By Robin Gibson
Photography Erin Turner
Sarah May Chaplin Barber Bowen, the matriarch behind the iconic Southern eatery, Bowens Island Restaurant, is the reason for this month’s “Skirt Men” feature—Robert Barber. He is her paternal grandson without whom her legacy and famed restaurant might have disappeared. But he fulfilled his promise to keep it alive before turning the reins over to two other strong women: his daughter and his granddaughter, both with the first name Sarah.
Can you describe for people who don’t know about Bowens Island what and where it is?
Bowens Island is a 14-acre island with a causeway to it about two miles before you get to Folly Beach. We have a Charleston mailing address and off one side of the island we see the back of Folly Beach and off the other we see James Island.
The restaurant serves seafood and is known for its local oysters. What is your relationship to it?
I grew up in it. My paternal grandmother, May Bowen, bought the island and built a road to it. She had a restaurant on Folly Beach, and, when my dad came back from World War II, he took that over and went to The Citadel as a veteran student. She moved to a one-bedroom house on Bowens and built a little concrete building on the ground and started a fish camp. She had a dock, and, initially, she wanted out of the restaurant business but ended up with fishermen—she had lights on it so you could fish all night—and they would bring in what they caught and she cooked it. So she started anew with another restaurant named after the island, which is named for her second husband, my step-grandfather—and granddaddy to me—Jimmy Bowen. So they called it Bowens Island.
Many view your grandmother as a pioneer and a visionary. Do you see her that way? What do you think she thought about what she set out to do?
I don’t think she thought it was a big deal because that’s how she was. Comparing her to other people, I wouldn’t say she was eccentric—but different. Most people would have put a few thousand dollars into a pretty, little house in a new subdivision after World War II. Instead, she bought this island and paid to put a causeway out to it. They lived modestly in a wooden one-bedroom house with a different perspective of the world. She enjoyed people but was kind of grumpy and short with them.
And she was a businesswoman before many women got into business, and, certainly, before they started their own.
What motivated her? Was it her business sense? Was she wired to think if she wanted something to do it herself? Obviously, she felt empowered.
She had to have felt that way. Her first husband, my biological grandfather, was from Pennsylvania. They met during the war and she went back with him, but, within a year or so, she returned without him. She and her older sister moved to Savannah to be hairdressers, and she met Jimmy Bowen, an accomplished trombonist who was in the Marine band in World War 1. They moved back and he worked in printing while she did family members’ hair. For family that didn’t have much, she made dresses out of printed feed sacks, the stuff chicken feed came in. My mother’s family didn’t have a lot of money, so she helped them out.
You left and then you came back. Did you always know you would?
My dad got a job in Columbia when I was ten years old, and that’s where I met Lanelle. She lived a few blocks away and close to her was a fellow in my class whose daddy died. Two years later, he moved in with us. So I got a good-looking wife and brother out of the deal. I finished high school, went to Wofford College, Duke Divinity School and law school before returning to Charleston. I worked in restaurants from college through seminary and law school. My grandmother’s restaurant wasn’t busy, but a dozen people would walk in and she’d ask for help. I tended the counter taking food and drink orders and it worked out.
Did you feel compelled to take over? Did you consider it continuing her legacy?
Absolutely. The restaurant was unique, and, in the 1970s and 1980s, we were being written up in The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. This was before Charleston was a food destination, and, aside from some curious folks from afar, the clientele was 90% locals. Before she died, we talked about it, and I told her I would keep it going. This past July, it’s been 29 years since she passed.
Under your leadership, you won the James Beard Award.
Well, we did. But I attribute 90% of that to what she created.
Do you think she would be impressed by the award or embrace it?
She would be proud but wouldn’t have made too much about it. My mother and dad remarked many times that my grandmother would be proud and overwhelmed by the number of people that have come here.
Your daughter, Hope McIntosh, whom you named after your grandmother, is now running things. Did she express a desire to step in? Was that always the succession plan?
She expressed a desire. She has two daughters, a senior and sophomore in college, and, when they went off to school, she became full-time manager.
What do you think the future holds for Bowens and your granddaughters? Will they carry the legacy forward?
I have no idea. I assume it will go another generation. And I suspect the only reason it would be sold—in fact, my only concern and it’s not going to be in my lifetime—is if global warming continues, the water’s going to keep rising and somebody’s going to make an executive decision. But that’s down the road.