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The business of Tampa’s last shrimp boats

Ernie Donini and family want to keep the venerable Tampa shrimp packing business going because “it’s a passion”.
Ernie Donini and son Daulton Donini pose together on the dock behind Superior Seafoods, Inc. (photo by Philip Morgan)
Ernie Donini and son Daulton Donini pose together on the dock behind Superior Seafoods, Inc. (photo by Philip Morgan) [ Photo: PHILIP MORGAN ]
Published Nov. 13, 2021

Times Correspondent

Superior Seafoods, Inc. and Versaggi Shrimp Company, 70 and 110 years old respectively next year, are the last holdouts on the Tampa shrimp docks. Shrimp boat crews unload tons of Gulf-caught shrimp at their packing houses and they ship them wholesale throughout the country. Both companies also sell boxes of fresh-caught shrimp to customers who stop by during the day. They are next door to each other on the 22nd Street Causeway.

“We want to keep it going,’’ says Ernie Donini, co-owner of Superior Seafoods with his cousin John Donini. His late father and uncle started the company in 1952. His 26-year-old son, Daulton Donini, is learning the business.

Donini, 58, talked about the shrimp business with the Tampa Bay Times.

How many shrimp companies were there at one time?

That bought shrimp from boats? Probably seven or eight packing houses in Tampa. … We used to be at Hooker’s Point, where Tampa Ship is. … Those docks were probably a quarter-mile long. And what happened was (George) Steinbrenner wanted to have all the berths to expand his ship (repair business) for government contracts, and then we got a grant to come over and build this here. And they moved us here in 1981.

Why did the other companies go out of business?

Families. … It runs its course. Other family members don’t want to get into the business, so they stop fishing and they (sell) their boats and they get out. It’s just not something that Versaggi and I want to do. … It’s a passion.

Why is that?

For me it’s my dad, my uncle. I worked for them since I’ve been a little kid. … I wouldn’t say when I was a little kid I worked, but I was always around them. And the business gets in your veins. It’s something I’ve always loved, and when I got out of college this is what I did. I love it and I often think, if I stopped, what would my dad think? … I want to honor my dad and my uncle to keep it going. So that’s just something that’s in me.

Ernie Donini and employee Arthur Thompson weigh Gulf shrimp to come up with the count per pound of a new haul unloaded recently at Superior Seafoods, Inc. (photo by Philip Morgan)
Ernie Donini and employee Arthur Thompson weigh Gulf shrimp to come up with the count per pound of a new haul unloaded recently at Superior Seafoods, Inc. (photo by Philip Morgan) [ Photo: Philip Morgan ]

Your father had shrimp boats early on. When you started out, did you go out on shrimp boats?

One time with my dad. I was a little kid at the time. Of course, being younger and going out on a boat with your dad was fun because I was spending time with my dad. But they would work at night, I’d go to bed. I’d play with the fish, and I’d fish and play around. But it was never anything serious. …

It’s not an easy job. You’re working all night. … It’s a dangerous job. The weather to contend with. You have a lot of things on the boat that are mechanical, that you have to be aware of. It’s not something that an everyday person’s going to do. You’re out there for 25 to 30 days at a trip. You’re not seeing your family. It becomes wear and tear on you. … You’re on the back deck, sitting on little stools, heading shrimp, picking shrimp, bagging them, freezing them. It’s not for the weak at heart.

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And they have to be able to sleep in the daytime.

Think about it. They put tinfoil, whatever they can, (on windows) to keep it dark so they can sleep during the day. Sometimes you don’t get off the deck till 10 o’clock. You’re back up at five or six o’clock. You’re ready to go fishing again.

How is the business doing?

Sales are good. The catch has been good this year so far. … The price has been up a little bit, so overall, it was a decent year. Never know what tomorrow’s going to bring. Because now fuel prices are starting to go up. … The last year it’s almost doubled, so for us, that’s a lot of money. That really takes a lot of money out of our pockets.

When did the company start selling retail to walk-in customers?

My dad started it years ago over on Hooker’s Point. People started asking, “Hey, can I buy shrimp from you?” And my dad (said), “No, we don’t sell them here.’’ They just kept getting the question asked, can we buy shrimp? And my dad and uncle said, maybe we should start selling them in a five-pound box for people to enjoy here locally. So that kind of bloomed into what we do now. We sell a lot of them out of here, year-round sales. I mean, it just never ends. People come in, they want fresh seafood, fresh shrimp. They see the boats. People are really enamored with the boats and the process and the rigs and the nets, because if you’re not from here – even if you’re from here, a lot of people don’t know about it – so they want to come and see it and they see the product and then people come in and say, never had shrimp like that in my life.

Can you tell the difference between Gulf shrimp and farm-raised shrimp?

A lot of times you can if you’ve had a lot of Gulf shrimp and you don’t put a lot of sauce and all that on them. … Farm-raised shrimp don’t have the flavor that domestic shrimp have. ...

A lot of (restaurant servers) are going to tell you, “Oh, they’re out of the Gulf.” “What gulf?” I ask that question and my wife gets so upset with me sometimes. “Don’t ask.’’ And I said, “I have to ask.’’ It’s just something that’s in you. My dad did it. I do it. I’m sure (Daulton will) do it.

What gulf? I want to know where they came from. And they don’t know, and it’s not their fault. ... You’re asking a question; they don’t want to hear that. They just want you to order them and eat them. And that’s just against my better judgment. I don’t eat anything I don’t know where it’s from.

What’s the best way to cook shrimp?

I like them fried. That’s my favorite. My Family favorite is fried. We put a little bit of flour, and then egg, Italian breadcrumbs. And we grate fresh Reggiano-Parmesan cheese in our bread

crumbs. We dip them in that then we put them in the grease. It’s the best thing ever. The best ever.

To reach Superior Seafoods, Inc., 2625 Causeway Blvd., call (813) 248-2749. For Versaggi Shrimp Company, 2633 Causeway Blvd., call (813) 248-5089.

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