Family feuds over future of 122-year-old business
Published 7:07 am Saturday, April 27, 2019
Sons Seafood — believed to be the oldest seafood business in Mississippi — rebuilt after three hurricanes and a fire, but will it survive a family feud that is breaking Biloxi’s heart?
The Desportes have always known how to make customers smile. The family is almost as big a draw as the fresh seafood they have sold for more than 122 years at their deli and retail shop on Division Street and wholesale to casinos, hotels and restaurants.
“Our crawfish are so good, you have to kiss your mother-in-law to get the taste out of your mouth,” Emile “Junie” Desporte III loved to tell customers.
He’s gone now, as are his father, “Junior” Desporte and eldest son “Little Junie.” All three worked until their deaths.
So imagine employee Kathy Juanico’s shock when Artie Desporte, Junie’s brother, posted a sign on the door April 8 that said, “Closed until further notice.”
Artie Desporte’s wife of a little more than three years, Becky, was behind the register when the business reopened in mid-April.
She later said that she and the employees had gathered in a prayer circle in front of the business before they opened.
Her husband was in court that morning, fighting over the business with his co-owner, Junie’s son Sean.
Artie and Sean were once close, as evidenced by a photograph on the wall at the shop.
They are grinning bookends for Junior, known as Papaw in later years, holding up a big redfish in the center.
Today, Artie and Sean do not speak, even when business is at stake, testimony at the daylong hearing revealed Tuesday.
They do not trust one another with Desporte assets and can monitor each other’s movements with in-shop cameras. One camera is trained on the cash register.
Judge Jennifer Schloegel is refereeing the dispute. As judges tend to do, she succinctly summed up what is at stake: Desporte & Sons.
Biloxi would be loathe to see it go.
“It is a friendly, community-oriented business and it’s a shame it’s come down to this,” said Morris Handler of Biloxi, a lifelong friend of the family.
“They’ve done a lot of great things in the community — both of them, the whole family. The Desporte family has always helped in any benefit I’ve been associated with.”
Their seafood dishes are prominently featured at festivals and they have supplied fish — free or at cost — for countless benefits.
Everyone is distressed that Artie Desporte and his nephew are at odds. Nobody knows how to close the breach, short of one side buying the other out or dissolving the business.
Artie told the Sun Herald on Wednesday that he wants to sell his share of the business but is not being offered a fair price.
Schloegel said she was acting to preserve Desporte Seafood, while there is still a business to preserve. For the time being, she ordered Artie and Becky Desporte out of the retail shop and told Sean Desporte that he could manage the entire operation, as he had been doing before his uncle sued him in June 2018.
Under a previously agreed court order, Sean had been running only the wholesale side.
The judge also appointed longtime Desporte manager Frank Menna as temporary custodian to oversee the company’s finances and operations. He is the only Desporte employee, besides Sean, who knows how to run the entire operation, testimony showed.
“Time is of the essence now,” Schloegel said. “This has gone on way too long.”
Sean Desporte and his mother, Angie, were anxious to get back into the shop for the last days of Lent, one of the busiest times of year.
But Artie and Becky Desporte showed up first. They said they needed to clean and understood the court order would not be in force for 48 hours.
So, Angie Desporte said, she and some of the employees sipped coffee at a shop downtown until Artie and Becky left.
When they arrived a couple of hours behind schedule, Sean, Angie, Menna and the employees got to work. They shoveled ice into the retail bins, and laid out an enticing display of crabs, shrimp and fish.
Coffee perked in the deli.
“I’ve never been so happy to go back to work in my life,” Angie Desporte said.
“It’s all about the business and making the customers happy,” said cook Pam Guidry, whose son works as a delivery driver.
She cares about both Artie and Sean, as do most friends of the family.
“They’re like family,” Guidry said. “They’ll do anything for anybody.”
Artie Desporte v. Sean Desporte is set for trial July 17, at which time a full forensic accounting of business assets should be available. Menna will serve as custodian until that time, if he is willing.
If not and neither Artie nor Sean is willing to sell his share of the business to the other, Schloegel said she will appoint a receiver to oversee the sale of the business.
Nobody wants to see the business close.
“I’m devoted to this business,” Juanico said. “We are going to survive.”