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What's in Store: The best of Biloxi

Desporte & Sons' family roots are the ties that bind to Gulf community

Sean Desporte and his family have a strong connection
    with the community. - Photo courtesy of Desporte & Sons Seafood Market
    & Deli
By Christine Blank
August 01, 2009

Hurricanes, including the devastating Katrina in 2005, could not keep a 100-year-old Biloxi, Miss., seafood wholesaler, café and retailer down. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed casinos, hotels and restaurants along the Mississippi Gulf coast, residents of the Gulfport and Biloxi area kept Desporte & Sons Seafood Market & Deli in business.

"We couldn't do it without the local people. The local business and Keesler [Air Force base] help keep us going," says Sean Desporte, one of the owners in the fifth-generation family business that was founded in 1885.

Desporte believes the reason that locals keep coming back, beyond in-season offerings such as red snapper and Gulf shrimp, is because they are treated like family. "We give people who come in here all the time the 'family discount,'" says Desporte. Customers who visit two or three times a week typically receive a discount of 50 cents off per pound of seafood (but it is not exact). The company h as been in business so long, "pretty much everybody here knows about us," says Desporte, and the retailer's word-of-mouth following has created little need for marketing.

Shoppers cannot help but feel like they are part of a family atmosphere when they enter the store. The business is run by Desporte and his uncle, Artie, while his grandfather Emile II, grandmother Shirley, mother Angela and sister Angel also work at the shop. "There are hometown people who have been doing business with my family for years, who dealt with my grandfather or dad," says Desporte. And the family enjoys working at the shop and deli, giving them the ability to spend time together, adds Desporte.

A handful of other employees now feel like family, says Desporte, and the staff has fun working together. Even though Desporte & Sons wholesales to large resorts and casinos, "We like to have the walk-in business," says Desporte. "We try to make people enjoy coming here and we have fun getting them what they want."

In addition to offering fresh seafood daily, Desporte & Sons also boils crawfish and Gulf shrimp, sells an extensive line of seafood seasonings and operates a small deli on-site for lunch, with seating for around 30 inside and 16 outside. Seafood gumbo and shrimp po' boys are among the offerings at the deli, which was added about eight years ago.

Although the deli is not a high-profit part of the business, local businesspeople and residents are lunch regulars. Katrina wiped out a majority of the restaurants along the coast, but Desporte & Sons was open just two months later.

"We were one of the places that came back quickly, and all the Katrina [relief] workers came here to eat. It really helped us out a lot," says Desporte. In fact, 2006 retail and deli sales rose around 30 percent for Desporte & Sons due to the increased traffic.

"Thank God for that, because our wholesale business had been taken down by the loss of Presidents Casino, and other casinos and restaurants," says Desporte.

In a difficult economy, Desporte & Sons' low retail prices, which are close to its wholesale prices, attract local clientele. For example, fresh white Gulf shrimp was selling for $3.49 a pound (which would wholesale for between approximately $2.49 and $3 a pound) and flounder was retailing for $4.49 a pound in late June. Hot, boiled crawfish sells for around $2.35 a pound retail, while it wholesales for around $2.

"We try to make it so people can afford it, so they come back and eat seafood more often," 
says Desporte.

While the retailer sources local seafood in season, it also buys a variety of species imported from many other countries, for retail and wholesale clients. In fact, the store's motto is, "If it swims, we got it. If not, we will have it tomorrow."

Desporte & Sons' unassuming storefront, which includes a few iced cases of flounder, redfish and shrimp, belie the massive wholesale business in the back of the store that keeps local casinos and restaurants flush with seafood. The store typically carries several different sizes of shrimp, 20 different fish species, crab legs, oysters and other items on a daily basis.

Biloxi's IP Casino Resort & Spa and the Beau Rivage Hotel & Casino are among Desporte & Sons' largest wholesale customers. Both demand fresh seafood daily for fine-dining restaurants and mid-scale buffets. The local tourism industry is slowly recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and many travelers are looking to the Biloxi area as a potentially less expensive vacation than Las Vegas.

While there are some bright spots in the Biloxi economy, 2009 has been a roller-coaster ride for Desporte & Sons.

"This year, we should probably be about the same with sales as last year, with all the ups and downs," says Desporte.

The steady sales are proof that the wholesaler and retailer is doing something right. In addition to offering the high-quality local and international seafood, and pricing its seafood fairly, Desporte is convinced that all of Desporte & Sons' customers return because of the way they are treated. The comfortable, family atmosphere that is created by employees at the store, deli and wholesale business helps the retailer's customers feel at home, says Desporte.

 

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.

 

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