With the myriad details the Charleston Restaurant Association must address every year before the Lowcountry Oyster Festival, none is more important than making sure the star attraction shows up.
That is the oyster, of course, and about 80,000 of them are needed to please the 10,000 people who come to pry open and slurp the briny delicacies.
The man who has been making that happen every year since 1987 is Dan Long of Crosby's Seafood. Failure is not an option for Long, the No. 2 man at the area's oldest fish and seafood wholesaler. Just as a five-day work week is out of the question for him: Crosby's delivers every day, and Long is in the office save for a half-day here and there.
Long goes about his business without seeking the limelight, but he plays a huge role in the fruits of the sea that local consumers are able to enjoy, eating out or eating in. Crosby's supplies 300 to 400 restaurants around Charleston and many retail outlets with grouper, tuna, clams, catfish, squid and gator -- well, "anything that swims or has fins," he likes to say.
Here is a guy who has risen from the bottom rung at Crosby's to vice president and wholesale manager and is the family company's heir apparent, though he's not family.
But the executive title doesn't come with an executive office suite, not even close. Long spends his days working the phone in a tiny utilitarian space within Crosby's warehouse
in the decidedly industrial Neck Area on Cherry Hill Lane.
Long is a contrast of sorts. He has a blue-collar history, at one time employed as a jet engine mechanic and a pipefitter on an oil rig. But Long also is the devoted husband who, after 16 years of marriage, still answers a phone call from wife Tracy with, "Yes, my love?"
Relationships, "that's what life is all about, and how people treat one another," Long says.
Making the deal
Long took over obtaining the oysters for the festival when the crowd was in the hundreds, not thousands. But he saw a lot of oysters going to waste.
"I have a better way of doing this so you won't have any leftovers" and be forced to eat the cost, he told the restaurant association.
So Long worked out a deal with his Gulf Coast suppliers. They would be delivered in refrigerated tractor-trailers from Florida, Louisiana or Texas. Any oysters left on the trucks would go back with them.
"You won't find that arrangement very often," Long says.
Kathy Britzius, executive director of the association, says Long means everything to the festival.
"He finds out where the oysters are, what the price is and he lines up the trucks. He sort of orchestrates the whole thing. Dan is wonderful, part of our family."
As to the question that comes up every year, why not our salty local oysters?
To obtain the quantity needed would be a logistical nightmare, Long explains. Since only one oyster company remains in South Carolina, "you would have to go to every oyster company from Beaufort to North Carolina," and that would shut down retail sales.
A purposeful life
Long, 53, got into the fish and seafood business somewhat by serendipity in the early 1980s. But the seed was likely sown after his father, a Navy submariner, retired and moved the family to Seccessionville Acres when Long was 6 years old.
He and his pals enjoyed a fearless Huck Finn kind of existence, traipsing through creeks and exploring the landscape. They found bayonets, buttons and musket balls from the Civil War.
But the biggest find was a cannonball lying on the bed of a neighborhood lake. He felt it underwater with his feet first, and knew it was something big.
Somehow, they rolled it into a trash can and dragged it through the water and onto the bank. Then Long took the new "toy" home -- a 250-pound Civil War munition.
After playing with it for awhile -- his older brother and his friends were dropping it onto the sidewalk -- the bomb squad came to check it out. "Yep, it's alive," the experts said, and took it away to blow it up.
"The only thing I can say from that point on in life is, I had a purpose. Otherwise I'd be toast," Long says with a chuckle.
Long left James Island High School before graduation but did get his GED. At 16, he already was framing houses on Kiawah Island.
Wanting more, he joined the Air Force Reserve, went to tech school and became a jet engine mechanic at age 19, working on C-141 military cargo planes at Charleston Air Force Base. Over the next five years, Long went on to work on attack jets at the New Orleans Naval Air Station, learned how to be a pipefitter and was working on an oil rig in Galveston, Texas, by 1982.
Then he hit the road for a awhile, working pipefitting jobs from Jacksonville to Norfolk and living in hotel rooms. Finally, he ended up back in Charleston, where he started hanging out on his friend's shrimp boat and lending a helping hand.
One day, the manager of Crosby's offered him a job as a deckhand -- a $600-a-week pay cut from pipefitting. But Long, a self-described workalcoholic, took it anyway.
A bond was made, and Long began moving up the ranks, eventually into management.
"In a way, I've treated this business as my own, and I think the Crosby family recognized that," he says. "That's why I'm still here."
His boss and mentor, Bill Aldret, commends Long's work ethic. "He's very smart and dedicated. He's the backbone of Crosby's. ... There's very few like that anymore."
Long has seen a lot of changes in the industry in 25 years. The biggest factor has been the increase in regulations, which he sees mostly as harmful. Some make no sense to him.
Such as governing the size of certain species, so that the larger fish can be kept while smaller ones have to be thrown back, supposedly to encourage spawning. Long sees that as double-edged sword.
He reasons that larger fish are going to have larger roe sacks and a higher survivability rate in the wild, partly because of fewer predators. Smaller fish produce much less roe and often don't survive being thrown back.
"Killing off the spawners and throwing the babies back, you're killing both ends of the chain. If you were using the smaller fish for food protein, the larger fish would always be there to reproduce."
He's also witnessing a change in consumption, led by restaurant chefs who have had to adapt to using bycatch -- aka "trash" fish in the old days -- such as triggerfish, amberjack and yellowtails. "Nobody would've touched those 10 years ago," Long says.
Government has done some good things, Long says, such as outlawing trawling on reef fish. But they should find ways to help fishermen, not put them out of business, he says.
"The more the government regulates us, the more they drive the prices up. ... People think seafood is expensive. When it comes down to commercial production, that's really expensive."
Because of his long weeks, Long must define quality time carefully. For him, it's his wife and 13-year-old son, Danny, an honor-roll student at C.E. Williams. The household includes three cats and five German shepherds, which they breed under the kennel name Von Doran's. He's also active in Coastal Community Church.
Tracy Long says her husband is driven by work, but mostly by God. "He's very spiritual. Basicially, he uses the Bible as a guideline in our lives. Our belief is that you witness through the way you live."
A half-day off might find Long fishing with his son or taking a ride on his speedy 21-foot pleasure boat.
With the family on board, he cruises. By himself, he likes to go full throttle, up to 80 mph. It's another side of being driven. "I like the adrenaline to flow. I've always been that way."