Meet the Marshal: City of Destin taps restaurant icon to lead Christmas parade

Matt Algarin
Harbor Docks Owner Charles Morgan has been a staple in the community since the ‘70s, and continually strives to make the city the best place it can be, whether it’s through his annual Thanksgiving Dinner or through his Take A Kid Fishing event that took more than 300 area children fishing this year.

It’s been more than three decades since Charles Morgan opened his doors at Harbor Docks, and he can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“I love what I’m doing and I have some wonderful people that work for me who have the energy that I had years ago,” he said from his table tucked inside the harbor front restaurant. “I enjoy it still to this day.”

Just days before the city of Destin’s annual Christmas Parade, where Morgan will serve as grand marshal, the restaurant staple sat down with The Log to talk about everything from his early days to the future of Destin.

CHOOSING CHARLES Charles Morgan was an easy choice for the city’s Christmas Parade Committee, says Chairwoman Helen Donaldson. “Charles has been a fixture in Destin for many years and has done so many thing whether it’s his annual Thanksgiving meal or Take a Kid Fishing,” she said. “When we think about who is going to be grand marshal, we think about people who have been here year after year and have done great things for the community — Charles has done that.”  

Harbor Docks early days As the son of a prominent civil rights attorney, Morgan never dreamt that he would be a restaurant owner, let alone an owner and partner in eight restaurants from Destin to Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Athens, Ga.

But as an early fisherman who came to Destin in 1977, Morgan said Harbor Docks was opened out of necessity because he and his buddies didn’t have a place to drink beer after a long day on the water.

“We started with oysters and beer,” he remembered. “There were only six restaurants from the bridge (Marler Bridge) to Sandestin.”

Harbor Docks had humble beginnings as a small cottage with six picnic tables, one bathroom and an old dog called Raspberry that greeted guests.

Over the years the restaurant has expanded to now include several sushi bars and decks overlooking the Destin harbor, as well as air conditioning and a paved parking lot.

Morgan currently has stakes in Harbor Docks, Dharma Blue, Red Bay Grocery, Camielle’s at Crystal Beach, Chuck’s Fish in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Five Restaurant and an up-and-coming restaurant in Athens slated to open Jan. l0.

Giving spirit Morgan is known around town for not only his restaurants and time on the city council, but for his constant giving over the years. Annually, Harbor Docks feeds thousands as part of their Thanksgiving Day celebration, which fed more than 1,500 people this year, not to mention raising more than $19,000 for Habitat for Humanity and Destin Harvest.

“We’ve been doing some nice things here for quite some time, but you would be surprised to know that in other towns people have never heard of anything like that,” he said. “Much like we do for Thanksgiving here in Destin, we are doing similar things at our other restaurants.”

Under the branding of American Lunch, Morgan and his team from his Tuscaloosa-based restaurants Five and Chuck’s Fish have brought a mobile soup kitchen to the streets to feed those in need.

“In a world of political argument, nobody can disagree that hungry people need good food to eat,” he said. “We feed not just the poor that have nothing, but we also feed the attorneys and their secretaries a beautiful gumbo.”

The spirit of giving is something that Morgan does because he wants to, not because he feels that he has to. He tells The Log that “giving back to the community” is an overused cliché.

“Who doesn’t do that?” he said. “Why wouldn’t you give back? If you participate in the community, that’s not giving back, that’s putting one foot in front of the other — that’s part of life.”

The plunge into politics As he watched Destin grow around him in the years following, Morgan decided to take action and test his feet in the political arena, joining the Destin City Council in 2000 and serving until 2003.

“It seemed like multiple terms,” Morgan remembered. “It felt like about two decades.”

Much like the debates on today’s city council, Morgan said he and his colleagues debated development, growth and traffic concerns.

One idea that he would have liked to have seen come to fruition during his time on the council was limiting development that wasn’t necessarily “needed” at the time. He said the idea would have been to limit the construction of new retail spaces until the existing structures were 85 percent leased, and the same with office space.

“In the end, I think we would have been doing developers a favor,” he said.

Although he still has plenty of ideas for ways to make Destin a better place to live, work and play, Morgan said he has no plans to run for elected office in the future.

“I’ve contemplated over the years that my ideas aren’t real popular,” he said, laughing heartily. “I’m a liberal Democrat, so I’ve been a minority for many, many years.”

“If people didn’t appreciate fresh seafood and sushi, I’d been out of business years ago,” he added.

As for being outspoken, Morgan says he doesn’t know any other way. It’s part of who he is, he said.

“My daddy was a civil rights attorney, so don’t blame me,” he said. “Blame him. It’s genetics.”

Morgan is slated to serve on the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, as the chairman’s appointee, in the upcoming year, and he said he plans to bring plenty of fresh ideas to the table.

Reflecting As he looks back at the past 33 years, Morgan says he is proud of what he has been able to accomplish in Destin. While it hasn’t always been easy, he said he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

When he is not at one of his restaurants, Morgan can typically be found with fishing pole in hand, reeling in cobia.

“We fished about 58 out of 60 days,” he said.

With plenty of pep still in his step, Morgan told The Log he has no plans to slow down anytime soon, but wants to leave a legacy in the city he loves dearly.

As for what he wants people to remember about him in 20 years, it’s simple.

“I think the same thing that anybody would want that’s lived here for a long time,” he said. “I want them to say that Destin was a bit nicer because I was here.”

A WEEKEND OF PARADES The 27th Annual Christmas Parade rolls down Harbor Boulevard at 10 a.m. Saturday. This year’s theme is Christmas Past, Present and Future. The parade will start at the Downtown Destin Shopping Center and will proceed to Stahlman Avenue. The Holiday on the Harbor Destin Boat Parade will begin at 6 p.m. Sunday Dec. 9. Viewers can gather at the docks and restaurants west of Grand Harbor Condominiums on Destin Harbor to best see the parade. The night will close with fireworks.