By Lanier Laney
Gary Lang of Beaufort’s Breakwater Restaurant credits wife Donna with making him into a chef. Atlanta native Gary grew up in Gainesville, Ga., while Donna, though born in Michigan, was raised in an Atlanta suburb as a nice “Southern girl.”
Says Gary, “I met Donna when I lived in Memphis and I was visiting my best friend in Atlanta. They lived in the same neighborhood and a group of us all went dining and dancing together. I dropped Donna on the dance floor several times that evening and apparently she was looking for a drunk white boy that can’t dance. There really isn’t any other explanation.
We have been happily together 14 years this fall and married 13 years.”
Donna realized early into their relationship that Gary was a great natural cook. He had been raised by a family with a huge passion for cooking where every family get together would turn into a contest to see who could cook the best food. Plus, Gary’s mother had been a successful caterer and owned a deli.
Says Gary, “Donna knew how much I loved to cook and picked me up from the airport at 8 a.m. one Saturday and took me straight to an open house for the Culinary Arts program at The Art Institute of Atlanta. I had never even thought about culinary school, but loved the open house and she convinced me to go back to school. So we got married, and I moved back to Atlanta, started culinary school and here we are.”
Once he graduated culinary school, he and Donna began looking for something on the coast since Gary had so enjoyed coming to Hilton Head while he was growing up. On the Internet, they found a little restaurant for sale in nearby Beaufort. They came down one weekend, fell in love with the town, and bought Bistro 205 on West Street.
Gary’s dad helped build the bar. The early years were a struggle as the location had a very small kitchen with a host of problems. But they built a strong local following over nine years with Gary’s consistently good food, great bar atmosphere and Donna’s welcoming style. It was during this time that Gary hired Beth Shaw out of the Johnson and Wales culinary school to cook with him.
About Beaufort, Gary says, “Beaufort is full of not only great people but interesting characters. I have always been a Jimmy Buffett fan and he made a great living simply writing songs about all these characters he met in Key West. I feel like Beaufort is the Key West of South Carolina.”
Adds Donna, “I like that we live in a town where I can walk into the bank and know the teller by her first name and she knows mine. I like that when I had surgery for breast cancer three years ago, I personally knew all my doctors and the staff who were taking care of me because they were also our customers. I like that this town supports each other no matter what.”
A lot of couples say they would “crack” if they had to live and work with each other all day, everyday, but not Gary and Donna. “Gary and I are together almost every hour of every day. We truly enjoy each other and what we do for a living. It’s about compromise and commitment in both our personal and professional lives, and as long as I’m behind the wheel of the car and not him we will continue to get along just fine … I’m a bad rider!” says Donna with a laugh.
“One thing for sure, you better be damn good friends!” said Gary.
Donna jokingly said, “I’m trying to learn to play golf so Gary and I have another thing to do together since we don’t see each other enough.”
Three years ago they moved and opened the new Breakwater Restaurant with a new menu focused on updated Southern and Lowcountry favorites in a much larger, glamorous new space at 203 Carteret Street. It was an immediate hit, even though it opened during the darkest hours of the Great Recession. Open Table Diners soon named it the #1 restaurant in South Carolina, and it has won both Island News and Beaufort Gazette’s Readers Favorite Awards since then.
In April of this year, the Langs opened a second Breakwater in Greenville with executive chef and owner Beth Shaw moving there to take over the helm. The restaurant there is doing amazingly well.
Says Gary, “Beth and I write all the menus together. I’m in charge of the kitchen at the Beaufort location and hire and train kitchen staff members. I oversee all financials at both locations.”
Adds Donna, “I oversee the front of the house staff for both Beaufort and Greenville. The bar and dining room managers report to me. My main role is to make sure all of our guests have a good dining experience. My job is like entertaining guests in our home every night.”
During the past 11 years, Breakwater has grown from a small bistro with eight employees to a two location fine dining restaurant with 65 employees. And they credit the staff as one of the major contributors to their success.
Says Donna, “We are very fortunate to have the best staff available. Most of our staff has been with us for over three years and some as long as seven, which is rare in this business.”
Gary adds, “We have a great staff and without them we could never pull off the quality and level of service we offer.”
Donna and Gary’s work philosophy is the same. “Our philosophy is that you have to work hard if you want to succeed.” Says Donna, “I work as hard as my staff and don’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. When we opened Greenville, I had one of the staff tell me they had never worked in a restaurant where the owner was polishing glasses and clearing plates. I told them I was there to support them and if that’s what it takes, then that’s what I do.”
Says Gary, “I have to make sure our kitchen employees at both locations can cook our menu exactly like I would.”
And consistency has been a hallmark of Breakwater’s success. Now that the Greenville location has been successfully launched, a chef who was brought in to help out in Beaufort during the interim has left and Gary is back full time overseeing the kitchen.
With two successful restaurants, are there more Breakwaters in the future? Gary says, “I was thinking about a third restaurant somewhere but after opening Greenville I’m content with just two restaurants right now. That may change one day, but not soon.” Donna says, “No comment” to that question with a Mona Lisa smile.
Gary and Donna have stuck to it through thick and thin to make their business the success that it is today. The restaurant has greatly improved the quality of life in Beaufort for both locals and visitors while also contributing to the revitalization of downtown and the Carteret Corridor. Plus, they give tirelessly both personally and through the restaurant to help dozens of charity events all year long.
I wish there was some big award to give folks like them for what they have given all of us. Maybe the best way to thank them is by just continuing to show up at Breakwater — especially during these slow summer months!