In the sleepy town of Palacios, a coveted crustacean is front and center, especially during this time of the year.
Texas Gulf shrimp season is in full swing and many of the hundreds of boats usually docked along the shore are making their way in and out of the sea inlet, searching for the tasty critters. Staffed with small crews, ships will leave Palacios (pronounced by many locals as Pu – la – shus) head out for weeks at a time, return to the dock to unload and then go out again for more. One by one, a local priest will bless each boat, offering a prayer before the maiden voyage of the season. For decades, this has been the way of life for this tiny fishing village southwest of Houston.
“This is what we do. We follow the shrimp,” said Walter Leon, a 26-year-old shrimp boat captain who supplies shrimp to Philly Seafood.
As one of the largest suppliers of Texas Gulf shrimp for H-E-B, Philly Seafood is run by multiple generations of the Garcia family, and it all started with the patriarch, Edward Garcia. As a co-owner of Philly Seafood (named to honor a grandson who passed away), Edward Garcia, 88, and three generations of his family help run and operate the business, which is one of the largest privately-owned shrimping groups in the country with more than 50 vessels in their fleet.
Before a recent outing, Leon stocked Bella, the ship he skippers, with enough supplies to last another multi-week run. With meticulous notes, the married father of five keeps track of each trip, documenting dead spots to avoid and prized “honey pots,” areas that are ripe with bounty. This is what his dad did. And it’s now what he does, and he can’t see himself doing anything else.
Shrimpers like Leon live throughout the Texas Gulf. And while their numbers might be dwindling, it takes a special person to pursue this livelihood. Shrimpers are out at sea for weeks, and the work is tough. Nevertheless, this is a proud profession that, for many families, is embraced by generation after generation. With salt water running through their veins, these modest shrimpers are the backbone of this local industry, which supplies H-E-B and most of the country with these tasty delicacies.
H‑E‑B has a long history of working with fisherman and small businesses in towns like Palacios, which are at the nexus of the trade. As the state’s largest buyer and retailer of Texas Gulf shrimp, H-E-B purchases several millions of pounds annually. Sourcing from coastal towns such as Galveston, Port Arthur and Beaumont, H-E-B buys enough Texas Gulf shrimp each year to fill more than 115 boats. To highlight the delectable crustaceans, H-E-B runs its annual Wild New Harvest Gulf Shrimp program, a multi-week promotion that started August 29.
“Some of the best shrimp come from these towns and we’re lucky to have such strong partnerships with the people and these communities,” said Neil Cochran, an H-E-B Seafood Buyer.
But the partnerships go beyond business. H-E-B works with many of these smaller towns to support scholarships and local community initiatives. Last month, Cochran visited Palacios for its 54th Annual Shrimporee, an event H-E-B has supported over the years. At the festival, which serves food to more than 1,500 people or a quarter of the town’s population, he presented the event organizers with a $15,000 check, money that will go toward youth programs and renovations at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church.
“More than one third of the community depends on shrimp,” said Isidro Castanon, a local attorney and Chairman of the Shrimporee committee. “It’s our lifeline and H-E-B is a huge supporter.”
Cultivating these relationships also ensures H‑E‑B gets the freshest product sourced in the most responsible manner, overseeing the harvesting, inspection and transportation of shrimp from the sea to the store. As one of the top seafood retailers in the Lone Star State, H-E-B is focused on the long-term health and viability of the marine life that calls the Gulf home.
Wild Texas Gulf Brown Shrimp, known for their bold, robust flavor, are plentiful throughout the region. Years ago, on a run in deeper waters, Edward Garcia came across brown shrimp, the most abundant of the Gulf shrimp species. Back then, people weren’t familiar with brown shrimp, thinking it was rotten because of its dark color. Instead, brown shrimp turned out to be a delicious relative to the popular white and pink shrimp, its tender, sweeter flavored cousins.
As a teenager, Garcia didn’t shy away from hard work. He got his first crack in the shrimp business at 13 but it didn’t stick. Among other adolescent-age pursuits, he sold newspapers, picked cotton, and shined shoes. He even tried to join the Army a few times. Eventually, he went back to shrimping and never looked back. His love affair with shrimp wasn’t immediate, but eventually it turned into a bountiful family business.
Decades have passed since Garcia last worked on a shrimp boat, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t keeping a watchful eye. These days, it’s common to find the retired shrimp-boat captain in the front seat of his truck with his Chihuahua, Macho, in his lap, attentively gazing through binoculars to observe his shrimp boats slowly saunter into the Texas Gulf.
“It’s what I like,” Garcia said. “It makes me proud.”
More information about H-E-B’s seafood sustainability practices can be found here.