GULF COAST TRADITION: To customers and employees, Wolf Bay Restaurant, Bar & Boutique feels like home

Charlie and Sandra Wrape served 27 dinners on their first day of business. The year was 1973, and they had just opened a restaurant in a former bait shop on the shores of Wolf Bay in the tiny Baldwin County community of Miflin.

Charlene Haber grew up in the family business that she now runs. “It is like a family gathering every day,” said Haber, whom employees and customers alike call Char. Haber is the chair elect for the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce and the chamber’s 2017 Walton M. Vines Free Enterprise Award recipient. Photo by Melissa Warnke.

“Business just blossomed from there,” said the Wrapes’ daughter and current owner and president, Charlene Haber.

Forty-six years later, Haber operates three Wolf Bay restaurants, two in Alabama and one in Florida.

“We are doing more than 3,000 dinners a day in our peak season” at the Foley, Orange Beach and Pensacola locations, said the owner, who politely, but firmly, asks to be called Char. “Everybody calls me Char. Nobody calls me Charlene.”

Char’s Navy Dad and nurse Mom lived in Pensacola when they decided to retire and open a restaurant in Alabama. Last year, Char decided to return to the family hometown and open the third Wolf Bay Restaurant, Bar & Boutique in that Florida city.

“The Pensacola community has embraced us with open arms,” said Char. “We have really enjoyed getting to know the military personnel who live nearby. Wolf Bay is committed to giving back, and it has really warmed our hearts being able to support even more nonprofit organizations and schools.”

Through Loss of Founders, Flood and Fire, Restaurant Endures
The road to success hasn’t been easy for Char or the restaurant.

“My mother passed away in 1994, then Hurricane Ivan came in ’04, which sunk us about six feet under water, then the fire destroyed us in 2008,” said Char, whose father died in 2014.

The family business – previously known as Wolf Bay Lodge, though it has never offered lodging – expanded several times in its original location. After experiencing flood and fire in a four-year span, the business relocated and reopened in 2009 on Perdido Beach Boulevard in Orange Beach. In 2010, its original customer base rejoiced when Wolf Bay opened a restaurant on Miflin Road in Foley. The Pensacola location opened Oct. 1, 2018.

Besides adding the new location last year, the regional seafood restaurant chain in recent years has rebranded, renovated, redesigned menus, added software analytics, hired a catering and events director, increased outdoor seating and implemented a silent paging system.

Any hardships along the way don’t show, said Orange Beach Councilman Jerry Johnson. Wolf Bay Restaurant is “a destination for our city’s out-of-town guests from every region of the country. Their seafood is always fresh, the service is always exceptional, and the atmosphere is pure Coastal Alabama.”

A Team That Interacts Like Family
“I think the most valuable thing that my mother and father ever told me was … get in there with your employees, work hard with them and they will always give you 200 percent,” said Char. “I couldn’t do any of this by myself. We are a team, and I have developed a family here,” she said of employees, some of whom have been working for the restaurant since the 1970s.

There’s Ma Belle, Miss Nadine, Karen, Jerry* and Al, who just retired last year after giving a two-year notice.

At Wolf Bay Restaurant, which is known for its fresh Gulf seafood prepared using community recipes handed down through the years, they peel, devein and butterfly every shrimp by hand. Even their salad dressings are made by hand.

“These people look out for me as well as I look out for them,” said Char. “I want everyone to know how lucky we are for the staff we have. We just need more of them.” Wolf Bay currently employs 350 at the height of the Gulf Coast tourist season.

The customers also consider Char and her team family.

Donna Watts, chief executive officer and president of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce who frequents the Foley location, said, “I sometimes eat here three times a day. I know most of the staff. When I walk in, they all say, ‘Hey, Miss Donna.’ I love it. It feels like home, and I think that is why everybody comes here, because it feels like home.”

Some of the Wolf Bay team and supporters pose with Char after she received a 2018 Alabama Retailer of the Year award. From left Cindy Haber, Orange Beach Manager Dawn Davis, Char, Marketing Director Lindsay Schumacher, Watts, Orange Beach General Manager Regina Brown, retail designer Brandice Griffin and Travis Valentine with the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce. Photo by Jerry Johnson.

Story by Nancy King Dennis

*Our condolences to the family and friends of Jerry Keith, a loyal, 38-year Wolf Bay employee, who passed away since this interview.

This article also can be found in the  July 2019 Alabama Retailer.