By: Paul Catala
Rick Gullett shuffles back and forth from one side of the stand to the other, knife in one hand, plate in another. As he chats with his wife with a southern lilt distinctively central Floridian, Rick banters with two Saturday customers in front of him. While Rick’s weekdays roll full-steam ahead, his weekends are always smokin’ hot.
A fifth-generation Manatee County native born 48 years ago in Bradenton, Rick is the master of the mullet, spending about 12 to 15 hours a week cooking and serving customers from Gulley’s, “Home of Mullet by Gullet.”
Tucked away off U.S. Hwy. 301 in Parrish – about 22 miles of south Riverview just over the Manatee County line – Gulley’s is off to the side of Brown’s Farmers’ Market and Swack Daddy’s BBQ Shack. The small food stand at 12255 U.S. Hwy. 301 offers what has been called the “biggest and best smoked mullet, fish tacos and smoked fish spread around!!!” via social media.
During a recent Saturday about 12:30 p.m., Rick and his wife and co-owner Deannah “Dea” Gullett cooked for and served a slow-but-steady stream of fish fans. As Ric pulled another trayful of simmering mullet filets from his 500-gallon smoker, Dea adds extras to mullet dinners, such as coleslaw, grits, homemade smoked mullet spread, crab rolls and a more nouveau and hipster-licious grouper, sheepshead and sand bream fish tacos and black beans.
Since opening in 2017, Rick and Dea have become known not only for their award-winning smoked mullet, homemade crab cakes and mullet spread, but also for their downhome “never-met-a-stranger” southern hospitality.
There’s only a two-day window to get some of that country courtesy: Gulley’s is only open Fridays and Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“It’s just a lot of fun. Where else can I hang out, smoke fish, have a little beer, meet some great people and hear their stories?” says Rick, taking a mullet filet off a cooking pan.
And that mullet filet along with the hundreds of others served each month from Gulley’s don’t come from a box or out of the freezer, they’re literally net income.
Rick’s fulltime income comes from the CSX Corporation, where he has spent 24 years as a train engineer transporting orange juice to Tropicana juice’s Bradenton processing plant. But one or two weekdays each week, starting about 2 p.m. after his work with CSX., Rick switches rail for water and heads out on his skiff onto the Manatee River or Terra Ceia Bay, mullet nets in hand. There, he hauls in what becomes about 90 percent of what ends up in the stomachs of Gulley’s customers.
“And we’re trying to get that last 10 percent,” Rick quips. “As long as I’m still with the railroad it’ll be two days. It’s too much to try to catch fish, smoke then and get them to the customers any more than that.”
Rick’s the line of mullet-catching skills can be followed back to his growing up days near Sarasota Bay, where he lived with his parents Ben and Allice Gullett, two brothers Ben and Mark and sister Betsy Johnson, all of whom now live in Bradenton. Ben taught his son how to catch mullet using nets and it wasn’t long before he was hooked.
“My dad would drop me off at 6 a.m. at the bay with a cooler full of water and come back and pick me up at 4 p.m. and we’d take the fish home. I smoked my first mullet when I was eight and my dad taught me how to smoke it in a 55-gallon drum. I’d sell them for $1 each to family and friends,” Rick says. “Dad always had cookouts every other weekend and we’d smoke or fry mullet, back when everyone here knew their neighbors.”
The great-great grandson of Manatee County’s first school superintendent, B.D. Gullett, Rick says it was in 2016 he and his wife began discussing building a restaurant to serve his mullet. However, without much experience in the restaurant industry, scrapped the permanent location idea and with $4,000, the couple bought a concession trailer with two refrigerators, a warmer, flattop counters and three sinks – Gulley’s was afloat.
With the fish he catches, Rick applies his “secret recipe” of salt, pepper and red pepper to each, which has won he and his wife cooking awards. With their recipe, the Gulletts have won “Best Smoked Mullet” six times in the annual Terra Ceia Mullet Smoke-Off, held each year the first weekend of November.
“We just take our time; it’s fresh and if you smoke it at just the right temperature, you get the perfect amount of fat and flavor. The fat makes the mullet taste better,” adds Rick. It’s not just the mullet that makes Gulley’s so popular, says Dea, 48, a native of Bethesda, Maryland, who grew up in Brandenton with her parents, John and Jane Showalter, sister, Theresa Crews and brothers Grant and Dean. Twice a month, the Gullets travel to Pine Island in Lee County to buy fresh crab meat for their crab cakes. The couple has also concocted their own apple cider, vinegar and mustard-based mullet sauce, which comes as a side.
Dinner’s at Gulley’s includes two sides and a drink and range in price from $10 for mullet, two sides and a drink to $3 for mini crab cake. Among the Gullets’ loyal customers who say they’re happy to pay the price for quality of meals and the good conversation are Parrish founder John Parrish, who stops by at once every two weeks for his fish fix and Mathew and Julia Crawford of Bradenton.
Sitting at a picnic table underneath a tree on the 5-acre property of Hoss Swackhammer – Swack Daddy’s owner and cook from whom the Gullets lease space – the Crawfords say they’ve munched on Gulley’s mullet since day one. Julia Crawford, a Brandenton native, says she has known Dea since they were 2 years old and grew up feasting on good smoked mullet.
“We make the trip here regularly. I have to have my mullet fix and the mullet and mullet dip here are the greatest,” she says, putting a cracker into the dip. “It’s really good and spicy and the way they put it together makes it stand out. I’ve had (mullet) and it’s not the same – theirs is perfect.”
Back in the Gulley’s portable kitchen, which the Gullets occasionally drive to other food festivals and events, Rick and Dea call out orders and serve three customers at the counter. Rick diverts himself back to the smoker, checks on some cooking filets, smiles and makes a confession.
“The real reason we started this is to get to spend some time together,” says Rick about his wife, a former Manatee County schools registrar who now works fulltime for Gulley’s. “It’s fun; we go out on the boat. We joke about…people who get so stressed out over life. We have a job where we can have some fun on a boat and at work. We just love it.”