The Shrimp Boat never had a mutiny.
The queen of the fleet of two Rock Hill restaurants would have had any mutineer walk the plank, eaten by sharks by the end of the lunch rush.
Johnnie Mae Agurs, about 5 feet tall, bespectacled, started in the galley as a cook. She did not own the Shrimp Boat, but she was for uncountable thousands of diners, its captain.
Johnnie Mae died Sunday at 73, more than two years after cooking and serving the last of a million chicken legs, wings and more. A long illness left her unable to work the last couple of years.
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But her way, the Shrimp Boat way, will last forever.
When your restaurant’s motto is “Ain’t no chicken like Shrimp Boat chicken,” that chicken has to be seasoned the Shrimp Boat way, it had to be floured the Shrimp Boat way, it had to be fried the Shrimp Boat way.
Not just because the restaurants demand it, but because Johnnie Mae Agurs did it that way a million times. And because she said so.
No admiral ever gave orders followed more to the letter than this woman, but she was not just a boss or a co-worker.
Johnnie Mae was family.
“She called me her son, and I called her my momma – and she was,” said Andrew Burmer, area manager for Shrimp Boat restaurants in the region. “Johnnie Mae trained me when I was hired 22 years ago. She taught me. She, she loved me.”
Owner Chris Cramer called Johnnie Mae simply, “the greatest.”
Amber Cribb, manager of the Shrimp Boat on Heckle Boulevard, used the word “love” uncountable times to describe her.
“Johnnie Mae Agurs had a way of taking your heart and warming it,” Cribb said. “She cared about everyone.”
Johnnie Mae cared about the dishwashers and the guys who take out the trash. She cared about the owners and the management. She always found time to hug the ladies who work the line and the prep and the cash registers.
“She was a mother, a friend, to everyone here,” Cribb said. “I can’t believe she is gone. She can’t be gone.”
Cribb tried not to cry and failed. Her make-up ran and she had to go fix it before helping more customers.
Just the mention of the name in the kitchen started the ladies crying, and the men ducking away to wipe away tears. Even the customers – those who knew her by name and those who didn’t – knew the lady in the glasses who had been at both Shrimp Boats in Rock Hill since Moby Dick was a minnow.
Her family spoke of how, at home, Johnnie Mae was the same caring person who taught a generation of young people at the restaurants the value of hard work and responsibility – that every customer was getting her food, so it had to be right.
“She looked at everyone at her job, like she did at home, as family,” said Thomas Agurs, one of her four children.
Johnnie Mae had worked at the Shrimp Boat so long, she started as a fry cook back when it was housed in the old mobile home, complete with portholes along the side, on Cherry Road.
Times changed, hairstyles changed, roads changed, presidents changed, and the Shrimp Boat moved into nicer digs on Cherry Road and Heckle Boulevard – but Johnnie Mae never changed. She came to work every day and rose into management as the trainer of all new employees, running the cashiers and more.
“She was a great person,” said Sherri Morrow, who worked for and learned from Johnnie Mae for nine years. “I mean great.”
Sarah Costner, who has worked for 20 years at the Shrimp Boat on Cherry Road, said Johnnie Mae taught her and trained her – but she did so much more.
“She taught me how to be good friends with people,” Costner said. “Ms. Johnnie Mae, she taught me how to love better.”
Johnnie Mae wanted teenaged dishwashers to go to college, cashiers to go to technical school. She wanted waitresses who had to hustle for tips to get them. Scores of them will gather Thursday for her funeral, when her former co-workers and bosses will speak about how she changed their lives – for the better.
Johnnie Mae Agurs, the queen of the Shrimp Boat, taught them all about life by teaching them the right way to make fried chicken.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Funeral services for Johnnie Mae Agurs will be at 2 p.m. Thursday at Tabernacle AME Zion Church, 320 Old Friendship Road, Rock Hill.