"The seafood business is a strange animal to sell. You have to have it bought before you can sell it, and you have to have it sold before you can buy it." – Robert Collins
Robert Collins is a third-generation shrimp drier in Grand Isle—his teenage son, also named Robert, seems poised to take the company into its fourth generation. Robert inherited the family business, Louisiana Dried Shrimp Co., from his father, who learned to dry shrimp from his father, who learned to dry shrimp from the Chinese shrimp driers who used corner the dried shrimp market in and around Grand Isle back when a portion of the island was known as China Town. When Robert was a child, they dried shrimp with sun power, spreading them out on platforms. They used a similar technique with whole speckled trout, which Robert remembers his father learning to dry from a Chinese man only after the man got permission from the “Old Country” to teach him. The drying plant that Robert took over from his father was more modernized than that and somewhat automated. It washed away during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He recently got the business up and running again in a new location, with newly acquired equipment, only to hit a poor shrimp season. Robert could not explain why there seemed to be so few of the small shrimp used for drying in the Gulf. Was it an after-effect of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? Or was it just an off-season, which happens every now and then? When we visited his facility in the fall of 2011, the plant was quiet. Robert awaited an influx of small shrimp with optimism.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Robert Collins, owner of Louisiana Dried Shrimp Co.—Grand Isle, LA Date: October 17, 2011 Location: Louisiana Dried Shrimp Co.—Grand Isle, LA Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen:This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It is Monday, October 17, 2011. I’m in Grand Isle, Louisiana, and I’m with Mr. Robert Collins.
Robert Collins: Beautiful day, too.
It is a beautiful day. Could I ask you to introduce yourself—tell us your full name, and what you do for a living?
Okay. I’m Robert Collins. I’m a dried shrimp processor. I was born September 29, 1959.
I’d like to know first where you grew up, and what brought you to the dried shrimp business originally.
Let’s see, I was brought up in the town of Grand Isle in a small area that was called Chénière Caminada, and at the very end of Chénière Caminada was a small area they called China Town. And China Town was called China Town—it was a nickname because a long time ago the Chinese used to unload their shrimp from these marsh-surrounded platforms over the water. And they would come to the mainland and they would unload their product. And once a week the Chinese would get there and they would walk around, and people gave it the nickname China Town.
Where is that from here?
Well, it’s on [Laughs] the northwest end of Grand Isle, and it’s a little peninsula on the very end before the town of Grand Isle. Be hard to find under those directions, too.
What did your parents do for a living?
They were in the dried shrimp business. Yeah, my grandfather also. My grandfather started in the dried shrimp business probably in the early ‘30s, and it was done outside in the sun, and eventually it progressed to inside dryers. And that’s what we’re doing now, and I’m just following up on the same generation, same culture, same type of business. And my son would like to do the same thing. It’s a little more complicated than what it used to be. It’s a great living, great life.
What was your grandfather’s name?
Theodore Collins. They called him Borbar, Borbar Collins [interviewer’s note: Robert uses a French pronunciation of Collins here] from Chénière. [Laughs]
Was his facility on the water like this one is?
Sure thing, yeah. We were buying from the boats back then, and the shrimp boats would come in and we’d unload the product fresh, and it was boiled right on the dock and pushed straight into the dryers.
What would you do if you were drying outside and it rained?
Well, back then the whole community worked together and if it started to drizzle, then what would happen is anybody around that was available would come and they would help push the shrimp up. And, in fact, I know you won't see it on the recorder, but I got a few pictures of it. And the platforms were built on a slant. And you’d push the shrimp up to the top of the slant and you’d cover them up with tarps. And that would keep the rain off. But everybody would help pick up the shrimp because if you couldn’t sell your shrimp, they couldn’t get paid also. So it was a community effort, really, so it worked out good.
Wow, so you were alive when they were drying in the sun?
Definite, yeah. I was blessed because I was able to see the old dried shrimp platforms and how they operated. I actually remember helping on the platforms, and I was back in the block ice plant days with the open shrimp trucks. I’m only 52 years old, but I remember all those days well. All the little boys, we were born and raised on the shrimp dock, and that’s where we hung around and that’s where we played and grew up and learned business at, so it was pretty good.
