Gary and Maggie Balch didn’t intend to become the best shrimp purveyors in Sarasota. Twenty years ago, they were selling vegetables. But then a couple who were shrimpers asked the Balches if they’d sell their shrimp for them. “I was looking for some extra income; I was trying to put my son through college,” Gary said. “So we started doing it and the shrimp took over.”
The Balches were smart enough to double down on success. Today, under the name Maggie’s Seafood, they sell Royal Red shrimp from the center of the Gulf of Mexico, an appealingly ruddy shrimp whose flavor is reminiscent of lobster; jumbo brown shrimp from the Panhandle; and hoppers, a clean-tasting and sweet pale pink shrimp sold with its heads still on. Hoppers are caught in 100-feet-deep water just off the coast of Sarasota. “You don’t get more local than this,” Gary told a couple who was bending over inspecting them.
Maggie’s Seafood stands are now at the farmers’ markets in Sarasota, Venice, Phillippi Creek, and Englewood. They got their start in Sarasota, where the market manager wanted to squeeze them in among the farmers, fruit growers, and crafters, but she didn’t have a proper spot. “I’d park alongside the street and sell out of the back of my truck,” Gary said. “If I dropped someone’s change, it went straight into the sewer.”
My mother, who lives on nearby Siesta Key, dutifully gets up at 6:30 A.M. on Saturday mornings to get to the market before the lines start. She’s been a Maggie’s Seafood loyalist since the back-of-the-truck days when Sarasota’s downtown was equally unpolished. We’ve made risottos, pastas, chowders, and salads with their shrimp; they’re so fresh—so sweet—and for this northerner, such a rare treat. I like them best just grilled or boiled, showered with lemon at the table.
Eventually, the Balches got a stand and started expanding their offerings, which now include mangrove snapper, sea bass, hogfish, grouper cheeks, yellowedge grouper, and golden tilefish. The Balches also bring in salmon, tuna, and a few other fish from the north.
Gary works the Sarasota stand on Saturdays. He’s the tall man with the tattoos on his arms: on his right a Navy seal, on his left, a tattoo of a gull. Gary doesn’t remember the night the latter came to be. Things happen to Gary. Some lead to a successful business. Some to a random bird on his arm.