By: Nancy Marchbanks
Bob Taylor began working in the food service industry at the age of 16. During college at the University of Tennessee, he worked at Ruby Tuesday. After graduating with a degree in Business Administration he entered management. As Bob steadily climbed the corporate ladder, he moved to different locations throughout the South to open new restaurants. He became a General Manager in 1984 and remained with Ruby Tuesday until 1990. In 1994, Bob went to work for Outback Steakhouse and transferred to the Coast, where he opened the beach location. It quickly became one of the most popular dining establishments in the area. Bob remained with Outback until hurricane Katrina entered the picture, when the restaurant was decimated by the storm surge.
Forced to go in a new direction with the Outback gone, Bob created a brand new eatery. In true American spirit, he used ingenuity and hard work to give rise to new opportunities.  In March, 2006 High Cotton Grill opened it’s doors in Gulfport. Two years later, Bob had a second location in D’Iberville, as well as a Catering business. In 2009, High Cotton Food Services was developed. Bob secured a contract with the Harrison County Jail to feed 3,000 meals each day to the inmates. He also saw great potential and opportunity in downtown Gulfport after Katrina. Two more businesses took off in 2009; the Half Shell Oyster House and The Quarter. Both breathed new life into the otherwise depressed area. Thanks to Bob’s vision, downtown Gulfport has become a very trendy night spot with people milling around, enjoying the great music and wonderful food.
It was not uncommon for the Half Shell Oyster House to serve 10,000 oysters a week. They were quite large, coming fresh off the boats and people couldn’t get enough of them. The BP oil spill changed all that. Today, Bob has to purchase oysters and a much higher price. They are smaller and not of the same quality. The oysters are currently being purchased from Texas, Florida and Louisiana but the reality is, any day now, they may not be available either. The worst case scenario is that because of the extremely high prices, Bob Taylor may be forced to take all seafood off the menu at his restaurants. “There are plenty of other places in the United States and around the world to get crab and fresh fish, even shrimp. It will never run out, supply is not the problem. The problem is we will be paying a lot more which will greatly affect our bottom line and we can only increase prices to a point. Customers cannot absorb the increase of prices that we are having to pay to our producers.” Bob said.
Crab meat, claws, and fresh fish are ordered on a daily basis. It is supplied to Gulf Coast Restaurant Group through Desporte & Son Seafood. They get the seafood directly from the fishermen. Shrimp is ordered twice a week, and it arrives frozen. It is typical for restaurants to start with frozen shrimp. Before the oil spill, the shrimp came directly from the Gulf waters, caught by the fishermen and then sent on to the seafood packers/wholesalers. The next step is that the seafood is shipped to the middle man ( Desporte Seafood in this case) and then finally to the restaurants. Taylor ordered oysters every day, directly from the company called Crystal Seas, out of Pass Christian. Sadly, Crystal Seas is now closing because they have no sourcing for the oysters anymore. Thankfully, Desporte has access to an oyster source out of Alabama. Red Tide affected the beds in Texas for quite some time and made their oysters unfit for consumption, however the beds are open again and safe. In Louisiana waters, a significant number of beds have been closed, but there are private oyster beds that are still producing. “BP is paying these oystermen more money to lay boom and search for oil than they would make harvesting oysters. Our supplies are dwindling also because the boats are being used for other things now,” Bob said.
Desporte & Son Seafood has been in business on the Coast, in Biloxi for over 115 years.  The oil spill threatens to do great harm to this longstanding South Mississippi company, but they are working around the clock to find solutions in order to keep their customers supplied with what they want and need.  Sean Desporte had this to say, “The television media is killing us, all the bad news and the scare tactics. They are not telling the truth! Inspections are conducted even before the fish, crab, oysters, and shrimp ever come off the boat! Then at the docks, the catch is checked again, then we check everything a 3rd time when it arrives to us!  I want our customers to know that if I can’t get Gulf seafood, I will get it from somewhere else…and they can count on that.”
The Half Shell is still offering gallon containers of fresh oysters, fully shucked. However, at the time of this interview, Bob said that It was quite possible and probable that he would have to stop selling them at any moment. Oysters are taken right off the line and frozen in the preparation process at the factory. The are “quick frozen” and packed right away. When the oysters thaw, they can be eaten any way you choose. These oysters cost double over the ones fresh off the boat. “We have to play this situation day by day, and I am quite sure we are going to have to make some major menu adjustments at my restaurants, offering different products that are not seafood related,” Bob said.
In order to help sustain the seafood restaurants throughout the Gulf Coast, patrons must continue to dine out and enjoy their favorites. Changes have been necessary to ensure optimum safety for all customers since the BP oil disaster, and as a result nothing has been overlooked or left to chance. Locals and visitors alike can rest assured that any fish, crab, shrimp, or seafood of any kind has passed all quality control inspections and would not be presented on the plate otherwise. If there was any question, or any doubt, the seafood would NEVER be sold to the customer. Due to the situation in the Gulf, requirements are even more stringent than they used to be. “When you come into any restaurant on the Coast and want to order seafood, you have nothing to fear. I give you my word, it is a safe product that you can enjoy without any concerns or worries. Please continue to support our local restaurants and seafood businesses before we suffer dire consequences. We are the ones that are being affected by the oil spill and we are the ones that could lose our livelihoods…we desperately need your help and deserve your trust,” Bob said in closing.

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