Earl Dickie Shannon rests on the tailgate of his orange Dodge Durango outside his popular seafood carryout off the H Street corridor in Northeast and sighs. It's not yet 9:30 on a Friday morning in August and already the sun is cranked up full blast, little heat mirages shimmying at ankle level all up and down the asphalt street. Shannon, wearing a diamond pinkie ring and a Rolex, is just back from visiting some of his suppliers to pick up a day's worth of sodas and bottled water, nab some last-minute cleaning products and settle bills; he always pays cash.
The weather forecast is for Code Orange air and a high of 95, but he knows it doesn't matter. On a busy Friday, Horace & Dickie's, a shoebox-size joint that touts itself as "Home of the Jumbo Fish Sandwich," moves close to a ton of fish. Starting in less than an hour, customers will be making the pilgrimage from as far away as Alexandria and Upper Marlboro, Mount Rainier and Gaithersburg, Catonsville and Capitol Heights. They'll line up 20 and 30 deep, snaking out the door and into the alley -- secretaries and cops, maintenance men and middle managers, crack heads and CNN gofers bringing reporters their lunch.
Shannon sells fried chicken, crab cakes and shrimp. But 95 percent of the people who inch their way up the line come for the fish, either the four-piece sandwich for $4.31 or the six-piece plate for $7.29. Staff Sgt. Tyrone Hinnant, an Army recruiter over at 1400 Florida Ave. NE, says, "The guys in the recruiting office told me about it. I only been here a year. I'm a Southern boy, North Carolina. Gotta have my fish." Tony Kershaw works for the INS in Northwest. He comes over once a week with orders for the whole office, something like 18 sandwiches. "First thing in the morning, I got people giving me money. I can't even get my work done," he says. "I'm telling you, man, this is the place."
What Dickie Shannon serves is the classic Southern fish sandwich. Which is to say it's not really a sandwich at all, but four pieces of golden-colored whiting dumped atop two slices of your choice of white or wheat bread, all quickly wrapped in foil and shoved hot into a paper bag with a napkin and little containers of hot sauce and tartar sauce. At first glance, it's not that different from what you can get at dozens of places around town. But where his competition's fish is golden brown, Shannon's is golden. Where theirs is heavy and soggy, his is light, delicate. Where their fish falls apart when it comes out of the fryer, his is firm but tender.
So what's the secret? "A man who tells his secrets is a man on his way out of business," observes Shannon. Nevertheless, he's willing to part with some tantalizing details. For one thing, his whiting comes from Argentina instead of the Carolinas. He says it's more expensive but thinks the colder waters off South America produce a better class of fish, one that's firmer and more flavorful. For another, he uses a high-grade vegetable shortening in his fryers and changes all 280 pounds of the stuff every day. And because of the volume of customers, the fried fish you buy is seldom more than five minutes old. "If fish sits, it gets tough," Shannon says. When prompted that there's got to be more to it than that, he just smiles. "Oh, there is," he says. "There is."
Shannongrew up in Atlantic City, with a love of seafood and racehorses and the itch to make money. "I was very versatile, I didn't turn down anything," he says. He hung around the Atlantic City Race Course and exercised horses. He caddied at the local golf course. He worked as a busboy at Shumsky's, an old-line kosher-style restaurant. At the tender age of 21, he bought a seafood restaurant at a tax auction and tried to make a go of it with the help of his mother. But Atlantic City was dying in the early '60s, and he closed down after four years.
From there he moved to D.C., where, with a degree in accounting, he did data processing for 28 years for the Department of Defense and private industry. The money was decent, but not great. Ever restless, he opened a women's clothing store near Eastern Market as a sideline, and owned it for seven years. He also bought and renovated a town house on 12th Street NE -- right across from a fish shop.
"A buddy of mine owned the building," says Shannon, and was leasing it to the man running the fish place. The carryout "was doing steady business, but nothing spectacular. He was selling perch, which costs big-time, so I knew right off the bat he wasn't clearing much money." Then in 1989 the company where Shannon was doing data processing lost its contract with the Navy; around the same time the guy leasing the carryout suddenly departed. "I was 50 years old. My friend said he'd give me a good deal on the rent if I wanted to make a go of it," Shannon remembers. "We did the rent agreement on the back of a napkin. It took me three weeks to get the place in shape -- the grease on the walls was half an inch thick. We opened in May of 1990 and never looked back."
