angela Hill and Brandon Gray, to clean enough fish for the retail customers and eight restaurants Stone serves.

Calling Stone Seafood a store is a stretch. The front room is just the sinks and cutting boards, a metal trough where fish rest under crushed ice, and a board listing what else they have – shrimp, dry-pack scallops, oysters, maybe soft-shell crabs.

There are no shelves of marinades or fish breader, nothing for impulse buys. It’s open only from Thursday to Saturday, and what you see on the ice is what they have. They sell on Saturday until it’s gone. Don’t fuss if you get there too late.

Stone jokes that they can size up what customers will buy when they walk in:

“ ‘Two pints of oysters and a pound of shrimp’ – oh yeah, you can call it.”

He’s excited about this week’s big score, 150 pounds of huge white shrimp, as long as a hand. That’s unusual this time of year. He thinks that fresh water from all the rain drove them out of the coastal mud, where they usually hunker down in summer, and out into the ocean to feed and grow.

“Charlotte’s going to be jumping up and down tonight.”

Packing the big white coolers for the restaurant run, he checks his orders – scribbled notes on ragged notebook pages: gold cans of scallops, buckets of shucked oysters, bags of crimson-red snappers. Six tubs of Frog Island lump crab meat for Chris Edwards at New South Kitchen, who gets Stone’s respect for using local crab in his crab cakes.

Most of his restaurant customers don’t tell Stone what they want, they take what he brings.

“I want to be that guy, the guy the chefs trust. I can’t tell you what it’s going to cost. I know your budget, what sells, what your customers will buy.

“I could do my restaurants without talking to ’em. They just say, ‘the purtiest fish.’ ”

Teenage shrimper

It’s almost 5 p.m. when Stone and Gray heft three loaded coolers into the truck and struggle to add a fourth. After a couple of tries, they finally leave the tailgate down and use a strong canvas strap across the back.

Creaking into traffic, Stone cuts down country roads to I-85, already crawling at rush hour.

Stone grew up around here, in Kannapolis. His mother was an English teacher and his father was a football coach for both high school and college. But his real home, he says, was the S.C. coast. His dad’s roommate at the Citadel in Charleston lived down there, and Rock spent a lot of time with him, hunting ducks in the winter and shrimping in the summer.

Driving a boat, nobody cared how old he was. Old-timers taught him what they knew.

He started selling shrimp as a teenager, but got frustrated because the buyers on the docks didn’t want to pay him enough because he was so young. So he started bringing shrimp and fish back to Kannapolis to sell.

He got a degree in economics from UNC Charlotte, but what he really wanted to do was fish. His wife told him he had to find a way to make money at it.

“She didn’t think I’d do it.”

In 2005, one of his customers, Gary Morton of the Stag & Doe restaurant in China Grove, told him about a closed fish store nearby. So Stone leased it and went full time.

Finding the fish

There are a lot of tales about how Stone gets his fish. The simple story is that he drives to the coast every Tuesday or Wednesday night and brings it back.

The reality isn’t that simple. There’s no way one man can cover docks from Wanchese to Holden Beach.

In truth, Stone is a one-man seine net, with a network of sources on docks and boats and more sources in trucking who bring it back. He does go to the coast regularly, every few weeks, to manage all those sources.

“If a boat goes out fishing for nine days, you want what they caught the last two,” he says. “That’s where connections come in.”

Fishing is highly competitive, and he’s cautious about revealing something that could sever ties he’s spent 20 years building.

Still, customers like Trey Wilson of Customshop say Stone gets better fish than anyone else.

“Ninety percent of my fish is him,” says Wilson. “He’ll bring back black bass that is purple,” and it only stays that color for 12 hours.

“That’s pretty hard to do.”

Love of seafood

From 6 p.m. until well after 10, Stone loops around the loading docks at Charlotte restaurants, hustling in to grab a cart, then loading it and wheeling it back in. Chefs often dash out to the truck to see what he’s brought this week.

At Rooster’s Uptown, chef Joe Kindred looks at the big shrimp.

“Are these lobsters or shrimp?”

“Exactly,” Stone says, grinning.

Stone won’t say what he makes in a night of delivering fish, although he says the restaurant orders account for 70 percent of his business. He could take on more, but he prefers having a short list of clients he knows well. He’s also known to refuse to do business with a restaurant if he doesn’t like the chef.

Wilson gives out his number to people who beg for his source, and Stone will simply not return the call.

“I’m not arrogant,” he protests. “I’m good at what I do.”

Every place he goes, everyone knows him. He has nicknames for waitresses – Princess Sunshine for one who doesn’t smile enough, Big ’Un for a tiny one – and gossip to swap with line cooks.

Bartenders give him high-fives and sometimes people feed him. But he’s usually moving too fast to stop. On many nights, he ends up at McDonald’s for a Filet-O-Fish sandwich on his way home.

“Your hands smell like mine, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “A chicken sandwich smells like fish.”

After all the talk and bluster, what he really cares about is the coastal culture of the Carolinas.

“Part of the love of seafood is knowing that it came from here,” he says. “Some guy caught it.”

On that recent Thursday night, after his last delivery at Rooster’s in SouthPark, he headed to his empty truck at 10:20 p.m., 16 hours after his day started.

“Rock on,” a waiter called out.

Stone pumped his fist in the air and kept walking.