Truckin' and Shuckin'

Legendary lover Casanova ate 50 oysters before heading out for a night of amorous conquest. Napoleon downed plates of them the day before major battles. Andrew “Shorty” Cumbie eats four or five of them before he lets anyone load his reefer.

But Cumbie doesn’t slurp oysters for any of their mythical “powers.” This taste test is his way of knowing the loads of oysters he hauls around the Gulf Coast are fresh.

“I have a time or two refused to let them put oysters on my truck cause they didn’t smell or taste right. But usually if they come in on the boats, they’re going to be good,” says Cumbie, an independent owner-operator based in Panama City, Fla.

On doctor’s orders, owner-operator Andrew ‘Shorty’ Cumbie, can only slurp one dozen oysters per day. ‘They’re just like a One-A-Day vitamin,’ he says.

On one occasion his nose caused him to balk at a load of mud oysters. “The mud smelled. I knew if I put them on my truck, everything would smell.” Cumbie doesn’t take chances with the seafood he hauls. Neither do state inspectors who check periodically for bacteria. If the count gets too high they shut down the oyster boats.

A trucker for years – he began in 1963 pulling a tank – and an oyster-hauler for 25, Cumbie has spent 17 years as an owner-operator. He drives a Kenworth COE with a double sleeper, and has a Pete and a Freightliner for a full-time and part-time driver. His wife Cathy does bookkeeping and dispatches the trucks. Two of his rigs are dedicated most of the time hauling oysters and seafood for Leavins Seafood in Apalachicola, Fla.

Oysters must be kept between 38 and 40 degrees F. There are between 360 and 400 sacks per truckload. The sacks are stacked on pallets, with 20 sacks to a pallet. For delivery to restaurants, the oysters are washed and placed in boxes so they are ready to shuck and eat.

Oysters used for other purposes are packed in burlap bags. “You have to handle them properly,” says Cumbie. “Come summertime, they build up heat in the burlap bags. You have to manually defrost your system after about an hour. Burlap will get real hot and smolder. That’s why they use new sacks each time.”

Cumbie once had a problem with his refrigeration system. “I went straight to get a forklift and swapped the oysters out to another trailer,” he says. “As long as you keep them refrigerated, they’ll hold.”

Occasionally Cumbie must load his own truck. “Twenty-five years ago drivers had to load their own trucks and it used to be that you couldn’t get anyone to haul oysters,” he says. “Now everyone wants to do it.” Cumbie gets paid a flat rate for his services. He is home every other night.

Texas is the farthest Cumbie goes from home, and he puts 100,000 miles on each truck every year. “If things are slow here I’ll haul other things – plants, lard to Burger King.” These days he runs “pretty much the same route” every time, from Louisiana to Leavins Seafood.

Grady Leavins is the owner of Leavins Seafood, which has been in the same panhandle coastal town for 30 years, the town’s longest survivor in the seafood business.

Grady Leavins, who owns Leavins Seafood in Apalachicola, Fla., started his business by moonlighting as an oyster fisherman.

While working for a chemical company in Pensacola, Fla., Leavins moonlighted as an oyster fisherman. He would start oystering at daylight and come in at dark.

Oyster fishermen use large tongs to scoop the oysters into their boats and some nights his arms would go numb. The work was so hard, he says, that within six months his chest grew from 38″ to 44″. One day another oysterman called Grady a candy-ass. “I kept them out until 10 p.m.,” Leavins says. “(We) harvested 68 bushels.” (If you harvest 18-20 oysters per scoop of the tongs, you’re doing good, he says, and there are about 350 oysters in a bushel).

“It was outside work and real healthy. I enjoyed it,” recalls Leavins. He would work a month, then take a day off. Two of his boats sank in bad weather. “Thirty-two years ago I was getting $800 per week – a lot of money. I made sure I made my expenses or I didn’t come (from Pensacola to Apalachicola).”

There were 65 businesses like his (seafood purveyors) in Franklin County, Fla., when Leavins started his business. To set himself apart he started a route system, delivering oysters to restaurants in the Florida panhandle. He still oystered; his wife drove trucks.

Then Leavins started buying and selling other types of seafood and bought a 10-wheel truck to deliver to Miami and the Florida Keys. He expanded again and sought major accounts like Sysco Foods and U.S. Foods. Today he has seven trucks and his drivers deliver twice a week to Miami, Orlando, Lakeland, the Keys and Ft. Lauderdale in Florida, Charlotte and Columbia, S.C., and once a week to Atlanta and Tennessee.

The seafood business is competitive, Leavins and Cumbie agree, but strong relatinoships help. “Everybody knows me – all over the country,” Cumbie says. “I can keep busy – no problem. From September to March it’s real strong going. The way this is, it’s year-round. If I want time off, I get someone to fill in for me.”

Cumbie admits he’s been called a workaholic, but “as long as I stay busy, I stay out of trouble,” he says with a grin.

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