With the clip of giant wooden scissors through a blue ribbon, Ben and Amy Jo Hunter put a capstone on six years of hard work and — Ben would say “miracles” — opening up SEMO Crawfish Co. at 3582 East Jackson Blvd. in Jackson.
The long, white restaurant sitting next to the highway opened for business at the end of May. But the Hunters waited until this past Thursday to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony so that their son, Andrew, could be there. It was Andrew’s idea to advertise their crawfish business on Facebook that got the ball rolling toward this restaurant.
Currently serving in the U.S. Air Force, Andrew was on lock down because of COVID-19 and was not able to get home until last week.
(A second son, Benjamin Hunter, Jr., was unable to attend the ribbon-cutting.)
Amy Jo grew up in Bloom-field and her husband, Ben, grew up in Sikeston. They met because their grandparents were friends who owned adjoining farms.
After marrying, Ben and Amy Jo ran a family farm west of Sikeston, growing crops like everyone else. However, after visiting Ben’s father in the French Quarter of Louisiana about 20 years ago, they fell in love with the culture and the food. Ben said, “There has got be a way to duplicate it up here. I felt compelled to do it.”
So they began raising crawfish on their farm. Crawfish are nocturnal crustaceans that resemble small lobsters, but they live in fresh water streams and rivers.
The best time to catch crawfish is when the temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees. Once the temperature hits 90 degrees, the crawfish burrow into the mud. Here in Missouri, crawfish season lasts from about the end of January until the end of June. Raising crawfish was not a full-time occupation; it was the Hunters’ hobby that supplemented other farm income.
After Andrew began advertising their fresh crawfish on Facebook, wheels were set in motion to open a restaurant. They planned to sell crawfish in season and fresh fish and other seafood from the Gulf of Mexico the remainder of the year.
After getting a grant from the Department of Agriculture and completing a six-year study, they found a location for the restaurant — a small white block building on East Jackson Boulevard next to Rhodes 101. Formerly a tax preparation office, the empty structure was for lease.
The Hunters asked about purchasing the building and were surprised to find the owners willing to sell it. When the property was appraised at less than the asking price, the Hunters were surprised to find the sellers willing to drop their price.
Originally, the restaurant was going to be in that little square building and they would add on a store to sell fresh crawfish when it was in season. But those plans fell through, and it was decided to turn the small structure into the market and build a whole new adjoining structure for the restaurant.
There was not enough parking space to accommodate the seating in the restaurant, so Ben approached MoDOT about purchasing right-of-way along East Jackson Boulevard. He was surprised that MoDOT agreed to sell him what he needed.
Williams Creek runs right behind the restaurant, which now gives a spectacular view of nature from the outdoor patio in back, or from inside the restaurant, which has large openings for an unobstructed view.
The creek was not always that pretty. Ben cleaned up the creek, cutting brush and removing debris that had accumulated there. He needed riprap to keep the creek from eroding the bank and washing the restaurant away.
It just so happened that a city sewer line was being laid nearby, so Ben approached the contractor about acquiring some of the piles of rock that had been dug up. The contractor was happy to supply him with the rocks he needed, and Ben paid him a little something for it.
Originally there were no plans for an outdoor patio, or at least not for one this large. But when COVID-19 hit, it was decided to add a large patio so customers could be seated outside. There are gas heaters near the tables to take the chill out of the air on early autumn evenings. Once the temperature drops to about 50 degrees, customers will no longer want to sit on the patio, Ben said.
The patio was a lifesaver during this pandemic. It vastly increased the amount of customers who can be seated at one time.
Every time there was an obstacle in the Hunters’ way, it was removed. A different type of electrical hookup was needed, and it was provided. A transformer needed to be moved and it was moved. When the water pipe was too small to supply water to the restaurant, a break in a water main developed, and the City replaced the 3/4 inch pipe with 2-inch pipe, exactly what was needed.
“We had difficulties, but none of that slowed us down,” said Ben. “Everything could have gone wrong. But it didn’t. It went right.
“Everything happened at the right moment. It happened over and over. Too many things happened just out of thin air.” Ben believes some of these had to be miracles.
The success they have experienced gives Ben hope that the future of SEMO Crawfish Co. is bright.
Although named the SEMO Crawfish Co., crawfish are only available when in season. Meanwhile, customers can dine on the fresh catch of the week, which changes. (Last week’s fresh catch was red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico and fresh oysters from Boston). There are appetizers, salads and several other entrees, including crab legs, gulf shrimp and cajun dishes. There are steak, brisket burgers and chicken for those who don’t eat seafood.
A well-stocked bar is available to wash down the fare.
Sitting at the indoor tables is a treat. The table tops, bar and cabinets are cut from wood-soaked white oak logs that were cut down along the Little River in the 1880s when logs were sent down the river to a sawmill in Morehouse. (Pictures of logging camps and sawmills hang on the walls of the dining room.) Ben acquired 60 to 100 logs that sank in the river and never made it to a sawmill. A friend fashioned the logs into table tops and the other woodwork. The darker spots on the wood were caused by sediment as the logs lay in the river all those years. A few tables have dark circles that are filled-in peg holes from when the logs were chained together for their trip down river.
SEMO Crawfish Co. is open Sundays for brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is closed Mondays and Tuesdays and then open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations may be made by calling 573-755-0551. Online ordering and curbside service is available.