The Seafood Issue

Seafood City, Very Pretty


It is almost impossible to imagine a time when crawfish was not as ubiquitous in New Orleans as fleurs-de-lis or Louis Armstrong. Until the 1950s, however, if you wanted crawfish in this town, you first had to drive out to the swamps, find a fisherman, buy a sack, bring it home, figure out how to cook it, and — most daunting of all — figure out how to eat it. In truth, however, it likely never would have occurred to you to do any of this in the first place, because crawfish was considered peasant food and had no place in the world of cosmopolitan cuisine. All that changed, in large part, because of the work of one man, who not only popularized the Cajun staple in the city, but in doing so changed the New Orleans cultural and culinary scene forever. His name is Alfred Scramuzza — the self-proclaimed “emperor of crawfish” — and the visionary founder of the iconic Seafood City.

According to Scramuzza family lore, the whole thing began as an accident. Before Al got into the crawfish business, he sold produce and other seafoods. One day, a wholesaler came by with sacks in the back of his truck. He offered Al the chance to sell the crawfish — and Al almost turned him down. Who would buy such a thing? The wholesaler, a little desperate, said something like: “Well, how ’bout we do it on consignment, cher? Ya don’t pay me nothin’ ’less ya manage to sell ’ em. Dey prob’ly just gonna go to waste anyhow.”

What the Cajun didn’t realize was that he was dealing with a world-class operator.

“My grandfather was a big-time hustler and real good salesman,” said Tony Scramuzza, Al’s grandson and the owner of Scramuzza’s Seafood in Kenner. “He still has that great big personality. He wasn’t ever afraid to go through with an idea he had, even if people thought it was ‘out there’ and crazy — he’d just go full speed with it, and never let other people’s doubts affect it. He went full force.”

Al was a first-rate showman. To entice buyers, he paid kids to dangle crawfish from fishing poles over the sidewalk as people walked by. At the end of the day, that first batch of crawfish was sold, Al paid the fisherman, and the next day bought more. It ramped up from there.

In part, that salesman’s mentality was a result of Al’s upbringing.

“He grew up poor in the French Quarter,” said Tony of his grandfather. A child of the Great Depression, Al’s family’s situation was made worse when his father took off in the early 1930s. His mom tried to keep the family together, but food was scarce and the situation became increasingly dire by the day. They’d steal scraps of food when they could — okra, peppers, potatoes — but one by one, he and his siblings were sent elsewhere. His sister became a nun, and he and his brothers ended up in Hope Haven, an orphanage in Marrero on Barataria Boulevard.

Around this time is also when Al first learned to boil crawfish. It was a poor man’s food — a trash food — and the young Scramuzza was indeed a poor man. But crawfish was ideal for the circumstances because, if you were an enterprising boy, you or your neighbors could go out and catch the crawfish yourselves, and pilfer scraps from produce stands, and ply the boil with seasonings until it resembled something like food. It could turn into a neighborhood event, and the hungry could get a good meal.

“That may have been part of what started his drive as he matured,” said Tony. “Part of growing up that way and having to learn how to hustle and make something out of nothing — that’s what he did.”

The drive — and also the ability to teach New Orleanians how to boil crawfish — helped Al find fast success selling them by the sack. Soon, he was outpacing his Cajun supplier and decided to go straight to the source: The fishermen at the docks. is culturally about as far from New Orleans in 1950 as you can get without a passport. Adjacent to the Atchafalaya Basin in the southernmost tip of Iberville Parish, it was (and remains today) a fishing village in deep, deep Cajun country; French was the dominant language in almost every household.

When Al got there, he started striking up deals to buy up as much crawfish from the local fishermen as he could afford, to bring back to the city. In those days, the price of crawfish was something like three cents per pound. After that, Al was off to the races.

It doesn’t take Morgus the Magnificent to know that, for Louisianans of a certain age, there are a few jingles that trigger Pavlovian responses. If I sing “Rosenberg’s, Rosenberg’s…” you’ll respond: “1825 Tulane.” If I say, “You’ll have to see the Special Man!” you will say: “Let her have it.”

And if I say, “Seafood City, very pretty,” you will say: “1826 North Broad.”

