Seafood by the Roadside
Bubba John wants to sell you fresh seafood, but first he wants to know how your day is going. John Keesee, a.k.a. Bubba John, is a spirited entrepreneur with a smile as wide as the Gulf Coast, a work ethic as ironclad as a bullet-proof lock and a mind as inquisitive as a stray dog looking for scraps.
“How ya doin’ today?” asks Keesee. “Ya in the mood for some really good seafood? Take a look at these Alabama Wild Shrimp–you’ve never seen anything like ’em.”
Keesee operates Bubba John’s Shrimp and Seafood, a pristine roadside seafood stand on the busy 135th street strip that spans from Olathe to the state line, just east of Mission Road. Keesee set up shop adjacent to a green-striped tent selling locally grown produce on May 1, and his reputation for being a purveyor of quality seafood spread like wildfire amongst savvy foodies and high-profile restaurateurs.
Motorists pulling into the gravel parking lot to pick up melons, squashes and tomatoes at the farmer’s produce tent are immediately drawn to Bubba John’s operation and his engaging patter that’s punctuated by a drawl easily mistaken for the deep South. The seafood monger was born in Virginia and spent childhood years in Tennessee and Alabama before he found his way to Missouri where he spent 12 years as a golf professional in the greater Kansas City area. He’s given up swinging clubs for shuttling ice-packed coolers of Gulf-fresh seafood weekly for the 16-hour trip from Bayou La Batre in southern Alabama to Johnson County.
“Bayou La Batre, near Mobile, is Alabama’s oldest town,” says Keesee. “It started out as a seafood Mecca because it sits right on the Gulf of Mexico, a prime location for the best shrimp and fish in the world.”
Call Bubba John a seafood evangelist. His passion for peddling Alabama wild shrimp, scallops as big as a small child’s fist and succulent lobsters is akin to the excitement of the first tailgating party of football season. Shoppers at Bubba John’s Seafood are treated to cooking tips, recipes and colorful stories about the shrimping life and Alabama’s prolific maritime industry. It’s all part of Bubba’s carefully choreographed ballet to put fresh Gulf seafood on dinner tables throughout Kansas City.
“Friends don’t let friends eat imported seafood,” says Keesee. “We sell the real deal, nothing pond-raised.”
Keesee’s partner, Bubba Steiner, lives in Spanish Fort, Alabama and hails from a generations-old shipbuilding family in Bayou La Batre that has built thousands of shrimp trawlers over the decades. In fact, much of the seafood that Keesee transports to KC from Alabama is caught by families that run small businesses catching the Gulf’s finest in Steiner-built vessels.
“Our product is caught by like-minded entrepreneurs,” says Keesee. “We have a great collaboration where quality is the biggest factor.”
Keesee says the fishing industry in Bayou La Batre was pummeled by Hurricane Katrina’s deadly ferocity, but the bounty of the sea was back at full-tilt by 2007. He brings back the Royal red, brown, pink and white varieties of domestic shrimp; jumbo lump crab; oysters; and grouper pulled from the Gulf’s waters to eager shoppers in Johnson County. The
gregarious Keesee even throws in free lessons on the coastal delicacies he so proudly displays on mounds of ice like Tivol’s displays diamonds on velvet cushions.
“I always like to find out how a customer is going to prepare their seafood,” he says. “I can tell them how to maximize the flavor and ultimate pleasure of the product whether they’re grilling, sautéing, baking or frying.”
Keesee eats his own words, too. His favorite meal is a Kansas City ribeye steak with a jumbo lump crab cake or two and a pile of shrimp; he’s also a proponent of the old-fashioned seafood boil that incorporates a jumble of shrimp, crab, clams and lobsters with potatoes and corn. The fragrant concoction is dumped on a table and eaten with hands.
“It’s a great way to entertain or have a family dinner together,” he says.
When he isn’t wrapping seafood for customers or recommending the perfect spice, Keesee is marketing his product to chefs around the city, knocking on back doors with the confidence of a man selling a world-class product. Cass County Meat in Peculiar, Mo. carries Bubba John’s products, and Hallbrook Country Club, Loch Lloyd Country Club, Tannahs Asian Fusion in Leawood and Maya’s Mexican Bistro on State Line Road purchase seafood from Bubba John’s to include in dishes on their restaurant menus.
The two Bubbas are shopping for a brick-and-mortar location so they can offer their Gulf Coast seafood year round. Weather permitting, the seafood stand will remain open through the end of November, with special orders being taken for oysters that will end up as the star of stuffing recipes for Thanksgiving turkeys and plump additions to holiday stews.
Keesee says consumers in Kansas City are discerning when it comes to buying seafood. He recalls a woman approaching the stand last summer with an obvious air of skepticism.
“She had her hands on her hips, leaned over and carefully inspected the contents of my coolers,” says Keesee. “She wanted to make sure I wasn’t selling mediocre seafood.”
After some back-and-forth and recipe exchanging, he says the shopper–another newfound friend–started ticking off her order. The woman left the stand laden with bulging sacks of shrimp, crab and lobsters, happy as a clam. Keesee was satisfied that he’d converted yet another customer to the pleasures of Alabama’s Wild Shrimp and seafood.
“My job is done for today,” he says.
For more information on Bubba John’s Seafood visit www.bubbajohnseafood.com or call (913) 220.5272 for fall hours.
words by Kimberly Stern
photos by Abbe Findley