FLORENCE, S.C. – Wilson graduate Terrance Thomas is the newest business owner in Florence’s downtown.
Thomas has purchased the building located at 135 N. Dargan St. with the intention of opening a seafood restaurant called The Lost Cajun Seafood and Gumbo, a rooftop bar to be called Soho Vibes Tables and Taps and two studio apartments. Thomas has already applied for and received the approval of Florence’s Design Review Board for the project.
The project represents the creation of 30 or more full-time jobs and an investment of more than $1 million in the city’s downtown.
Opening the restaurant, bar and apartments represents a homecoming of sorts for Thomas.
After graduating from Wilson, he went to what was then known as South Carolina State College.
South Carolina State became a university in February 1992.
Thomas earned a degree from South Carolina State at the same time he was pursuing a career in the U.S. Marine Corps. He said he served in the Marine Corps for approximately 23 years.
He has worked for an airline for the past five years.
“After retirement, that pretty much was the trek,” Thomas said.
Thomas said his mother, father and entire family still live in Florence.
“Florence, we call it the Magic City for a reason,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of great people that come out of there. Some you’ll never hear about, but others that have been on the big stage. But, it’s always been home for me no matter what, whether I was living in the Middle East or out in California. It’s always been home.”
The opportunity to open the restaurant, bar, and apartments was too good of an opportunity to pass up when Thomas considered that his parents were aging – they’re in their mid-80s – and noted the progress of the city’s efforts to revitalize its downtown.
“What better bet than to bet on your own hometown,” Thomas added. “So that’s what I decided to do.”
The decision to open a franchise of The Lost Cajun came about through a conversation Thomas had with his mentor in California.
"My mentor, he and I were having lunch in California, and he mentioned the franchise, and so I completed the franchise questionnaire,” Thomas said. “And Griff [Lost Cajun CEO Raymond Griffin] contacted me right away.”
Griffin is also the co-founder of The Lost Cajun. He founded the restaurant with his wife, Belinda, after retiring from a job managing an auto dealership in Louisiana. At first, Griffin became a fishing guide on the bayou. Then Belinda was diagnosed with terminal cancer and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened, causing the Griffins to leave Louisiana. Also, Belinda wanted to spend her remaining time in the mountains.
The couple made it to Colorado before Belinda’s condition necessitated a stop in the Frisco, Colorado, area, which they fell in love with.
Frisco is located in central Colorado and is known for its skiing.
The Griffins soon opened a Cajun restaurant there.
After Belinda died in 2012, Griffin made the decision to allow franchises.
There now are 23 open Lost Cajun restaurants, mostly in Texas and Colorado. There also are two franchises in Greenville, one in Raleigh and one in Tennessee.
Thomas said he and Griffin hit it off right away.
“It just seemed like there was something that was near and dear to my heart in terms of how I grew up in Florence just having fish frys out back with the family,” Thomas said. “No matter what part of town you lived in, that’s something that you probably could attest to at one point in time your life: being outside with your family and having some seafood and some fries and all that good stuff.”
Thomas said he visited approximately four locations of the restaurant, trying the food and watching the customer service.
According to the Lost Cajun’s website, courtesy and respect are a big part of the restaurant’s culture, even going as far as to require a server giving an order and a cook receiving it to make eye contact and say, “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” to each other.
Thomas recommended trying everything the restaurant has to offer. He added the catfish was “like no other,” and the gumbos were among the main items.
Gumbo is a stew consisting of a meat or shellfish stock, a thickener and the Louisianan “Holy Trinity" of vegetables: celery, bell peppers and onions.
Thomas added that the rooftop bar will feature a retractable roof.
When the restaurant will open is still up in the air.
Thomas said he and his team had just finished the bidding process to select a general contractor for the project.
The project calls for extensive renovations to the interior and exterior of the building, which was constructed in 1920 and has 2,400 square feet. It is located between Jazz on Dargan and Local Motive Brewing Company.
“We’re still working through some of the architectural things,” Thomas said.
He added that during the first week in July, he expects the restaurant’s social media accounts to go live.
Also working on the project are lender Carolina Bank, architects of record Scott Collins and Nick Gaddy, lead interior designer Tracy Manuel of T3M Studios and engineer Mike Padgett.
Carolina Bank is a big investor in the city’s downtown, having moved its headquarters from Darlington to the corner of West Evans and Irby streets.
Collins is a member of the city’s design review board. He abstained from voting on the project’s approval because of his connection with it.
“[Florence City Manager] Drew Griffin and his team have been very helpful,” Thomas said. “There’s still a lot of things that I’m looking forward to working through with the city on. There’s some known things, like how to continue growth and attract people downtown. There’s some unknown things, like future construction and how will it impact current business owners. ... But thus far the city has been amazing in terms of the path.”
Thomas also thanked Pastor Calvin E. Robinson Jr. of Trinity Baptist Church for seeing the vision of the project early on.
Trinity Baptist Church is located on West Darlington Street, one block north and one block west of Thomas' building.