Down Memory Lane
Twenty-four-year-old Bill Schaaf wasn’t deterred from planting roots in Galveston because another shrimper tried to run him off. When Schaaf, his wife, Josephine, and his two small daughters, Elena Jo and Catherine, arrived on the island in 1948, one of the first places they visited was the docks where the shrimp boats unloaded their catch. Schaaf was interested in starting his own seafood business. One morning, while the Schaafs and Josephine’s father, Steve Sekul, stood looking over the docks, they were approached by a worker from another seafood company. According to Schaaf, the man approached his father-in-law and told him to take his family back to where they came from if they were interested in getting into the seafood business. There were already enough people in the business he said; they didn’t need any more competition.
Schaaf didn’t go back to Iowa. “I needed a job and to provide for my family.” He previously worked as third assistant engineer aboard merchant marine ships; away from his family for six to eight months at a time. He decided that now was the time to stay at home and take care of his growing family. Josephine was originally from Mississippi and had experience in the seafood industry through her family. Her job was to teach Schaaf the seafood business.
Schaaf’s first quota in shipping shrimp was 300 pounds per day. During the heyday of his company, Schaaf was handling up to 17,000 pounds of shrimp per day. Schaaf Seafood grew to become Southeast Packing Company and a major seafood shipper in Galveston.
Fisherman’s Wharf Pier 22, headquarters for Southeast Packing, also became a retailer of seafood, and Schaaf began his unplanned entry into the restaurant business. When there was shrimp to be processed, workers were not allowed to take their customary one-hour lunch breaks. “Once you start working shrimp, something that is perishable, you don’t stop,” said Schaaf. In an effort to keep breaks at a minimum, Josephine would cook and feed the men. Shrimp were in abundance and every once in a while she would fry up some shrimp or make gumbo and the crew would take a 15-minute break to grab a quick bite to eat. One day, Josephine decided to sell a fried shrimp sandwich called a “Po’ Boy,” something not often seen around here at the time. And so, the first Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant was born in 1970, in a room no bigger than 6’ X 10.’ Josephine had one small fryer to teach a few people how to bread the shrimp and make Po’ Boys. They used recipes from her mother and sisters to make the tartar sauce; everything was homemade.
Josephine passed away in 1986, but Schaaf continued with the restaurant and it continued to grow. “It seemed liked every year we had to make the fried shrimp section a little bit bigger; it started taking things over.” The Po’ Boy business had taken over a large room. In 1985, when Schaaf’s son King came home from college to help his dad, he realized there was inadequate seating. King’s idea to add seating upstairs — to fit a total of 100 people in the restaurant — was an immediate hit. “The first day we opened we filled all the chairs,” said King.
By 1986 Schaaf found himself in the restaurant business. He remained as owner until he sold the restaurant to Marion Distich in 1996. About five years later Tillman J. Fertitta of the Landry’s Restaurant chain purchased the restaurant. Schaaf’s original building was torn down and the present Fisherman’s Wharf now stands in its place.
Many of Galveston’s restaurants have a rich history and Fisherman’s Wharf is no exception: from a beginning shipping quota of 300 pounds of shrimp to a whopping 17,000 pounds of shrimp a day; from feeding a hungry work force so that shrimp processing could continue without a lunch break; and from a burgeoning restaurant famous for its Po’ Boys, to the now well-known Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant owned by Landry’s.
Bill Schaaf is proud of his roots and the restaurant’s meager beginnings. “You still have old timers who say the old Fisherman’s Wharf made the best fried shrimp and best Po’ Boys.”