Most restaurants peppered along the Gulf Coast claim to serve fresh local seafood, but when you utter the name Harbor Docks, claim becomes fact. Owned and operated since 1979 by Charles Morgan, a former private boat captain turned successful restaurant entrepreneur, Harbor Docks Seafood emerged with humble beginnings as a place for commercial fisherman to enjoy iced-cold beer and oysters after a hard day’s work.
Charles Morgan figured out early on that removing the middleman from the sale of the fish meant better accessibility to the fish and lower prices, a winning combination for expanding his Destin harbor front seafood shack on the property that his father, a prominent civil rights attorney and activist, had purchased on a whim. “Our household finances were slim. My father worked with many civil rights leaders and we were eventually forced out of Birmingham in 1963, the day after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, when he delivered a speech critical of the state of race relations in the South. His career has been heralded in many books. We moved to Atlanta when I was in third grade and vacationed and fished in Destin. When my father came into a little money, he bought the property. I graduated from the University of Alabama and knew my passion was on the water, so I made the move”, said Morgan.
After only one year in business, Morgan decided to enlarge his shanty by adding a main dining room followed by Harbor Docks Seafood Market located in the under belly of the restaurant. “I went to a bank that would not give me a loan. I tried a second local bank and was given a check on the spot. We built everything ourselves, and created a market so that the fish could come straight off the dock into the cutting room, well before the city was incorporated”, said Morgan.
The wholesale market supplies wild caught fish to Harbor Docks and Morgan’s other family of restaurants — Camille’s at Crystal Beach in Destin (named after his mother), The Local Market and La Paz in Destin, Dharma Blue in Pensacola, Chuck’s in Tuscaloosa, Mobile and Birmingham (named in honor of his father), along with Five Bar in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Knoxville, Mobile, Chattanooga, Athens.
Morgan also wholesales directly to over forty area restaurants, and nationally, using a brokerage called Gulf To Table, a term he and his sons trademarked and take very seriously. “We have been Gulf to Table for almost forty years. I am tired of the overuse of the term farm to table. Frank Stitt at Highlands in Birmingham has always been farm to table, long before the definition got thrown around. We want to ensure that Gulf To Table remains true to its word. We work hard at maintaining the highest quality product and want to keep our promise of freshness to the restaurants that we sell to, including our own ”, said Morgan.
While most of the country’s seafood is mislabeled with 93% being imported, you won’t find that at Harbor Docks Seafood Market. Depending on the season, they offer sushi grade tuna, grouper, swordfish, red snapper, flounder, wahoo, scamp, triggerfish and cobia to name a few. And, of course, shrimp, oysters, and crab are available too. Though Harbor Docks has several commercial boats of their own, they depend on a good number of local fishing boats from Pensacola to Panama City to meet their high demand, packing and shipping orders overnight. Morgan said, “One of the largest consumers is Canada. They love King Mackerel. Here it’s considered a trash fish. I wish it would catch on. It is high in omega-3’s, and delicious.“
Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico is certainly not easy and subject to an array of constantly changing rules created and enforced by multiple state and federal agencies. From the species, sizes and numbers of fish that can be caught, to permitting required for just commercial fishing, Morgan said” We keep track of permits, the cost of fuel, ice, bait, and tackle too. Fishing is also subject to closures, the weather, and the fish not biting. It’s complicated and difficult. It blows my mind to see intelligent people, and those that only want to eat organic, not wanting to pay the price for fresh seafood. If it’s cheap, it’s not fresh, and more than likely mislabeled, imported, or farm raised in a pond somewhere. The seafood we sell, in my opinion, is not expensive enough! It is the last source of wild protein that we’ve got”, said Morgan.
For more information about Harbor Docks Seafood & Cocktails, and to see Morgan’s Local Knowledge videos, visit harbordocks.com or call (850) 837-9221. PS: They also serve a killer breakfast starting at 7 a.m.! Please also follow American Lunch serving free food to the public from 11am to 1pm daily, seven days a week during Covid-19, no questions asked.
This story is by Susan Benton and was first published in the July 2017 issue of Thirty A Review magazine.