Your grandfather passed the business on to your parents, I guess?
Yeah, to my dad and his two brothers, and eventually my dad ended up with it, and he eventually sold it to me and I lost it for Katrina. And we’re just getting back into business and getting back up again, so—.
What is, or was, your dad’s name?
Robert Collins, the same as mine, and I got a son named Robert Collins—pretty traditional, you know. We’re pretty simple, basic, traditional people.
At what point did they go from sun-drying to air-drying, or bringing the process inside?
That happened when I was probably—I’m going to say maybe 13--14 years old. And that would have probably been in the ‘70s. I don’t remember the exact year that they switched, but Mr. Louis Blum [of Blum & Bergeron, Inc. in Houma] was actually the one who designed the first indoor shrimp drying. He never got the credit that he deserved for it, but he’s actually the one who invented it, yeah.
You’re the only shrimp dryer on the island right now, right?
Right. I’m the only one on the island that does that. At one time in just South Louisiana, there was 21; the way I understand it, there was 21 dried shrimp platforms over the marsh, all Chinese-owned. And then when I really got into the business, I could remember about 12 different drying plants that were around. And now I could think about maybe four that’s still existing. Four to five, and that’s it.
Did your grandfather learn from Chinese people?
My grandfather was taught by the Chinese how to dry, yeah. When the marshland-based platforms were shutting down, they were looking for more land-based platforms. And my grandfather being friends with them over the years of letting them unload their product on [his] property and stuff; then, what happened is they got to be friends, and he was one of the first Americans that they taught to dry shrimp.
Are there many Chinese people in this area?
Not too many now. We have a few Philippine people still around, but now as far as Chinese, we’re still dealing with the same Chinese family that we dealt with back then, too. So we’re actually going on our fourth generation on that side too.
What do they do for a business?
They’re still in the dried shrimp business. They don’t dry it themselves. They’re on more of the sales end, and they always were on the sales end, but they would actually supply themselves. And now we’re supplying for them.
What is the name of that family or that business?
It’s Gulf Food Products out of Harahan—New Orleans. So good business, you know, four generations on both sides, on both companies.
Did you always know growing up that you wanted to go into the family business?
Definite. That’s all I wanted to do. I don’t regret it. It has its tough times, tough years, but it’s a good living, good life. I don’t intend on ever [becoming] a millionaire unless I win the lottery. [Laughs] But it’s a good life. The kids are going to go on to college, and if they’re still interested in it, they’re more than welcome to take over the business. And if they’re not, then they can move on, and then there will be another part of the seafood industry that dies off.
There are less shrimp drying facilities in this area than there were. Do you think that there’s less consumption, or what do you think the reason is for that?
It’s a combination of a lot of things, I think. I think the price of the seafood has gone up, which has driven the price. I think the sales are a little slower than they it used to be. I think our biggest market is Asian people. They consume dried shrimp, and I think like any other culture, the younger people are eating at McDonald’s and Burger Kings, and they’re not going back home to eat dried shrimp that their parents cook. But I think there’s a lot of room for new development and new marketing in it. Maybe just a little more modern focus on it. Maybe actually some new products that we can do with it. I think it would be great. So I’m waiting to see what the future brings.
When you were growing up, did your mom, or whoever the cook was in your family, cook with dried shrimp?
Well, definite. We cooked whatever came off the dock. Yeah, she made fricassee; she made gumbos with it. And it was all good. Even shrimp spaghetti with it. So it was real good, you know. And that’s kind of what we ate just off the tables. We ate whatever seafood was around. If a shrimp boat had a few fish on it, we would clean the fish and we would eat that. We would eat oysters from the oyster boats, and where else could you eat that good? [Laughs]
The plant that you lost in Katrina, was that where your father had his business?
Sure was, yeah. That was my daddy’s plant that I had purchased with him, and I had been there for probably close to 10 years operating when Katrina came around. And then, like I say, I lost it then. And like I said earlier, I’m finally getting back to where I’m getting back into the business. And I missed it, but it’s like riding a bike.
I want to ask you some things about the process of drying shrimp. Now, you took me on a tour of the plant, which is not operating right now.
