ContactOcean Springs Seafood
608 Magnolia Ave.
Ocean Springs, MS 39564
Quick FactsYear founded: 1948
# of employees in peak season: 6
# of family members working in the business: 1
Product type(s): Brown, white
peeled, headless, peeled and deveined
Capacity (pounds per day): 20,000-25,000
Square footage of facilities: 22,000
Product brand names: Ocean Isle, Tropic Isle, Gulf Spray, Cap’n Ed
At the foot of 400 Front Beach Drive in Ocean Springs, Miss., there is a piece of land with only pillars sticking up from the ground, and even though the building that once housed Ocean Springs Seafood Market, Inc., is no longer there, the history behind this property made a significant contribution to the storybook of seafood legacy on the Gulf Coast. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s 20-foot storm surge took Earl Fayard’s processing plant from him, but the savage weather conditions could not take the grit embedded in his seafood DNA — a definitive character trait of fortitude to overcome industry obstacles.
It’s ironic that the very body of water that guided fishermen to Ocean Springs Seafood Market, his family’s profitable business since 1948, would also be the tool that opened a new chapter and radically shifted the company in a different direction. Now operating remotely from his home office, the 64-year-old may no longer have a processing plant of his own, but his business is still in full swing thanks to a neighboring plant in Biloxi, R.A. Lesso Seafood, which is owned by Rudy Lesso.
In an industry that normally thrives on competition, these two businesses operate out of the same plant, but have separate customers, separate processing schedules, and separate product brands. For Earl and Rudy, it just works. Both men are satisfied to work at their existing levels and are each enjoying the happy medium of successfully maintaining their existing workload.
Their partnership is a tale that has come full circle: “I didn’t know Rudy until I was an adult, but we both sort of have the same background, even though mine is oyster-based and his is shrimp-based. Our daddies were commercial fishermen, and we grew up on the Coast,” Earl says. “When Rudy decided to get into the seafood business about 1978, I had already been in business for many years, so I helped and peeled all of his first shrimp in my plant while he operated from his home office. Now, everything is in reverse, and he is returning the favor.”
Despite the ups and down, Earl’s determination to keep moving forward is wrapped up in one motivational commonality within the industry — in many cases, the seafood life is all industry workers have ever known. There was no choice to venture into a different type of business when the means of seafood had sustained generation after generation.
His grandmother, Efine Fayard West, a “tough woman,” started the oyster company nearly seven decades ago when she was in her early 40s, and her entrepreneurial spirit set the course for her family’s well-being. His father also worked for the company and managed the trucking aspect of the business in 1952 after buying out his mothers interest, and when Earl was of driving age, he had his own route that was later replaced by independent entrepreneurs who distributed for Ocean Springs Seafood.
“We had a really good distribution system where everybody within a three-day or so drive of the coast could have fresh oysters within a day or two,” he says. “Daddy had us selling oysters as far north as Chicago, and he would have trucks that would go up that route every week as well as many cities in between.”
Although he admits growing up in the time-demanding business “messed up my social life every Friday and Saturday night,” it wasn’t an option to not help with the workload: “You know, in the days I grew up, the son helped the family and that is a common thread in the families in this industry,” he says. “You were expected to go to work in the family business, participate, and help support your family. Growing up in the industry is just a way of life, and it’s the only thing I knew. You’re raised in it like a farmer’s son knows farming, and you realized early it was a hard life, and you realized it wasn’t going to be an easy life, but there was a need and I had to keep working.”
By the time Earl was 19-years-old, he was at the helm of the operation, but left for a short time to satisfy his military obligation. When he returned, he continued processing oysters, but began transitioning the family business to concentrate on shrimp, which was a beneficial move given his grandfather and father also were gifted commercial fishermen who provided “copious amounts of shrimp” caught among the multiple boats they owned. His dad moved to Louisiana then began opening docks to provide supply to Ocean Springs Seafood.
Throughout the years, Ocean Springs Seafood Market developed strong relationships with gulf fishermen, and by 1991, the company’s sole focus was shrimp. Prior to Katrina, Earl also owned docks, along with a key partner Tim Aqueres, in Pass Christian, Gulfport, and one in Ocean Springs, but in 2005, everything ceased, and he says, “I lost it all in one day,” including a retail market which was managed by his mother Rusy Fayard.
After the storm took his life’s work, rebuilding wasn’t a viable option due to not having the necessary support he would need. Family members who worked with him over the years — brother, sister, father and grandfather — had all passed away by then, and his own children had chosen a different path aside from the family business.
For two and half years, Earl rented a processing factory in New Orleans before he returned to Mississippi and partnered with Rudy Lesso to start processing again for his clients. His typical clients are wholesale distributors who buy P&D, PUD, and HDLS shrimp nationwide. Currently, his cousin Brenda, a long time associate, works for him, and although his office is no longer located on the water, he has fond memories of his time at 400 Front Beach Drive.
“I saw many sunrises and sunsets in that building down there, and believe me, it was like home,” he says. “My children were raised there, and we had a nursery room for everyone’s children who worked for the business. A lot of us grew up there. When somebody got out of work in Ocean Springs, there was always something they could do, whether it was open oysters, peel shrimp, go commercial fishing — there was a market for seafood and it filled a need in the community in so many ways.”
For now, Earl is grateful to still play a role in the shrimp industry and will continue the legacy his grandmother established in 1948, one day at a time.