Shell Creek: Seafood with a Side of Service in Coastal Georgia
One of the major perks of living in coastal Georgia, aside from the ready access to the beach, the longevity of warm days and the relaxed state of being that comes with an oceanfront view, is the always ever-ready variety of fresh seafood. Local, morning-caught seafood ready for grilling, frying, baking, searing and — well, it’s just delicious. Of all the grand seafood markets in coastal Georgia, one hidden gem and top choice is Shell Creek Seafood in Darien, just north of St. Simons and just south of Savannah. For decades, the Shell Creek family has kept the area happy and full of fresh, local seafood goods, from fish to shrimp and more. Here, I interviewed Michelle Colson, manager of Shell Creek, to learn more about her family’s successful operation.
“If you bring your cooler in, we’ll pack it with ice, no charge,” said Colson, co- owner and manager of Shell Creek Seafood. “Now, if you’re making a long trip home, well- where are you headed?”
Suddenly, she pauses, looks up and waits for an answer.
“Ray, Georgia. It’s about two, two and a half hours from here,” said John Lowr, the customer in question. “But, we just found out we won’t be leaving till tomorrow morning. Will that be a problem?”
Colson tilts her head and stands with her hands on her hips, thinking how the hot summer sun may impact her product.
“We’ll pack it in there nice and full,” she said. “Don’t leave this in your truck, now. And tomorrow, when you head out, you’ll need new ice, so just come on back. We never charge for ice. We’re here from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.”
Being the type of woman who appears to never meet a stranger, Colson aptly puts her spirited personality to use when she’s on the seafood sales floor. She doesn’t try to over-sell, or pressure her clients into purchases. But she’s certainly not shy in filling them in on the shops vast inventory.
If Lowr is interested in low country boil spice mix, she has a recommendation for a few zesty spice she carries. If he needs onions, corn and potatoes to go with the recipe, that’s in stock, too. If he can’t wait until he gets back to Ray to try some fresh Georgia seafood, she has ready-to-eat garlic crabs, all boxed up and ready to go.
“They’re a big seller,” Colson said. “These are beautiful crabs. They sell out fast,” she said. “OK, then, what else do you need?”
Lowr looks around the store, gets a few low country boil spices, then nods. He’s ready to roll.
“Have a blessed day,” Colson said as Lowr leaves the store, his large cooler full of a sampling of the shops stick.
From fresh Wild Georgia shrimp and five-pound blocks of frozen shrimp, to conch, calamari, whole pink snapper and house-made smoked salmon dip, Shell Creek Seafood offers just about anything the ocean can produce. And it is all served with a heavy side of customer service.
“Without our customers, we’d be nothing,” Colson said. “They mean everything to us. We strive to always, every time, go that extra mile for them. Whether you come here regularly or it’s a one-time deal, we’ll treat you like family. Well, we’ll treat you like the family we like, of course.”
It’s this theory of unsurpassed customer service and devotion to the details that has lead to the success of the Shell Creek Seafood brand. Shell Creek by its current name was established in 2003 in Valonia, and has been at the Townsend location for a year.
“Our one-year anniversary is Labor Day,” Colson point out.
The Colson family seafood legacy, though, stretches back far past the one-year birthday. It stretches back four generations. In 1949, Michelle Colson’s father-in-law, Capt. Dan Colson, started out in the shrimping industry as a deck-hand, eventually building his own shrimp boat in 1955.
“He went on to build 80 boats,” Michelle Colson said.
Michelle Colson’s husband, Chris, carried on the family shrimping tradition, also starting out as a deck hand on a shrimping vessel, then going on to own several of his own boats, as well as a marine railway, shrimp dock packing house and their new venture, the shrimp processing packing house and retail storefront. Joining Chris and Michelle on their day-to-day seafood adventures is their daughter Della, and Michelle Colson’s brother, Matt Linto, plus plenty of visits from their grandchildren and often a surprise visit from Helen Colson, Chris’ mother.
“She stops in to keep us all straight. That’s what I always say, and it’s true,” Michelle Colson said. “We are a family operation, through and through. This industry is all we know, and we love it.”
The Colson family’s bond and their passion for their product are obvious as they tread throughout their large retail and packing space. Be it counting and weighing a fresh load of shrimp, cleaning out the packed fish truck or helping a customer find the right product for a new dish, the Colson’s do it all with a smile and a patient, if not enthusiastic, demeanor.
In an era when stopping by the frozen fish section of a local grocery store, without ever interacting with an employee, is an easy option, this family stands out with their ability to offer affordable, personal and fresh seafood service to both wholesalers and individuals. They demonstrate customer service from open to close, and sometimes in the hours in between.
“I’ll get calls all the time, from people who are looking to make dinner and they need a recipe for something they bought from us,” Michelle Colson said. “I’m happy to help them out.”
When it comes to cooking seafood, Michelle Colson does admit, she’s a tried-and-true Southern cook. She bypasses measurements and leans on her understanding of flavors, textures and timing to craft signature dishes that have become famous in her circle of regular customers. So much so that she’s been asked often to host cooking classes to teach her friends and neighbors how to mimic her recipes at home.
She may, eventually, she said. First, though, she has to ensure the new Townsend location is operating as smoothly as possible, with her customers’ needs met and their personal requests adequately filled.
“This isn’t Wal-Mart. This is special mart,” Michelle Colson said. “We take care of everyone and all their needs, on an individual bases. I give out my personal cell phone a lot, a whole lot, to my regulars. Customers call ahead of time, placing orders for specially-prepared items. We even have a few handicapped customers who’ll call us, give us a heads up, and we’ll meet them outside with their order to make it easy. That’s what we do. When I say our customers are the number one priority, I mean that. That’s just our philosophy.”