Because of the lack of shrimp. [Laughs] There’s not much small shrimp. The first time in my life that I haven't seen small shrimp at this time of the year, and we just have a shortage of shrimp right now. Sometimes we have a shortage of sales; this time we have a shortage of shrimp, so it’ll come around. Maybe, hopefully, the next cold front or two, if the water temperatures drop, maybe small shrimp will come out. So we’re waiting on that.
Where would the shrimp be hiding right now if they’re not coming out?
We’re hoping that they’re way back into the marshes right now, and maybe the cold weather will drive them out. But we should be seeing signs of them by now, and we’re not. That’s the only thing that’s a little scary. I don’t want to blame it on oil companies or anything like that. I don’t want to do that. I like to be a little more optimistic about it. And I think it’s just going to come. Maybe we’re just having a late season. Until then, I don’t want to rule out anything either, so—.
I have been hearing from a lot of people that it’s not a good season for shrimp, but I guess for you, because you’re not taking just any shrimp—you need a very specific size of shrimp—it’s more of a challenge. When people talk about counts of shrimp, what count is the size that you need?
Well, the bulk of what we do is probably 80--100 count. That’s more or less the ideal dried shrimp. But we’ve dried a lot this summer, like 40--50s and smaller. Very seldom you’ll dry anything larger than a 40--50 count. And 40--50 drying, if it’s dried right, is beautiful, real nice shrimp. Sometimes we dry six barbes [pronounced “see bobs”]. Six barbes are a third species of shrimp. We call it the third season. We dry brown shrimp for the first season. White shrimp, there’s a second season, and six barbes is usually around—we used to call it our “Christmas money.” We dried that around the Christmas holidays, and it was a small shrimp that was caught on the beach. And the market had kind of played out on that, and it looked like it was just starting to redevelop a little bit, and then lately they haven't been catching much of it. So, we’re waiting, and hopefully we’ll have a few six barbes to dry, too, this year.
I’ve never heard of that term.
“Six barbes” is actually French. “Six” is six in French, and “barbes” is a whisker. And the shrimp has six whiskers on it, so they call it “six barbes.” I don’t know what the official name of it is; we just call it “six barbes,” and everybody I deal with knows what that is. [Laughs]
You catch them off the beach here in Grand Isle?
Right, on the beach. Yeah, it’s not an inside shrimp. Brown shrimp or white shrimps come inside; six barbes have a tendency of staying on the beach, and they’ll catch them on the real cold days on the beach. And it’s a cheaper product and it’s caught more plentiful. Usually, when a boat catches, they catch a lot of it at one time, so it’s pretty neat. And I like drying six barbes. Six barbes has got a good unique flavor to them. Some people prefer six barbes than any other shrimp. It’s just they’re very small, so the personal consumer to peel six barbes for, like, personal consumption, it’s a little bit more trouble.
What is the flavor like?
It has a sweeter flavor than other shrimp. White shrimp have a sweeter flavor than brown, but the brown shrimp has a perfect color, good shelf color, very attractive color. White shrimp have a little paler orange compared to the brighter orange of the brown shrimp. And the six barbes is a smaller shrimp, and it’s a little bit duller orange color.
Because it’s a poor season, your plant isn't functioning at the moment, but you took me on a tour. I’m sorry to ask you to repeat yourself, but do you think that we could go through the process again, for the audio recording?
Sure. We don’t purchase directly from the boats. We go out and we actually go to the different shrimp docks. I would say probably 95-percent of our shrimp comes from Dean Blanchard’s Seafood because of the location. We’ll go out to the dock; I call it “shopping.” I’ll go in the morning and I’ll pick out shrimp that are perfect to dry. If the shrimp are not fresh enough, we stay away from them. We’re very particular on what we dry. Depending on the demand, we’ll pick out the sizes we need, but mainly we’re looking for the quality. And once we find the quality, we’ll load them up into our trucks and we truck them into the plant. And from there they’re unloaded in 600-pound vats, and from there they’re dumped into the boiler and boiled 600-pounds at a time. And from there it goes into the dryer.
