Once every few weeks in Iowa City — probably on a Monday around 10 a.m. — a refrigerated truck pulls into the Riverside Dairy Queen’s parking lot (526 Riverside Drive). It is white and completely unmarked.
Actually, there’s this: A single leaf of oversized printer paper, duct taped to the driver-side door. It says FABIAN SEAFOOD, and this is representative of just how much of a shit Steve Fabian, the guy on the other side of that door, gives about branding.
There’s more meat in one of those shrimp than in a McDonald’s hamburger.
Fabian comes up from Galveston, Tx., usually with a hired hand riding shotgun, and once they pull into the DQ lot they open up the back of the truck and begin unloading blue Igloo coolers, the kind Americans typically fill with bottled beer for backyard barbeques or freezer bags of orange slices for children’s soccer games. After unloading roughly 30 coolers, Fabian commences Phase Two of his marketing scheme. He grabs two signs and stakes them each in the patch of grass next to the road. One says FABIAN SEAFOOD, like the sign on his door. The other: FRESH SHRIMP. This has been his M.O. since 1977, when he made Iowa City the first stop on his route of the Midwest.
Officially, Fabian’s hours are from 12-6 p.m., but by 11:15 a.m. cars are parking in the lot and people are standing around, waiting. And here’s why: Two days prior, Fabian was down at the docks in the Gulf, buying directly from the boats. He put his product in the blue Igloos, bathed it in ice water, and began driving 1,100 miles to Iowa City. That was on Saturday. And now, on Monday morning, here he is in Iowa City with plump shrimp, whole, gutted red snapper and fresh crab meat, none of which has ever been frozen.
A note about the shrimp. Fabian sells in three sizes: medium-large, extra-large, and jumbo. The medium-large are bigger than anything you’ll find in a grocery store. The jumbo practically require steak knives and multi-bite commitments to work through a single piece — they count ten to fifteen per pound. There’s more meat in one of those shrimp than in a McDonald’s hamburger.
Contrivances about size matters aside, the truest reason people gather and wait for Fabian’s arrival is the quality of his product. Because he runs a small operation without much overhead for branding, he’s had to develop a clientele from the ground up.
“It takes a couple years to build up a town,” Fabian says. “During those years we’re probably losing money.” He understands the order he’s set for himself: “People don’t want to buy seafood from the back of a truck that’s gone the next day.”
And yet, here they are. Iowa City resident Becky Sato shows up just before noon, and Fabian prompts her for me: “How long you been buying our shrimp?” Sato pauses, tips her head back to calculate.
“Let’s see,” she says. “My son is 31, and he must have been four at the time…so 27, 28 years.” Before having kids, Sato and her husband lived in Japan, where they ate fish daily. Now Fabian’s is the only seafood they buy. “We’ll do seafood all week,” she says, “and then we’ll wait until the next time he comes back.”
Her enthusiasm is standard. This afternoon, four customers who purchase seafood come back to buy more within the first hour. By the end of the day, Fabian has unloaded almost 600 pounds of shrimp. He continues his route up to Madison, then bends around the region and back down to Galveston, where he crunches the numbers and preps for his next run, which begins in the DQ parking lot on Labor Day.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 182