As it turned out, simply bringing crawfish to the city wasn’t enough. Al Scramuzza could sell dozens of sacks a day, but he was thinking bigger; and for that, he had to teach the city that crawfish was more than a weird food eaten by backward Cajuns. Let’s face it: They’re not the most appetizing creatures before they go into the pot. So to get the city on board, Al had to get creative.

He moved the company to a building on Broad Street at the corner of St. Bernard, and eventually called it Seafood City. The fishing poles were a mainstay, as were a kind of rolling master class in how to cook the things, with Al explaining times and temperatures and ingredients and seasonings. To eyes in 2024, this seems unbelievable, when crawfish suffuses the New Orleans culinary landscape and we just pick up the basics by cultural osmosis; but in a pre-Internet world, where everyone’s uncle didn’t own a crawfish pot, how would you even begin to know where to start?

Look, anyone can sell a product. But the salesman became a veritable ambassador for the lowly crawfish hole. And over time, his empire grew to take up the entire block. Scramuzza had something that comes along rarely, but when it does, burns white hot: He was a showman of, by and for the city of New Orleans. In the broader landscape, Seafood City wasn’t just a place to buy seafood; it became a cultural hub: a place where the community’s love for food and festivity converged. Scramuzza understood the soul of the city — our love of celebration and family gatherings, and our city’s deep-rooted culinary traditions and its openness to new experiences.

To fully create the crawfish culture in the city and then transform the culinary landscape, Scramuzza turned to television.

It’s worth noting that crawfish wasn’t the only business that he went full bore into. Over the years, said his grandson, he started a record label (Scram Records). He even ran for the state legislature. (“Don’t be a looza, vote for Scramuzza.”) So making commercials was right up his alley. He wrote them, starred in them, and sang in them. As New Orleans blogger Chuck Taggart once transcribed the famous jingle:

Seeeafoood City is-a verrry pretty,

Down at Broad ‘n St. B’nawd,

Stay with Al Scramuzza and you’ll nevuh be a loosuh…

At the end, a crowd of people would sing the kicker: 1826 North Broad!

The marketing was both ahead of its time and strangely perfect for the city. The commercials were more than mere advertisements: they were mini-events, full of humor, local flair, catchy tunes, slogans and jingles. You’ve got disco music playing in the background, a distinct local dressed as a doctor and holding a stethoscope to a crawfish, saying to the creature in full-blown Yat-speak: “Yoo arrrite…” and then brushing its teeth.

“Force of nature” is an overused expression, but I’m not sure how else to describe the man or what he was doing. As Seafood City grew in the ’60s and early ’70s, Al was like a one-man band suddenly leading an orchestra. And he wasn’t just writing commercials and making deals. Behind the scenes, he was doing the job of a small businessman — even boiling the crawfish.

“Once you get big in the seafood industry, it kind of consumes you,” said Tony. “You’ve got to really go 100% to get where he got.” Al would frequently be there alone, boiling all night, thanks to Seafood City’s unique setup in the back. “He set up his boiling room and — look, it was a crazy situation back there, man. They had all kinds of conveyor belts, where basically one person could boil a lot of seafood. It was almost like a mini factory of a boiler room. There were hoists and such where one person could lift the big baskets of seafood and dump them on the tables to get it all sorted and ready for the next day.”

At its height, Seafood City could sell 50,000 pounds of crawfish on a Saturday, not even counting the myriad other creatures of the local sea it carried.

“We did a humongous business there,” Al told The Times-Picayune in 2017. “We sold seafood. We shipped seafood. We were wading in seafood; that’s how much we used to handle. We sold billions of pounds of crawfish every season. Not millions. Billions.”

At the same time, Scramuzza was shaping the nature of the crawfish market. It was essentially an entirely new product. People didn’t know how to buy them, sell them, cook them, peel them or serve them. There were no expectations of price because they weren’t really being sold anywhere else. Today we live in a world that he helped create.

In 2017, at Al’s 90th birthday celebration, Billy Nungesser (then-lieutenant governor of Louisiana) presented Al with the 2017 Seafood Champion Award. In response, Al declared that there are too many “crawfish kings” out there, and that he is the “Crawfish Emperor.” Who could argue with that?