I don’t know a lot about drying shrimp, and I was actually surprised that you cook them first. What would happen if you didn't boil them first?
Well, actually, there was a market for that at one time. It was called “raw-dried.” And they was dried out in the sun, and you actually took fresh shrimp and you dumped them out in the sun, not cooked at all, and you left them in the sun to dry. And there was a market for that. I haven't seen that around probably since I was 10 years old.
What was the difference in flavor or texture?
We never had the heart to eat one of those things. [Laughs] We left those. We didn't eat those at home, no. [Laughs] But it looked just a real light brown color to it. And they would actually dry, and you dried all the moisture out of them, and there was a market for them. We didn't peel them; that’s one thing we didn't do is peel them. They were sold with the peeling still on, which you call “whole-cooked” when it’s done like that. And they had a decent market. It was always a very small market. It might have been a one, two-percent of your market.
Do you know who the market was? Who was buying that?
It was Asian. It was definitely an Asian market, yeah, because I don’t remember Mr. Blum buying any. But I do remember Mr. Bob Hoy buying quite a bit. And his partner, Mr. Huong, they bought quite a bit of that stuff. Also, dried speckled trout, too, they used to buy. I don’t know if you want to go into this right now or not, but my dad had to seek permission from the old Chinese family in order for Mr. Dip—. Mr. Dip used to own a grocery store on the island, and he was a Chinese—well, when we say “Chinese,” we’re probably talking Taiwanese, you know—and he owned property down here. And we didn't know it at the time, and my dad didn't know it at the time, but he knew the secret to drying speckled trout, which was a very tricky and very tedious process. And when they ordered dried speckled trout, they told my daddy to seek Mr. Dip and he would teach you. But he had to get permission first from the old family. And he actually had to write to the Old Country to get permission. Yeah, and then once he obtained the permission, he taught my daddy how to dry fish. And we used to dry speckled trout until they made it a non-commercial fish. And then we had to stop. The price had gone up, and it wasn’t feasible to dry fish anymore. But that was something to see.
Were the fish cleaned totally before they were dried?
They were gutted and they were packed in salt barrels until they arrived, in a heated building, and you’d bring the temperature up over 100 degrees. You’d leave the head on the fish and you’d just pull the guts out. I remember, as a little boy I would help do that, and you would pack the inside of the fish with salt. And then you’d lay them in these wooden barrels. And I remember going with my dad in a truck and we’d go to the pickle factory and they would give us these old wooden barrels. And that was the ideal thing to pack the fish in. You’d take the top off the barrel and you’d put a layer of salt and you’d put a layer of fish. And then you’d put them in there. And after a while in that heated room they had a smell that you couldn’t imagine. And we hated walking in there. And my daddy would say, “It smells like money. Don’t worry about it.” And we’d go in there where you had to take the fish out of the barrel, and it was awful-looking stuff. And we’d take them out and we’d put them on these racks, and every day during the day you’d go and you’d flip each fish individually over so he’d get the right amount of sun on it.
My dad was good at it, and we’d more or less just follow his commands, like “Go turn them,” “Pick them up,” and every night you had to pick them up. And then the next day you’d put them out. And if I remember right, it would take four--five days to dry them at that pace. And all of a sudden they were all put into sacks. And this was head-on, whole fish, and they were brought to New Orleans. We used to deliver on St. Louis Street to Gulf Food Products. And I remember going. I don’t know why, but out of the four kids in the family, it seemed like I always ended up going with my mom and dad. And the other three kids went to school. And me and my mom would go walk to the little local coffee shop and my daddy would more or less make the sales. And if my mom didn't come along for the ride, then I would go with my daddy and I’d sit in the office and I’d learn how they dealt business. And I would just sit around and listen. And after a while, you know, you’d see their different cultures and how they presented themselves to each other, how they departed after business was over, and it was a pretty amazing thing. We’re basically still doing business the same way today. And it’s a great culture, and I like my kids to see it because it’s a culture that’s pretty much going away now. People don’t communicate in person as much as they used to. Now it’s all through computers and email, and back then you went out there and you sat down and you did business face-to-face with the product sitting next to you. If the product wasn’t good enough, you talked about it right there. If the price wasn’t good enough, you talked about it right there. And it was pretty good. And when you left, you left with a handshake and you departed by the square, and that was it.