Shannon's partner -- the Horace in Horace & Dickie's -- was an older guy who decided after just six weeks that he'd had enough. Shannon bought him out but left his name up. It was Shannon and a staff of two for the first three years, but eventually the business got to the point where he could hire extra help. Now, at 62, he no longer works the counter himself.
The work has paid off. Shannon says that when Patti LaBelle was singing in town a few years ago, she complained to the audience that there was no place in D.C. to get a good fried-fish sandwich. Some people in the audience shouted back to try Horace & Dickie's. Others started applauding. You can't buy that kind of loyalty.
Today, Shannon lives in Accokeek with his wife, Nancy, a middle school principal, and raises racehorses on a farm in Woodbine, Md. ("Don't even think about it as an investment," he says. "It's a vice.") He moves his money around in the stock market and spends a lot of time at the track studying horses. You'd think he'd be whistling a happy tune.
But Shannon is a worrier by nature. "With a small business," he says, "you're taking a risk every time you put your key in the door." It's all about money management, he says. A business with a larger base can get extensions of credit, weather a downturn in sales. A small business can't. That's why he pays his bills every day and pays cash. "Otherwise it's too easy for your cash flow to dictate who gets paid on time and who doesn't," he explains. "And that's when you get yourself in trouble."
The small stuff adds up, too. "People don't realize what it costs, the little extras," he says. "Bags, napkins, straws. You can go broke on condiments in a hurry." He says the little cups for tartar sauce and hot sauce cost $49 per thousand. Bags run $35 per thousand. He used to give away extra tartar sauce, hot sauce and ketchup. Now he charges for them, 11 cents a cup. The counter help has been instructed to tell customers that the extra condiments are free, it's the container they're paying for.
Then there's portion control. After running the store for nearly a decade, Shannon knows almost by intuition if somebody's slipping in an extra piece of fish here and there. That's when he has to lay down the law, yell a little, make sure people know he's serious. And he is serious. Turnover among counter help is high, and anyone caught pilfering or otherwise hurting the business is sacked on the spot. Argue with him, tell him he can't fire you, and the next call he makes is to the police. "You gotta be able to be a son of a bitch one minute and their best buddy the next," he says.
Inside,underneath photos of notable customers like Jesse Jackson, Ed Bradley, Jim Vance, Sharon Pratt Kelly, the Sacred Heart Gospel Band, IBF flyweight champion Mark Johnson and a stupendously buxom porno star and rapper named Spantaneeus Xtasty, the day shift is getting ready to open. The crew will work until 7 p.m., when the night shift takes over until 2 a.m. A little before 10 in the morning, Damian Arington is pushing a hand truck loaded with cases of fish from the refrigerated truck out front into the jammed walk-in refrigerator. Gregory Carter is running water over 10-pound blocks of frozen fish in one half of the deep double sink, draining the thawed fillets in the other, dipping them in a tray of fish-fry meal before dropping them in the already-roiling fryers. He has a special way of laying them down so any splash of hot oil goes away from him.
Line cooks Ronnie Wallace, Betty Rogers and Regina Blades are simmering collard greens, blending eggs and cheese into pans of macaroni, mixing heavy mayonnaise into tubs of cole slaw and potato salad. Wallace has been here the longest, has the mottled grease burns on his forearms to prove it, and is the unofficial manager when Shannon's away. Bianca Shannon, 16, is the cashier. She's Dickie's granddaughter -- she calls him "Pop-Up" -- and has been living with him since his son remarried. An honor student at Friendly High, she has already been scouted by some college basketball teams, even though she's only starting her junior year. Right now, she's filling about 200 little condiment cups with tartar sauce from a gallon plastic bottle with a hole cut into the middle so the stuff will flow. She fills them with machine-like precision, 60 cups a minute.
Dickie Shannon walks into the store hot on the heels of a delivery man bringing in a box of cake slices: chocolate, strawberry, lemon and pound, all baked by a local woman. "I told her 80 yesterday, not 50," Shannon says, exasperated. The guy says, "Hey, man, I'm just the delivery." Shannon says he'll take the 50. He'll have them sold by noon. "Tell her not to get lazy," he warns. "I got two places up in Jersey want to make my cakes and pies." The delivery man pauses to wipe his brow and shakes his head with a smile at the thought. "Ain't gonna give her that message, man. You gotta." Shannon says he will.
As Shannon leaves at 10 a.m., the first customers are already showing up. He's off to see about getting a Pepsi fountain installed in the store. A camera mounted in the corner above the cash register lets him keep an eye on what's going on in his shop either from the tiny office upstairs or from his home in Accokeek. "That thing's a godsend," he says.
