It was early 2015 when the idea for a seafood restaurant started to stir in the minds of Rod and Rana Brown. The couple, who both grew up in Charlotte and had since moved to Rock Hill, would regularly travel the country, along with regular trips to the Bahamas to visit family. It was during these trips that the utter lack of good seafood spots back home became apparent.
“We were out in the Bahamas,” recalls Rod. “They were cooking up food for us and everything, and we were like, ‘We need something at home.’ We would always go searching for crab legs and the only thing we could find was the seafood buffets, that was it.”
Later that year, as the couple drove through Gastonia late at night on the way home from Atlanta, the crab-leg craving hit again, and this time Rod got proactive about it. Rather than complain about the lack of quality seafood spots in town, the couple opened their own.
Despite the fact that both held down full-time jobs — Rod with the Department of Homeland Security and Rana as a nurse — while also managing properties together on the side, and despite the fact that neither had any experience in the restaurant industry, they jumped in.
Rod found a man selling a trailer online and made an offer. The couple upfitted the trailer to cook and serve food and began setting up in the old Kmart parking lot on Freedom Drive in west Charlotte. And less than a month after their craving went unquenched in Gastonia, Mr. 3’s Crab Pot was born.
But the Browns weren’t done — not by a long shot. Just two months later, in February 2016, the Browns closed on an old grocery mart on Bradford Drive near where Harding High School graduate Rod had grown up in west Charlotte. They opened the takeout spot that summer, and eventually opened two dine-in locations, one in Rock Hill and another in Gastonia.
The Browns now use their restaurants as a foundation for uplifting underserved communities and helping startup business owners who may otherwise not find any support. Not to mention, they serve a kickass seafood platter.
As I sit with Rod in his Gastonia location, he explains that the rapid rise of Mr. 3’s is indicative of the hustler’s spirit that he shares with his wife.
“We’re both the same way; when we start doing a thing, this is what’s going to happen,” he says. “We’re not going to wait for nobody. If the bank said we couldn’t get a loan, we’re going to go to work — work overtime, whatever you gotta do, get the money and build it. That’s what I tell a lot of people, they always look at the roadblocks and stuff like that, but naw, you can’t look at that.”
But before they could serve up inspiration to others, they had to start with the food, and Mr. 3’s serves up plenty of that. The restaurant’s best-selling seafood platter includes a cluster of crab legs, jumbo shrimp, corn on the cob and plenty of sausage and potatoes for just over $20. There are cheaper options, too: fried platters, fish sandwiches, pasta dishes and the popular creamy seafood potato. Then there are the seafood boats — or yachts, as Rod calls them — that can be made to feed groups of up to 14 people.
Regardless of the size of the dish, Rod says what sets it apart is the preparation.
“Everything’s home-cooked. Each order is made from scratch,” he tells me. “There’s nothing coming out of a bag, nothing pre-battered. Every lobster tail is hand-battered. Crab legs, we make them each order. Mac and cheese is made from scratch, alfredo sauce, everything is made from scratch. So we try to go for the home-cooked vibe. It’s flavorful food, and you don’t just get the cookie cutter, ‘cause there’s a lot of cookie cutter places popping up.”
As we talk, a family that looks to span three generations sits across the dining room. An elderly woman enjoys a seafood plate while talking with a middle-aged woman, and two young children bounce around the room between trips back to the table for bites of their lunch.
For Rod, who employs about 15 people total across his three locations, each plate has to be made with families like the ones sitting across from us in mind.
“I tell employees you have to care about what you’re doing, what you’re making, every plate has to be made like you care about making it,” he says. “You see people coming in every day, for some people it’s like going to Disney World. They come and get their plates, it brings them a whole bunch of joy, so you want to make sure that plate is right when it goes out. It’s something you care about when you see them get their plate.”
The Browns don’t just care about the food coming out of the kitchen, or the customers walking through their door; they try to spread their wealth of knowledge and unstoppable drive to the community members around them, whether that means helping neighboring business owners paint their façade or holding court with “corner classes,” as Rod calls them. He likes to walk around the neighborhoods where he’s set up his shops, schooling young people on ways to start their own legitimate businesses rather than wait around to get caught up in the cycle of drugs and violence that he’s seen take so many others.
For 37-year-old Rod, who named his business for his son, the third Rod Brown, the idea of leaving a legacy is everything.
“I’m trying to tell the younger dudes now, look, if you go get this property now, that’s something you keep in your family for generations to come, and everybody can eat off that property,” he says. “I meet a lot of young dudes out there scamming and drug dealing and things like that, and I tell them, ‘You can’t do nothing with that. It’s not going to lead to anything and you got a little kid, then you go do jail time, and you get out, then what? You just go back in the full circle again. So why go through that circle? Just stop it right here while you’re young,’ … If I knew everything I knew, and acted on it back when I was like a teenager, imagine where I’d be now.”
Last year, Rod turned the broad idea behind his informal corner classes into an official program: Crabs Out the Barrel, a Shark Tank-esque startup incubator in which Rod chooses a young person trying to launch a new brand or business and takes them under his wing.
The Browns review business plans of entrepreneurs, offer advice in promotion and marketing, assist them with gaining required licensing, and ultimately give them access to selling their products in Mr. 3’s Crab Pot.
Their first mentee is Antonio Harrison, a 27-year-old baker who recently launched Sugar Coated Goodz with his fiancée Ghelisa Daniels. Harrison recently moved to Charlotte from Washington D.C., where he worked for eight years at The Sweet Lobby, a popular bakery that’s been featured on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars.
His involvement with Crabs Out the Barrel started much like Mr. 3’s itself: with a seafood craving. A coworker told him to try out Mr. 3’s for the best seafood in Charlotte, and he happened to check them out on the day the Browns opened up the application process for their new program. He applied, and three weeks later, Rod reached out and said he was interested in helping Sugar Coated take things to the next level.
“Looking online, I saw how many people applied and it was an honor for him to text me back and say, ‘We want to work with y’all,’” Harrison recalls, “and from the day he said that it’s been a go.”
The Browns filed for and funded an LLC for Sugar Coated Goodz, created social media pages, paid for branded merchandise and are currently helping Harrison work through other pertinent paperwork. Once that’s finished, they’ll allow Harrison to sell his goods inside of Mr. 3’s locations.
They also connected Harrison with Cynthia Davenport, founder of E.R.D’s Eatery, a California soul food kitchen in north Charlotte where Harrison will sell Sugar Coated Goodz products in the coming year.
“That means a lot, because a lot of businesses and companies don’t do that,” Harrison says when I ask what the Crabs Out the Barrel program means to him. “You already established your name, so why help somebody else? It means a lot that he’s established and he’s got a name for himself and he’s not even looking for no recognition or nothing like that, he just wants to help, and that means more than anything.”
When I talk to Harrison about his plans for 2020, I can’t help but hear hints of the same hustler’s spirit that has pushed the Browns to grow so quickly.
“I’m trying to build my clientele and keep pushing,” he says. “There’s no looking back now. We’re there, we got the support we need, we’re making the connections we need, and we’ll just keep pushing from there.”
And the drive continues.