What about now in your business? Are you pretty automated?
I got a computer because the kids said it looks good. [Laughs] I’m hesitant on doing it because my main customers I have, I still deal with them on the phone every day and deliver in person myself, or they’ll pick up the product in person and we sit here like me and you are talking now. And we still talk about the families and how everybody is doing, and we basically keep it very simple. I still write handwritten invoices to them, and they write me hand invoices back. And it works out fine.
I took us on a detour at the boiling point. So, you boil the shrimp. And I saw that you dump them from bins into the boiler. About how long do they boil?
We boil about three and a half to four minutes, long as we get up to the temperature. We have to hit 185 degrees, and we have to maintain about three minutes at 185 degrees, which takes us probably four minutes.
Do you have to do it at 185 because that’s the technique that makes them the best product? Or is that regulation?
Actually, it’s a regulation. There’s never been anyone in the dried shrimp business that I know of that’s ever eaten dried shrimp that got sick from it. So the regulations are pretty laid-back because of that.
Do you put anything in the boiling water?
Yeah, we use city water. We don’t use well water or water from the bay or saltwater or anything. We use city water, and we add salt to it, and the amount of salt we add is dependent on the size of your boiler. And I adjust it a little bit on the size of the shrimp too. You know, if the shrimp are larger or smaller, you might use a little less salt or a little more salt.
Okay. So, then, from the boiler?
From the boiler they’re brought into the drying room, and there they’re put onto these drying tables. And we put 600 pounds on each table, and it takes us approximately five and a half to six hours to dry one batch of shrimp. And the plant that we have here, we’re capable in probably a 10-hour turnaround, we could dry 16,800 pounds in 10 hours, which is a pretty good size plant. And if we really want to push it, we could do over 30,000 pounds a day.
But that weight is raw shrimp. Once they’re dried, what would that equal?
We run about 10-percent. In other words, on a pound of fresh shrimp, we’re going to get about 10-percent weight out of it. So when you go in the grocery store and you see the price of dried shrimp and you say, “Oh, these people are getting rich,” well, you’d have to look back at the figures and see. A lot of it is water weight that you’re drying out of it. It’s dehydrated, and when you rehydrate it, the weight actually comes back.
Can you talk a little bit about how you dry them? I saw the tables.
Well, we use some natural gas heaters, and on the end of the heater there’s an air-forced blower, and the blower blows the hot air up through the screen, which rises through the shrimp. It’s forced through the shrimp. And every once in a while you have to turn the shrimp over and you have to keep an eye on them and make sure nothing happens. You flip them a few times to get the drying consistent all the way through where the shrimp are all dried uniform—you don’t want one end of the table still damp and the other end over-drying, so you monitor them like that. And then once they’re ready, they’re ready to be peeled.
I imagine that the room is pretty steamy while all this is going on.
Since we’ve built this new plant, we’ve never ran full capacity yet, and we’re hitting temperatures on the upper side of 140 degrees, walking through the building, not standing on top of the dryers. So we anticipate probably a 150--155 degree building, so it should be pretty hot.
How does a worker deal with that?
Pay them well. [Laughs] You pay them well. And you let them eat all they can eat. [Laughs] It’s not a heat like you’d be standing out in the sun. It’s a dry heat, and it’s not as bad as it seems. Of course I was raised doing that, so I don’t think it was as bad either. [Laughs] We hire a lot of local boys, and they have a rough time with it. We take good men, and they’re almost falling to their knees sometimes, but we give them a drink of water and send them back in. [Laughs]
And you were also showing me how you constructed the room so that you can turn on fans to cool it down really quickly. Why would you maybe have to do that?
Well, to control the humidity in the building. You want to keep the heat in the building, and the heat is re-circulated, which actually keeps your bills down. And it dries the shrimp that much quicker. You’re not depending on just the heat from the heater. You’re actually re-circulating the heat that the heater is providing you. And then the fans, we’re drawing air out of the building and we’re taking the damp air out. We’re taking the humidity out of the building at certain times. At certain times we actually cut them off to retain the heat in the building. The design we got on the building is pretty temperature controlled.
