Andy Morris handed off a broom to an insistent daughter as the wait staff and cooks busily prepared for another lunch at Skipper’s Fish Camp, a restaurant on the Darien waterfront.
“I helped Charlie build this place,’’ Morris said of Charlie Williams, one of the partners who founded the restaurant 16 years ago.
In opening the business, Williams and his partners changed a lot, but they kept a couple of things in the big renovation: the name Skipper’s and keeping shrimp the main thing. All but locals would assume Skipper’s is a name derived from the nickname of captains from aircraft carriers to crab boats. In this case, however, the Skippers are the family that formerly owned and operated the property as a seafood dock that processed shrimp, an entree prominent on the menus of most sit-down restaurants along the coast.
Asked why shrimp is so popular, Williams, who was a partner in the Crab Trap and owns Crabdaddy’s Seafood on St. Simons, gave the obvious answer: “Because it’s good.”
Skipper’s has other popular dishes, including ribs, diamond-cut, crispy flounder, slow-smoked chicken, Boston butts, rib eyes and filet mignon, but shrimp is still the biggest seller.
“Three quarters of the people who come through here order shrimp in some form or other,’’ Morris said. “I eat shrimp every day.”
Diners at Skipper’s have a choice of venues for shrimp. At the end of the entryway, they can turn left into the restaurant or right and climb the stairs to the oyster bar. There is sometimes a wait, but there’s a big deck overlooking the Darien River where children flock to the rails to look for little alligators in the water below. There’s also a pool with resident turtles, and the interiors are decked out with seaside pictures, mounted redfish, spotted sea trout and tarpon, a gator skull, crab traps and antique tools of the salt coast trades.
Skipper’s offers scampi as a special, steamed peel-and-eat shrimp, shrimp and grits, shrimp salad, shrimp and brown gravy, shrimp blackened and broiled and shrimp po boy sandwiches.
But fried shrimp remains the golden brown coin of the seafood realm.
The shrimp that ends up on the tables at Skipper’s and many other restaurants along the coast from, B&J’s on higher Darien ground, Speed’s Kitchen, Shellman Bluff, Iguana’s on St. Simons Island and many others, come from just offshore.
Morris can look out a window and see the moored shrimp boats that net his main entree.
“We get most, when I say most I mean 95 percent of them, right here off our local fleet,’’ he said.
When he can’t get Darien shrimp, he goes to City Market in Brunswick, which is supplied by the Brunswick fleet.
Sometimes, though, the dish’s popularity has nearly caught up with the local catch.
“There have been times when it got close,’’ and he could boost profits going to other sources, he said.
“I could buy shrimp tomorrow for $3 less a pound, but it wouldn’t be the shrimp.”
In 2017, the last year in the Coastal Resources Division website report, the catch was 1.8 million pounds with a value of $7.6 million. That was down from the 2016 season when shrimp boats offloaded about 2.4 million pounds valued at $9.9 million. In 2015, there were 2.1 million in shrimp landings worth $8.3 million, according to a Coastal Resources report.
Shrimp isn’t popular just in restaurants on the Georgia coast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Americans each ate 4.4 pounds of shrimp in 2018, making it the most popular seafood in the country.
Coastal Georgians probably drove up that average. And for much of his adult life, Morris has helped feed that appetite.
He and Williams’ son, Josh, have been friends since their school days. Josh Williams runs Crabdaddy’s, and Morris had worked side-by-side with him until leaving for college.
He was in his senior year at Valdosta State University when Charlie Williams called and said, “Here’s an opportunity.”
Williams and his other partners took Morris on as manager and gave him an interest in the business, one that has grown through the years. He’s not above picking up a broom, however, to give the dining room floor a last-minute sweep.
As he worked, the servers filled 500 cups of cocktail sauce to go out with plates for dipping that popular fried shrimp. The cocktail sauce, tartar sauce and dressings are all house made.
It all starts with the best possible ingredients, he said, especially that fresh-off-the-boat shrimp.
“If the shrimp aren’t good, it’s our fault. The shrimp we get are good,’’ Morris said.
But he said it with the air of a man who very rarely sees a plate headed back to the kitchen, even though the proper frying time for shrimp is measured in minutes.
“Those guys back here have been doing it so long,’’ he said of the cooks, “they can do it in their sleep.”