In Louisiana, seafood is almost always a family business. Al and his future wife, Sarah, met as teenagers in the French Quarter, where they both grew up, in the 1940s. They later had four children. Though none of the kids took over the Seafood City empire, and Al closed its doors in 1994, the Scramuzza family wasn’t finished with crawfish just yet.

“My grandfather had closed the business when I was real young,” Tony told me in an interview. “I was never interested in it, and never thought I would get into it. In fact, I always thought the opposite.” Though the Scramuzza family represents one of the great cultural success stories of the city and they were hard workers, they weren’t loaded, and there was no empire to hand to anyone after Seafood City closed. And anyway, Tony wanted to find his own path in life. His background is as varied as his grandfather’s. He worked construction. He was a mechanic. He did valet. He worked in EMS. He was a bartender.

Fate stepped in when he and his grandfather were coaching together at the Johnny Bright Playground in Metairie about 10 years ago. Al coached everything — always had — and had continued doing so until he turned 90 (which is as good a time to stop as any). It was part of the community-mindedness of the Scramuzza family, and applied to everything from sports to crawfish boils to rebuilding houses after Katrina. “My grandfather was always big on praying, and big on being positive,” said Tony.

During this time, people kept pestering his grandfather to put out a crawfish boil seasoning, because the one they used at Seafood City literally defined the flavor of crawfish for a generation, and people were nostalgic for it.

That is when the Scramuzza family started working with Rouses Markets. “When he decided to actually do it, I helped him with it,” said Tony. “It was a big deal when we got it into Rouses, and the product was really doing all right.”

Seafood City’s boil seasoning had 14 ingredients in it, Tony told me, where most only have four or five and, unlike non-local seasoning, their boil didn’t pad their bags with salt, which after a certain point is just filler to make people feel like they bought more than they actually did. The Seafood City boil leaned heavily on Italian herbs, representing the family’s roots and giving it a distinct profile.

In the end, they decided against continuing the product, however. “My grandfather was getting close to 90 by then, and I was still kind of young and learning business,” said Tony. “Eventually we decided to get away from it, but the whole experience sparked my appetite for business.”

Instead, Tony decided to get into the industry his grandfather established here so long ago.

“I started peddling crawfish, and it just kind of took off from there,” he said. Today Scramuzza’s Seafood, whose storefront is on Idaho Avenue in Kenner, is the largest supplier of crawfish for Rouses Markets.

Though his surname helped recognition of his company early on, crawfish is not an easy business to be in, said Tony. The competition is fierce. It takes a long time to build a group of reputable, reliable crawfish farmers and fishermen. Everything is perishable, and you’ve got to deal with a lot of weight and at a very fast pace.

“You’ve got to have the product when people need it,” he said, “but you don’t want to sit around with a perishable product for too long, either, because then it goes to waste. There’s a real fine balance that you have to have in a crawfish business.”

His grandfather was obviously an important mentor. “I’ve been doing this maybe six or seven years now, and those first few years he really helped me a lot. Some things I was hardheaded about — maybe I didn’t listen and I should have! But a lot of things, I listened to as much as I could, and he’s really guided me and helped me learn a lot of little details that I wouldn’t have known, and [that] could have been costly mistakes.”

In the seafood business, he says, you’ve got to kind of be able to foresee a lot of things, and plan meticulously. As soon as you miss that sale, the customer is going to go to somebody else for their crawfish. That’s not even counting the slow seasons and how to navigate them.

For Tony, the first few years of business were all about grinding and putting in the hours to get everything going. He certainly learned about a strong work ethic from his grandfather. “I worked with him after Katrina redoing houses, doing sports, selling seasoning — he definitely taught me about how to work hard and get stuff done. I don’t even realize, sometimes, just how ingrained those things are in me at this point.”

Today, the two are talking about marketing, where the elder Scramuzza shined like few others in the city. And those wild commercials that helped define crawfish in New Orleans remain important to the Scramuzza family as well. “We still, every holiday, get together and watch the commercials on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day,” he said. “We get a great laugh at their creativity and how good my grandfather was.”

There are lessons to be learned there for the young businessman. And one thing is for certain: Al Scramuzza’s imprint on New Orleans cuisine is for all time. Very pretty indeed.