Okay, so you get to the point where the shrimp on the tables are dry. Then what?
Then, from there we monitor them and we—. You know, when I say, “monitor them,” that’s where the heart of it comes in. You’re actually physically checking the shrimp. You’re feeling them, you’re looking at them, and it’s a very hands-on business. You don’t just, say, turn the switch on and it operates. And once they’re exactly right, where the moisture content is to the right level that you want, then the shrimp are ready to be peeled. And then from there, they’re brought to the beater, which is a round tumbl[er]. It looks like a large raffle ticket machine, and the shrimp are loaded into there. And from there the machine turns and the peelings fall to the bottom and all the shrimp stay inside the machine.
The shells fall out the bottom and you store the shells in, I don’t know what it is—a little silo. Do you sell that to someone?
It’s sold, yeah. It’s actually used. It’s grinded up and it’s used as a feed, or some of it used for fish feed like on fish farms and stuff. Some of it’s used for fertilizer. It’s not a high dollar product; it’s really a byproduct for us, you know. And if we could get just our expense out of it, we’re all right with that.
You were telling me that you really have to monitor what’s going on when the shrimp are in the beater.
Oh, yeah, yeah. From the point when the shrimp are actually ready to be beat, they still have heat in them and they’re still drying. So it’s critical to get them from the dryer to the beater, the raffle ticket machine. Now, once you start knocking the shells off, they’re starting to cool down. And they’re spinning in this machine. And if you under-beat them, they’ll have a lot of parts still left on the shrimp and they’ll have shells still left in them. And if you beat them too long, then you’re actually losing part of the shrimp itself. So it’s very critical to watch on that step of the process. You know, that’s a little tricky too. You can lose a lot of money if you’re not paying attention, and it’s a very expensive lesson. And I’ve done that before. I’ve made mistakes before. I got off track, you know, doing something else and had the machine running and came back and realized that you lost a lot of money in a little bitty while. So you just take your beating and you say, “Let’s learn from this.”
I can't really remember the next step.
Well, from the beater, the way we were set up our first year back in business, we were set up totally wholesale, and we would sack the shrimp directly out of the beater into like 100-pound sacks. And from there they were shipped direct to the wholesalers, which is Bloom & Bergeron, Gulf Food Products out of New Orleans, and that’s mainly what we focused on. And we’re still focusing on those two main customers. Not only because they’re good customers, but it’s traditional, and we’ve been dealing for so many years that we wouldn’t want anything to come in between it. And what we’re trying to do now, we’d like to develop a few new markets.
Are you right now on a daily basis waiting to see more little shrimp, or are you waiting for the six barbes season, or—?
No, we’re waiting on a daily basis. We’re waiting every day. We should be getting smaller shrimp already, and we’re getting quite a few phone calls from the wholesalers that are in desperate demand right now. We’re losing money right now, and the longer that we do without shrimp on the market, the more danger it is of—how you say—the final purchasers of the shrimp to seek another product to fill the spaces of it. And that’s got us very concerned. In other words, if we can't fill their shelf space, somebody else will, and that’s what we’re very worried about. And I’m hoping there’s shrimp that come in this year because it’s a long stretch from now, where we are, October 17th, until next brown shrimp season. That’s a long stretch.
That’s what, May?
That’s in May, yeah. All the way down to May. And if customers do without product that much of a time, they’re going to find it somewhere else. Whether they have to import it from other countries or not. And then once that happens, that creates a problem. Say the quality from another country is not quite as good as our domestic shrimp; people get used to eating just lower quality shrimp. I’m not saying that there is worse quality, but I’ve seen worse quality come into the country. And they’re getting a lesser quality shrimp, and they get used to eating that. And then after a while, they say, “This stuff isn't really good.” So they quit eating it, and then all of a sudden you’re going to try to introduce your domestic stuff back to them. And they’re going to say, “We’ve tried dried shrimp, and it wasn’t any good.” So then you’ve lost a customer; it takes a long time to develop a good customer. It takes you years, so that’s part of it. We hope the shrimp come in quick.
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