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A lifetime on the pier

Vernon Tucker grew up in Palmetto Beach, bought his father's seafood market and now lives just steps away.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 9, 2002


PALMETTO BEACH -- Vernon Tucker's life centers on McKay Bay.

As a child, he helped his father gut fish pulled from the salty water.

As a young adult, he trapped crabs scurrying along the murky bottom.

Today, he sells fresh fish and crustaceans from a shack perched at the end of a skinny pier.

Tucker owns El Bravo Hut, one of a handful of mom-and-pop seafood markets in Palmetto Beach. He bought it about 20 years ago from his father, Victor, who built the original shell in 1943.

Over the years, the rickety wooden shack has survived pounding storms, fishing bans and competition from grocery chains. Somehow, it's stronger than it looks.

Just like Tucker, a stocky man who suffered from gout as a young adult.

At 59, he admits he's not the picture of perfect health, despite a diet heavy in seafood.

"You name it, I got it. Diabetes. High blood pressure," he says, sipping a diet soda.

On any given week, Tucker sells about 2,500 pounds of fish and 3,500 pounds of blue crab, a McKay Bay specialty. He gets mullet, sand perch, grouper and other types from local anglers. He buys brim, catfish and snapper from regional wholesalers.

Big crabs go for up to $30 a dozen. Medium-sized ones sell for about $12. "Never say small in the seafood business," he says with a wink.

He calls it a good week if he runs out.

Like many in the fishing industry, Tucker works long hours and can't remember the last time he took a real vacation. The light blue hut is open seven days a week, generally until 6 or 7 p.m. After hours, he checks the crab traps.

"They don't make people like us anymore," he says. "When you own a business like this, you're married to it."

Fortunately, he doesn't have a long commute.

His house is steps away on Bermuda Boulevard, the Bayshore Boulevard of Palmetto Beach. A sign in his front yard points people to the pier.

"I do everything close to home," he says with a smile.

Born and raised in Palmetto Beach, Tucker has seen many people come and go. A Jefferson High School graduate, he recalls the good old days when everybody knew everybody and neighbors helped each other.

Still, he considers the sleepy, industrial enclave a good place to live. His view from the fish hut shows its uniqueness. Mangroves and smokestacks line the edge of McKay Bay. Pelicans plunge for fish. Children play in historic DeSoto Park.

Between chopping fish heads and cracking crabs, Tucker has stayed active in community affairs. He led the Palmetto Beach Civic Association in 2001 and fought for improvements to 20th Street, a main thoroughfare.

He points out that continued dredging and pollution from stormwater runoff threaten to reduce sea populations.

If he had his way, Bermuda Boulevard would become a mini version of John's Pass Village in Madeira Beach, with waterfront shops, restaurants and boating activities.

His hut attracts customers from as far away as Orlando and Sarasota. Many are doctors, lawyers and people looking to impress dinner guests with just-out-of-the-water fish or blue crab, he says.

Few live in the neighborhood.

Longtime associates say Tucker's mellow attitude stands out in today's cut-throat business world. He doesn't squabble over money or make unnecessary demands.

"You really don't meet too many guys like him," says Earl Taylor, Tucker's cash register serviceman for 20 years. "He's been here a long time. He's kind of like an institution."

For now, Tucker sees his golden years filled with fish. After nearly six decades, he can't imagine leaving Palmetto Beach, though a trip to Disney World with the grandkids sure sounds nice.

He dreams about retiring, but is content to stay working. The bay beckons. Crabs call.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

Vernon Tucker

  • AGE: 59
  • OCCUPATION: Owner of El Bravo Hut fish market in Palmetto Beach.
  • BEST-SELLER: Blue crabs.
  • BORN AND RAISED: Palmetto Beach
  • WORKS AT: 602 Bermuda Blvd., Palmetto Beach.
  • LIVES AT: 601 Bermuda Blvd., Palmetto Beach.
  • FAMILY: wife, Margaret; three children; three stepchildren; 13 grandchildren.
  • BEFORE THE HUT: Worked at Westinghouse, managed a food store, owned a gas station.
  • DABBLES IN: Electronics, computers.
  • FOR FUN: Watches Walt Disney movies with his grandkids.
  • TOP PICKS: Pocahontas, 101 Dalmatians, Beauty and the Beast.
  • FAVORITE DISH: Blue crab simmered in spaghetti sauce served over pasta.

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