ASPA Member Feature: Fisherman’s Reef Shrimp Company
Many processing plants that line the Gulf and South Atlantic have a family lineage rooted deep in multiple generations. In the case of Fisherman’s Reef in Beaumont, Texas, it’s more like a culinary lineage: from donut shop to bakery, hamburger joint to catfish restaurants, a few other ventures in between, and then shrimp processing.
It’s very likely Fisherman’s Reef is the only plant in the United States to have roots in donuts, but if founder, Everett “Wayne” Jones, were still alive, he would have liked that unique attribute. Jones had an unparalleled entrepreneurial mind, and as far as his daughter is concerned, there was just no one like him.
Vikki Jones is chairman of the board for the company, and although she worked with her dad long before he started the plant in 1982, she has been at the helm of the family business since he passed away in 1998. One remarkable aspect of Fisherman’s Reef is that it’s one of the only female-owned and female-run processing operations in the shrimp industry, but a handful of long-term employees at the 15,000-square-foot facility fondly remember Wayne. Why? Well, he is pretty hard to forget…and he would have liked that, too.
Vikki says if there was one word to describe her dad, it would be “flamboyant.” His favorite car he owned was a Zimmer, a Great Gatsby era type of vehicle that his buddy, country singer George Jones, liked to borrow when he came into town. He loved his “Barbara Bush” hairstyle, and as far as wardrobe choice, Wayne was the most stylish shrimp processor around, but his penchant for outlandish things really was just a reflection of the confidence stemming from a brilliant businessman.
“He was generous, creative, fearless, bold, and wasn’t afraid to do anything,” Vikki says. “Even his confidence showed in what he wore — lime green shirts with big polka dots, flashy green, and purple suits, leather jacket vests, cowboy hats with feathers, fine custom skin boots. And he loved his bling! I still have his rings with two- to four-carat stones.”
Ever hear of the old adage “a smile is worth a million bucks”? Wayne embraced that literally and had his front teeth trimmed in gold. Trudy Verdine has worked with the Jones family since she was a sophomore in high school, and she says Wayne’s personality and commanding presence were worth even more: “He was very unusual, very fun, down to earth, and I never met a person that didn’t like him,” Trudy says. “He was a really good guy and was like a father to a lot of us. We miss him dearly, and a lot of people in the industry miss him. He was well-liked and well-respected.”
One of Vikki and Trudy’s favorite stories about Wayne was the day he pulled all the girls out of the office to pack a large load of shrimp. He jumped right in with them to help, but when the packing was done, he looked down and noticed his 7-carat diamond ring was no longer on his finger. After a couple of panicked choice words, the ring eventually turned up, but not before Trudy could get in one funny jab at her boss: “Don’t worry, Mr. Jones, that’s a good selling point,” she told him. “We’ll just say it’s like Cracker Jacks and there’s a diamond ring in the box!”
Wayne was one-of-a-kind, but that’s what made Fisherman’s Reef and a slew of other endeavors so successful. In fact, just about anything that man touched turned to gold…much like his teeth: “He could take something that was making nothing, and then make money with it,” says Glenda, who was married to Wayne for 45 years and is now retired from the company. “Nobody could ever do what he did. He wasn’t afraid of hard work.”
Wayne walked with a distinct limp due to a childhood accident, but Vikki says it never stopped him: “He was like Chester on Gunsmoke; it never slowed him down and he kept on hauling butt no matter what.” He was an avid believer in a 16-hour workday, which merits why two of his favorite sayings were: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “Smells like money to me” — key wisdom gained along the journey to shrimp processing.
Shortly after his father passed away, Wayne quit school in the sixth grade and started working to help support his family. Years later, after he and Glenda met and were married, Wayne took his training as a baker, and they started The Donut Den Bakery in 1959, but not without a rough start. On opening day, he borrowed a sack of flour and shortening from his friend at Shipley’s Donuts. Glenda also went into labor with their third child, and truth be told, Wayne did tell his wife to hold off on having the baby until he got off of work, but that didn’t go as planned either.
Cookies, birthday/wedding cakes, and pastries were the sole focus for a while until Wayne expanded the business, added hamburgers to the menu with a special five-for-a-dollar deal, and changed the name to The Burger Kitchen. After national burger chains started flooding the scene, he transitioned to catfish in 1970, but couldn’t afford to buy a new sign, so he just nailed a piece of plywood over “Burger” and changed the name to The Catfish Kitchen.
Long story short, the success he experienced implementing the pass-the-skillet, all-you-can-eat concept positioned him to function as a restaurateur extraordinaire with 15 locations in a 200-mile radius around Beaumont. It also was a natural segue into how Fisherman’s Reef joined the shrimp industry.
A popular item on the menu was breaded shrimp, and in order to pull in that much product on a consistent basis, Wayne decided to buy a fleet of 20 boats to fish the gulf waters and supply all his restaurants. What happened next was a pleasant surprise: “There was so much shrimp coming in that he had to start packing it and selling it to other restaurants in the area to help get rid of the excess shrimp,” Vikki says.
What started out as a mini packing plant behind one of the restaurants turned into a full-fledged processing operation when Wayne opened a plant in 1982, which now has the capacity to process 25,000 pounds of shrimp per day.
Wayne was committed to a quality product, but he took quality control to a new level: “He would eat the raw shrimp right out of the vats all the time to taste and see if it was right,” Vikki says. Although she hasn’t embraced her father’s specialized knack for onsite tasting, she knows this industry inside and out and is just as committed to processing wild-caught domestic shrimp guided by her father’s formula for success: hard work, good control systems, consistency of a caliber product, and good service.
The culinary lineage of Fisherman’s Reef is strong because a family united is strong. Vikki and her two siblings all grew up in their dad’s businesses and were each cross-trained to help with whatever Wayne needed, whether it was at one of the restaurants, the dock, or the main offices at the plant. Vikki and Glenda are now the only family members working in the business, but they are surrounded by a faithful team of long-term employees like Trudy and Wanna Gilfillian, plant manager for 32 years, who are loyal to the standards and industry work ethic Wayne established.
“The story of Fisherman’s Reef is my father,” Vikki says. “The shrimp business has carried us and my goal is to just keep it going for the family and to keep what he started alive. What we’ve done since he passed is to maintain what he left for us — his legacy.”
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