Don Carter Jr., ‘one of the hardest-working restaurateurs,’ built a riverside dining destination
To know Don Carter Jr. is to know the guy is a storyteller.
The owner of a handful of restaurants, including three lining a riverside block in Wormleysburg, has a knack for creating lively storytelling and he knows it.
“You don’t have enough space in the diary for me,” Carter snaps.
Sitting in his yet to open new restaurant, Tequila Willies Southwest American Grill, an ode to South of the Border cuisine decorated with colorful murals and reclaimed wood in Wormleysburg, the 67-year-old grandfather covers a lot of territory.
History aside, Carter has a reputation as one of the hardest-working and meticulous restorers in the Harrisburg area.
Restaurants, including Dukes Riverside Bar & Grille and Dockside Willies in Wormleysburg and Dukes West in Hampden Township, serve the masses with outdoor dining, mile-long menus with river rock and pretzel finger foods with crab and relaxed atmospheres.
Concepts are carefully developed and Carter is strategic about every aspect of the operation down to decor, number of parking spaces and menus.
“Now if you go to any of Donny’s places, every inch and every nook is done and he buys all the new gear as well,” said Dick Phelan, founder of the Gingerbread Man chain.
“He really is one of the hardest working people in the business,” Phelan added of his friend and former business partner.
But it hasn’t always been easy for Carter, whose businesses survived floods, fire and the crushing blows of a two-year pandemic. These days, like all restaurateurs, Carter looks to the future.
“I did what I had to do”
Growing up in Lemoyne, Carter said he failed second grade because he wanted to work. He was staring out the classroom window as he waited for his grandfather to drive by in his truck to go to work.
Later, Carter worked for House of Ice Cream, his father, Don “Duke” Carter, Sr.’s ice cream business in Lemoyne and the Silver Spring Flea Market and Carlisle Fairgrounds concessions.
These experiences laid the foundation for Carter’s career path. The Cedar Cliff High School graduate remembers his dad taking him to the ice cream shop two hours before school to unload tractor-trailers.
“I guess it shapes you, it’s who you are. I did what had to be done. Things are very different from what they were in 1962. People’s attitudes and work ethic are so different. So in our family we did what we had to do,” he said. “My old man told me that’s what I was going to do, that’s what you were going to do. It was indisputable. »
His father then purchased part of the Flea Market, a former cattle market that was eventually sold to developers in 2006 and razed for the Silver Spring Square Mall. The way Carter tells the story of his father knocked on the market owner’s door and made an offer on the spot.
“We would never have had anything in our lives if my dad wasn’t a player,” he said.
Flea market business led the Carter family to take over dealerships at the Carlisle Fairgrounds for car shows from Carlisle Events. It was 1975 and there weren’t the plethora of restaurants like there are today. The car-loving crowd needed a place to grab a burger or a hot dog.
The Carters spent 37 years overseeing the concessions, making it a 300-person operation when they left in 2010.
Building a gastronomic destination
Carter’s father saw potential along the west side of the shore overlooking the Harrisburg skyline. He worked as a toll collector on the Walnut Street Bridge and pumped gasoline at the old Atlantic station on South Front Street in Wormleysburg.
In the early 1990s, he partnered with Phelan, owner of more than a dozen Gingerbread Man restaurants in central Pennsylvania. The families bought the old Riverboat Inn and opened the 250-seat Gingerbread Riverside.
The Carters were about to build a foodie destination.
A few years later, they bought out the Phelans’ share in the restaurant. Carter recalls his father sharing the news: “My dad looked at me and said, ‘Go to the river, we’re taking over today. It was a long drive. I will never forget this trip.
He renamed it Dukes after his father’s nickname, something Carter said his father hated. At the end of 2006, neighboring establishments Catalano’s Lounge & Restaurant and Angelina’s Ristorante were up for sale. Believing that it is better to compete with oneself than with others, the Carters bought them off, a move some have questioned. But they had their reasons.
“You can’t control the battle they’re going to fight against you. You better fight,” Carter said.
Not afraid to take a chance
The father of four children, including triplets, is always innovating.
Dimitri Zozos, who has known Carter for about 45 years, said his friend is a master at turning things around, whether it’s restaurant interiors or food.
“Not many people take this chance,” Zozos said. “Donny is not afraid to take risks.”
For Carter, creativity can strike at any time. He finds inspiration in his travels, including a trip several years ago with his family to California where they visited BG’s Restaurant & Brewhouse and Yard House, among other stops.
A few years ago, while driving to his beach house in Ocean City, Maryland, with his grandson, Carter said he noticed workers boarding Bob Evans in Hampden Township. As soon as he saw it, Carter said the lure of the building’s location near the freeway interchange ate him up. Plus, he was sitting in his old stomping grounds along the Carlisle Pike.
He opened Dukes West, a duplicate of the Wormleysburg restaurant with a similar menu in 2016. Although it doesn’t have a river view, it does have an outdoor seating area with roll-up garage doors. Last year he closed Dukes Bar & Grille in Hershey and sold the property.
Now he’s focusing on Tequila Willies, a concept borrowed from one of his favorite stops, The Border Cafe, a Mexican restaurant outside of Christiana, Delaware.
“There were sunken trucks outside in the sand, and the place is all torn up and he just said ‘Eat.’ I took everybody there for six or seven years,” Carter said.
The restaurant replaces the Rock Bass Grill, which closed in 2020. Carter’s son, Erik Carter, added that the business is constantly evolving, no matter the cost. They also never act like they know more about the company than anyone else.
“We’re always moving on,” young Carter said.
“You just do it”
In July 2018, the Carters were devastated when a two-alarm fire, likely started by a brick oven, engulfed Dockside Willies.
The fire shocked Carter, who is meticulous about maintenance. It has its own maintenance team to oversee the restaurants.
“It hurts me that this happened. It was not preventable,” he told PennLive at the time of the fire. “We don’t have faulty equipment. We keep our business going.
It took 15 months to demolish and rebuild the restaurant. Carter was determined to bring him back bigger and better.
For design inspiration, he said he borrowed ideas from outdoor retailer Bass Pro Shops at Harrisburg Mall in Swatara Township. The restaurant is built of wood, mostly from Pennsylvania. Mounted deer heads, duck decoys, boat motors, boats and paddles decorate the walls.
Over the years Carter’s businesses have weathered other disasters and incidents. Flooding in 2011 from torrential rains related to the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee closed Dockside Willies and Rock Bass for a month.
“Is there anything else you can throw at me?” Carter asked. “I look up and say, ‘Hey, a little help. Give me something. Don’t try to see if I can do it. You know I’m gonna do it, but man you just killed me. I need a little help up there.
The pandemic with its roller coaster of mandates and shutdowns hasn’t been easy. Right now, the Carters say the biggest concern is the labor shortage. Other employment opportunities such as warehouse jobs in the area have absorbed available workers and made it harder to compete, he said.
Some days, like last July, the elder Carter says he doesn’t know how they survive.
“We had so many people not showing up for work, I was in a state of panic. I have never been in this business panicked as I was that day. I thought the end of the world was coming. And I couldn’t control it,” he said.
But in true Carter spirit, the family is holding out until tomorrow, and Carter knows the operation is in good hands.
“You just do. It’s who you are,” he said.