Tom Cantu recently retired after dedicating 54 years to Quality Seafood
Hometown: Bertram, TX
First job: Picking cotton and shearing sheep in Bertram
Last job before Quality Seafood: Driver for Austin Frozen Food Company
Favorite fish to fillet: “I don’t choose favorites, but I do like black drum.”
Favorite fish to eat: Broiled black drum with shrimp Creole on top
Most far-out thing he’s ever eaten: “I try to not eat things when I don’t know what they are.”
Where he tunes his radio: KVET
How did you come to work at Quality Seafood? Well…they needed a driver. My cousin worked for Mr. Husted (Chester C. Husted, see our History page for more details), first of all. He had a frozen food company (Austin Frozen Food Company) in downtown Austin. And my cousin was a truck driver who worked for Mr. Husted for many years. And at the time, I was working, but I was looking for something better.
What were you doing originally? What I was doing was working for Economy Furniture. I had just…We (Tom and Josie Cantu) had just gotten married. And things had gotten slow. And my cousin said, “Well, you know, we’re looking for a truck driver.” And I always wanted to be a truck driver. So I went down, and I talked to Mr. Spence, JD Spence, and he said, “You got a driver’s license?” I said, “Yea…do you wanna look at it?” He said, “No.” So I started right there and then…and I’ve been there ever since.
What kind of deliveries were you making? Well, we were making downtown deliveries. We used to make all the schools in Austin…But…about six months after that…I learned how to cut fish…After six months they put me inside. And then I learned how to read the scales and sell fish to customers, you know, work on the counter. And then from there on it’s just…I never did go back to deliveries.
Did you miss it? Well yea, sometimes I did but…we had people there that…it used to be fun to…when we get together and cut fish. We had one header, we had two skinners, we had two fish-boners, and one that…washed fish. And we’d get around the table and just talk crazy talk, and I would listen to some of the old people that had stories. So that was exciting for me. I really enjoyed it.
Do you remember…any of the guys that you used to work with? Yea…Walter Jones, they used to call him “Big Gut”…He was pretty big…and he was an old employee. He worked there for many years…Melvin Rooker, he worked there ‘til 1990 when Sam [Eaves] bought it. Leroy Foster, he was a deliveryman and then later become a cook.
Are they the ones who taught you to cut fish? I learned from Walter Jones, “Big Gut,” and he’s the one that taught me to skin…The way I did it…I learned how to wash fish, I learned how to skin. After I learned how to skin, I learned how to take the heads off, and then went to the fish boning.
You’ve been at Quality Seafood for 50 years now. Did you ever come and go? No, no. I decided that the people treated me so nice, and I enjoyed what I was doing. I enjoyed the people that were there. So…that’s one of the reasons I stayed. You know, cause the bosses…they always treated me real nice. Mr. Spence, I kind of looked at him like a…father figure, which I wish I had, and I never did have.
When you were hired at Quality…where was the business located? There on East 19th Street, 409 East 19th Street (now MLK Blvd)…We were kind of like a little cubby hole in a big building that was the Driskilll Laundry…And they did laundry service for a lot of hotels, and I think they supplied uniforms and all that…they did big business. And we were just a little bitty cubby hole in that big building.
What was the neighborhood like at that time? Well there was a lot of houses behind us…We had a lot of customers. Of course, we kind of stayed close to the African American community…They had a lot of people that worked on the universities, the Texas government buildings…a lot of cooks that worked for the University, a lot of cooks that worked for fraternities and sororities, and all those COOPS and…student houses. We used to have a lot of them that we used to deliver to.
When you were first hired what were the kinds of things that you sold? Well, we sold…wild-caught redfish, wild-caught gulf trout that we don’t see anymore…Red snapper is another one that we used to get a lot of…Flounders, we used to get a lot of flounders…of course black drum was one of our main sellers…Shrimp, oysters. We did not sell any scallops…It was all Gulf. Always Texas. Every now and then we’d get swordfish, but mostly it was all frozen. We used to get frozen swordfish, frozen salmon, frozen halibut, all steaks. We never got anything fresh. All the salmon was frozen.
And when did Mr. Husted put the restaurant in? Well the restaurant was built when we moved in 1965 to 2105 East Ave (I-35)…Now it wasn’t a restaurant, it was all to-go…It was catfish and red drum. That’s what we used to sell as our fried fish. Yea, it was the first in Austin to have a fish market with cooked food to-go, and we had [news] cameras come in, KTBC, I think was the name.
Was it Mr. Husted who gave your first job as shrimp buyer? No, it was Mr. Spence. When Mr. Spence retired…I told Jamie [Husted, daughter of Chester C. Husted]…“I don’t know if I can do Mr. Spence’s job.” “Oh yea,” she said, “you can do it.” “I don’t know that’s a big step for me, cause I had never ordered anything,” but…Jamie had confidence in me…It all worked fine.