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Eat Near: A.P. Bell Fish Company

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Red snapper on ice at A.P. Bell / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Red snapper on ice at A.P. Bell / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

A.P. Bell Fish Company has been open 73 years, and that history is written all over the property, from the yellowing photographs tacked up on the walls to the Stone Age coffee pot brewing away and the punch card machine tracking employee hours. Much has changed in the commercial fishing industry, not to mention the village of Cortez, over the decades, but Bell remains. Boats still pull up at the dock, they still unload their mullet and grouper, and Bell still ships it away.

Much of Bell's food ends up next door at Star Fish Company, the Cortez eatery whose popularity has exploded in recent years thanks in no small part to Travel + Leisure magazine naming it one of the 15 best seafood restaurants in the country. Star Fish owner Karen Bell — also a co-owner at A.P. Bell, which is named after her grandfather, Aaron Parks Bell — says Star Fish's sudden ubiquity is "shocking."

"It's a dock," she laughs, "with picnic tables." The food is nothing special to her — it's what she grew up eating. "It's the quality of the seafood that makes the difference," she says. "We don't mask that." While other fish restaurants bury their seafood beneath thick crusts and strong herbs, Star Fish keeps it super-simple. "We use cornflower," Karen says. That's it.

But while Star Fish (both the restaurant and its superb attached seafood market) is a big Bell customer, the company's fish ends up all over the world. Bell sells to clients as far away as Brazil, Sardinia and Egypt.

According to Karen, it's Bell's diversity that has kept it afloat while smaller fishing outfits have gone bust. When citizens voted in 1994 to limit gill netting, the new restrictions caused Bell sales to drop 50 percent in a year. The ban had a devastating effect on Cortez ("A way of life disappeared," says Karen), but Bell survived because its business didn't depend entirely on net fishing. The company had begun building an offshore fleet in the 1970s, and relied on that revenue to stay alive.

Disaster struck again with the 2010 BP oil spill. The spill had a "horrible short-term impact" on business, Karen says. She was getting calls from overseas customers who were following media reports and were terrified to place orders. Bell had 80,000 pounds of grouper sitting there frozen, with no buyers in sight. But Bell weathered that, too.

The company now owns 12 boats, but not all are sea-worthy, Karen notes. Seven are currently running, and the company works with a handful of independent fishermen. Altogether, Bell hauls in roughly 500,000 pounds of grouper and 1 million pounds of mullet a year, plus a good hunk of gulf shrimp, pompano and seasonal stone crab.

Karen has a few big projects in the works: a new roof, cleaning up debris, an inventory of the company's enormous freezer, but she's thinking more long-term, too. Bell has been a family business since its founding — who will pick up the torch when she's done? Things will change, but not too much, Karen says: "We're doing the same thing we've always done."

A.P. Bell Fish Company is located at 4539 124th Court W., Cortez. You can reach Bell at 794-1249, and buy its fish at the Star Fish Company seafood market: 12306 46th Ave. W., Cortez.

This is the 31st entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at eatnearsrq@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.

Last modified: November 15, 2013
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