By John Ceballos | TBO.com
BRANDON – – What started as a fish house in a shack on the side of the road in the 1920s and evolved into a popular Brandon-area restaurant that stood for nearly 80 years is now on the cutting edge of a food truck revolution.
Seabreeze on Wheels — a sky blue mobile food truck located on the northwest corner of U.S. 301 and Causeway Boulevard — opened on Oct. 29 and is the latest version of Seabreeze by the Bay, which closed in 2001 after 78 years.
Though the 52-foot-long converted semitrailer with a state-of-the-art kitchen is a far cry from the humble beginnings of Seabreeze, one thing hasn’t changed: the commitment to serving fresh seafood.
“The idea is to bring the experience of eating five-star food to a mobile truck,” said Keith Richards, owner of Seabreeze on Wheels.
Everything at Seabreeze on Wheels is made to order and the restaurant receives shipments of fresh seafood each day. The business brings in 350 pounds of grouper and 500 pounds of shrimp a week.
“Our prices reflect those costs, but we strongly believe in the difference it makes in terms of taste,” Richards said. “We don’t make a lot of money, but we make enough to make a lot of people happy.”
Richards is the latest member of his family to take up the Seabreeze mantle. The restaurant originated in 1923 as a cooking shack owned by Victor Licata before moving under the shadow of the 22nd Street Causeway bridge three years later. Seabreeze by the Bay stayed in that spot until its closing in 2001. During that time, the restaurant, which is largely credited with inventing the deviled crab, went through six iterations and came back from a 1950 fire that burned the building to the ground.
Richard’s parents, Robert and Helen Richards, had their first date at Seabreeze by the Bay in 1953. The couple married two years later, had four children and 13 grandchildren, and were together until Robert’s death in March.
“I was lucky because it turned out Robert’s idea of a big date was going fishing or crabbing, so he’d have me hold the sack or push the tub,” Helen Richards said.
In the late 1960s, Robert Richards built a small fish market and bait shop next to the Seabreeze, which the couple operated for 36 years. Robert and Helen Richards bought the restaurant from the Licatas in 1992.
While Helen Richards focused on promoting a Seabreeze by the Bay Cookbook she wrote with Robert, Keith — who learned how to cut and clean fish from his father — said he had been looking for a new place to open a restaurant for the past few years.
“Gov. (Rick) Scott recently made it more simple for a business owner to build a food truck,” Keith said. “This is the largest mobile food truck Tallahassee has approved.”
Work on the truck started in April and cost about $500,000, including $135,000 for top-of-the-line kitchen equipment. Seabreeze on Wheels also includes a 10-foot-long walk-in cooler, a prep area and a full kitchen with 16 full-time employees.
Keith Richards chose the current location for both practical and nostalgic reasons.
“I remember riding the bus around here as a kid and always thinking that I wanted to build something on this property,” said Richards, a member of Brandon’s High’s Class of 1979.
Seabreeze on the Wheels’ location is also less than five miles from the docks where shrimpers bring their catch. “It was important for us to incorporate the freshness of the old restaurants.”
Seabreeze on Wheels’ most popular dishes are the Cuban and grouper sandwiches, along with — naturally — those famous deviled crabs. The restaurant sold 26,000 deviled crabs in its first three months.
“The response from the community has been overwhelming,” Richards said.
He hopes to take Seabreeze on Wheels to a food festival in Sarasota this summer. By then, Richards hopes to have another food truck up and running and is even eyeing locations for another permanent restaurant.
Either way, it looks like the Seabreeze name will remain a part of the family business for the foreseeable future.
“I always say that I have a family full of history makers,” Helen Richards said. “The bay was our past, our present and will be our future.”
For information about the restaurant or its menu, visit www.seabreezeonwheels.com or call (813) 626-6010.