By 11:30, the place is jammed with people hoping to beat the noon rush, the line already out into the street. The thousand-square-foot store is loud with voices, the snapping of paper bags, the ripping of aluminum foil, the white noise of the fryers. There's a small air conditioner running, but between the crush of humanity, the cooking heat and the glass door that spends more time open than closed, you've got to be standing right under the single duct to feel it. Nevertheless, the mood is jovial. There are guys with DOD badges around their necks and ground crew men from Howard University and every kind of cop: Park Police and D.C. police who arrive on bicycles, driving paddy wagons, in squad cars and unmarked cars. Every time another cop walks in, Wallace makes his eyes bug out and fakes a scared look, yelling, "Betty! Po-lice, girl!" like she'd better make a break for it. Rogers, wearing her Virginia Cavaliers hat and a plastic glove on her right hand, just smiles. "What you having, baby?" she asks. The house rule is all cops go straight to Rogers. "We move 'em through," she says. "Let 'em get back to the street. My momma might need help out there. You never know." When the line gets especially long, Wallace shouts towards the entrance, "Next! Call it out!"
Rogers, Wallace and Blades repeat the same three questions to every customer: What you having? Wheat or white? You want to put anything on that? Some longtime customers, especially those who won't be eating until they get back to the office, ask for their fish fried "hard." The cooks put the fish back in the fryer for 30 seconds or so, turning it a little browner and crisper. "That's the way I like it myself," says Blades. "If you're gonna travel, you want that fish to still be crisp when you get there." Just before the orders are wrapped in foil from the thousand-foot rolls each line cook has at the ready, customers are given a chance to douse their fish with those precious condiments: salt, pepper, hot sauce, ketchup and mustard. But not tartar sauce, which is mayonnaise-based and therefore more costly. Customers get one cup per order, along with a cup of hot sauce. "Tartar sauce and hot sauce in the bottom of the bag, baby," Rogers says as she hands the order over. Then she taps her plastic mayonnaise jar with the slit cut in the top for tips and adds, "Only if you can." At the cash register, after each sale she rings up, Bianca Shannon says, "Thank you and have a nice day." During the rush, she says it 150 times an hour.
To the untrained eye, it looks like the constant motion of the line cooks is what sets the pace. The cooks themselves know better. "The key is defrosting that fish," says Blades. "You get behind there," she shakes her head, "that's when trouble comes." Gregory Carter is the one who spends a good part of the day with his hands in water so cold it makes them ache. It takes about three minutes to defrost a fillet under water. Then he lifts it into the right-hand sink to drain, the wet fillets on the far side, the ones that are now dry enough to dredge in meal on the near side. During the rush, Damian Arington is the dredger, another critical job.
Blades explains. "That fish has to be almost dry when you put it in the fish-fry meal. Otherwise it soaks up too much meal and gets heavy. Plus, wet fish means the meal gets wet. And then you have the same problem, heavy, soggy fish. The outside gets cooked hard and the inside is raw." Arington, listening as he kneads the fish-fry meal, deftly removing lumps and dropping them into the trash, nods in agreement. "You got to keep stirring the meal, keep it dry, keep it loose," he says. The difference between a perfectly fried piece of fish and a disaster is, it seems, nothing more than a little bit of moisture. When Arington judges the tray of meal to be too moist, he simply dumps it, then scrapes the tray clean with a big putty knife and starts over.
When Blades drifts back to her station, Arington confides another secret: the fish-fry meal. "Some people just make an egg batter and mix cornmeal and flour with Old Bay," he says. "The fish fry Dickie buys costs more, but it works better. Don't ask me what's in it, 'cause I don't know. But I know our fish tastes better. You put it in that fryer at 375 and after three minutes it just floats to the top."
Maybe Arington is right. Maybe it is the meal. Or maybe it's drying the fillets just so. Or bringing the fish all the way from Argentina. Or some fragile confluence of factors. One way or another, Horace & Dickie's keeps the crowds coming.
Now Blades is wrapping a six-piece plate for a man in a suit with closely cropped hair and a slight bulge under his left armpit. As she closes the foil, his fingers dart in to pick at a crispy corner. She slaps playfully at his hand. "Wait 'til you get it back to the office," she says.
"Uh-uh, baby," he says. "Gonna eat it right outside in the car."
Bill Heavey last wrote for the Magazine about canoeing on the James River.