By Venise Grossmann
Patrons drive over broken clams shells that surround the building as they park, the first hint of the rustic décor the restaurant offers. Once inside, they can sit in the dining room with wooden tables and chairs on hardwood floors, antiques adorning the walls and a view of the fireplace. Or they may choose the more lively bar side with a wooden bar designed to look like the bow of a ship, a jute box, and a vintage Coke machine.
Cap’n Cats Clam Bar in Verga, NJ is a tavern/restaurant that has been a mainstay in Gloucester County since 1982, but to truly understand its significance in the community, one has to appreciate its history.
Originally, the business was located on Route 130 across from West Deptford High School. The roadhouse BYOB, then owned by Joe Tighe, sold boiled crab and shrimp and raw or steamed clams and oysters. The décor was simplistic: a bar with six stools, three tables in the restaurant, and a take-out section where they sold clams by the hundreds as well as live crabs, their best seller. Tighe also manufactured and distributed horseradish and cocktail sauce on the premises.
When it rained, the roof leaked. When the highway flooded, the water would come in the front door and flow out the back. Patrons often had to step over a puddle to enter. Because they were situated on the highway, their clientele were mostly truck drivers and others in transit. Tighe once held a contest to see how far his customers had travelled, and he hung the postcards that their guests sent on the wall.
Tighe employed locals from the community. In 1965, he hired Barry Lukens, a sophomore in Deptford High School. After school and on the weekends, Lukens cooked and shucked clams. Gradually, because Tighe was impressed with his work ethic, Lukens was given more responsibility.
Tighe, who also owned the Cap’n Cat Clam Bar in Franklinville, became Lukens’ mentor. (The Franklinville Cap’n Cats is still open and managed by Tighe’s wife since her husband’s death.) Working alongside Tighe, he learned about how to run a successful business. When Lukens turned twenty-one, Tighe offered him the opportunity to lease the restaurant from him, an offer Lukens willingly took.
Lukens immediately made some changes. In addition to adding more tables and a fireplace, he also expanded the menu to include King, Snow and Dungeness crab. “Our business improved because we were offering simple but consistently good food,” said Lukens.
The wait staff was comprised of local women and the kitchen staff of local high school boys, a practice, which still exists in Lukens restaurant today. Lukens hired John Cafasso while he was in high school, and he been employed there ever since but currently works as a bartender and manager.
Cafasso now in his late forties is Lukens most revered employee as is evident by the yearly fishing trip they take together to Maine. “I trust Johnny one-hundred percent. He knows what I need done and makes sure it happens,” said Lukens.
Other longtime workers include Anna Morella from Poland, Chris Burness, Peggy DeLeeuw, and Cafasso’s wife, Donna who has also been working in high school since high school. Over the years, Cap’n Cats has also been home to several mother/daughter waitress teams.
In 1984, the State decided to expand Route 295 so they purchased the Cap’n Cat’s property on Route 130. At the time, The Village Tavern in Verga was for sale, and Lukens bought the building, a local bar with pool tables, darts, and video games, and renamed it Cap’n Cats Clam Bar. For a year, both restaurants were active.
Lukens designed the new restaurant to look like the original place. Even the fireplace was a copy of the original on Route 130. Friends gave him antiques with a stipulation that he never sell them.
The menu was expanded again to include smoked whiting as well as fried and broiled items. “We still kept the menu and preparation of the food simple. That way there’s no room for mistakes,” said Lukens. No salads, bread or dessert are served. “We serve oyster crackers. Who needs bread?”
Many patrons begin their meal with one of the many soups offered. New England clams chowder is their best seller. It’s made fresh daily with fresh half and half cream, as is their Manhattan clam chowder with fresh vegetables. Snapper and a tomato-based crab soup are also served. The oyster and clam stews remain popular with the older generation. They are made fresh to order with fresh milk, butter, and seasonings.
Another mainstay of the business are clams that Lukens purchases from the Tuckerton area. “We only serve organic clams—not farm-raised, and we go through thousands of them a week,” says Lukens. The shrimp steamed with Old Bay seasoning is also wild-caught from South America.
Maryland crabs are served in season from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving. Year round choices are Dungeness, the most popular, as well as King and Snow. “We sell a lot of whole Dungeness crabs around Father’s Day. It’s a big favorite with men,” said Lukens.
The crab cakes are made with jumbo lump crabmeat and are made fresh daily. “If you serve the highest quality that’s available, you’ll never get in trouble,” said Lukens.
Fresh fish choices include salmon, tuna loins, catfish and flounder. They also serve swordfish and halibut and a favorite with the regulars, the tuna, which can also be ordered blackened. Daily specials are also available such as the Cajun catfish.
In addition to fried items like regular and jumbo shrimp, calamari, oysters, and a combo platter that includes a crabcake, flounder, shrimp, and oysters, there are broiled selections—lobster tails, clams casino and oyster Rockefeller. Included sides are fries and coleslaw and local corn and asparagus are options while in season.
Their takeout counter is also an integral part of the restaurant’s business. “We are busiest during the summer and holidays,” said Lukens, “and we serve a lot of shrimp trays in December.”
For a time, Lukens also owned another Cap’n Cats restaurant in Voorhees, New Jersey. Opened in 1982 as a BYOB, it was managed by Luken’s father, Bud. He later sold it to Tom Barnholt, a well-respected employee who worked there. “At the time, I had too much on my plate with three restaurants and the cocktail business,” said Lukens.
He also let the cocktail business go when it came time to modernize the equipment. Lukens still makes his own cocktail sauce in house, which is known for its “kick.” Patrons who sample it immediately reach for a cool drink to quell the heat.
Lukens considers his employees part of the “Cap’n Cats family.” If the new hires have a strong work ethic and fit in with the rest of the “family,” they remain employees for many years. Lukens philosophy is simple: “I don’t micromanage. My employees know my expectations.”
Five years ago, Lukens opened another local restaurant—Cap’ns Corner in Woodbury. Located in a strip mall, the venue offers a well-attended happy hour frequently by a 20-30’s crowd and entertainment such as live bands, a stand-up comedian, and dart and poker leagues in the fall.
The bar menu includes a tuna club, a prime rib sandwich, fish tacos as well as the normal staples--burgers, wings and cheese steaks. The manager, Charlie Chapman, utilizes social media to keep the place packed at night. He will often post that the place is so crowded that they have to open the second floor. (The humor lies in the fact that there is no second floor.)
Lukens’ children are helping to support their father’s legacy. Barry Lukens, Jr. cooks and works as a manager at Cap’n Cats. Samantha, a junior in high school, works several take-out shifts, and his son Max, works full-time at Capn’s Corner.
Marcus Severs, Lukens’ nephew who owns The Little Tuna restaurant in Haddonfield, learned the business by working at the Cap’n Cats in Voorhees when he was fourteen.
Lukens’ restaurants have become institutions in the South Jersey community.
“Whether you work there or just enjoy the food, it’s hard to get the place out of your blood,” said longtime Cap’n Cats employee Chris Burness.
Cap’n Cats Location: 1416 Crown Point Rd, West Deptford, NJ 08093
Cap’ns Corner Location: 429 S. Evergreen Avenue, Woodbury, NJ 08096
Venise Grossmann is a teacher at West Deptford High School. She can be reached at email@example.com.