You'd either be insane or ignorant to actually pay for a crab dip at Hyman's. The popular Meeting Street seafood restaurant distributes 700,000 to one million coupons for free crab dip every year, according to owner Eli Hyman. You can even go to their website and print out a coupon, if you don't happen to have one in your hands. But that's not why there's usually a long wait to get inside.
Despite its rap as a tourist trap, Hyman's has been able to pack them in for two decades. You can't do that with free crab dips alone.
"Our real marketing gimmick is word of mouth," says Eli. "If that's marketing genius, then I'll take all credit for it. I call it hard work and being passionate about what we do. If you don't believe it, come in and watch what we're doing. On a given day, we comp out five to 10 meals. If we do screw up, we're swapping it out — no problem. We stand behind it."
The Hyman family has been in business in Charleston since 1890, when Eli's grandfather, W.M. Karesh, first opened a dry goods business. But in the late '80s, they opened Aaron's Deli and Hyman's. "Because there was more money in food than there was in underwear," jokes Eli.
The switch paid off, and Eli and his brother Aaron have been running a successful restaurant business ever since. Indeed, Hyman's has become a Charleston icon — like Carnegie Deli in New York, Legal Sea Foods in Boston, or Joe's Stone Crab in Miami. "All these restaurants have this image," says Hyman, adding that they're all worth the chance you take because they're all good — even though they're popular with tourists.
Eli has challenged locals to give his restaurant a try — even going so far as to establish a VIP local program. Get the locals-only card, and you can jump in line and get validated parking — two of the biggest obstacles for eating at Hyman's. And if you go there and they get it wrong, let Eli know, because he'll make it right. Guaranteed.