The American Dream is defined as follows: the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative. The Mavar Shrimp and Oyster Company of Biloxi, Mississippi may be a perfect example of the American Dream realized.
With the equivalent of a fourth-grade education, John Mavar immigrated to the US from his birthplace of Molat, Austria-Hungary (now known as Croatia) in 1899 at the age of 19. After a few years, he arrived in Biloxi and worked as a crewman on fishing schooners during the early 20th century boom of Biloxi’s burgeoning seafood industry. He met and married Olivia Skrmetta, another immigrant from the first Slavonian family to immigrate to Biloxi. She was no stranger to hard seafood work; she’d been working Biloxi’s factories since childhood. The couple would eventually become parents to six children: four sons and two daughters.
Mavar became a boat captain, but immediately realized that he’d be more successful and prosperous if he could purchase his own schooner. In those very early years, the young Mavar family could not come by the necessary funds to make such a purchase. Olivia continued to work the factories and by sometime near 1926, she proved to be an excellent money manager by saving enough out of their modest wages to purchase a schooner. This purchase proved to be the first step in an epic journey to success beyond imagination for the Mavars of Biloxi.
Not long after the purchase of the first schooner, John was able to open a small seafood processing business on a parcel of land between Maple and Oak Streets. He would buy fish from local fisherman and sell the fish to local restaurants and hotels in neighboring cities. As each of their four sons completed school, they came to work in the business. They started buying shrimp and oysters from local vessels and sold the products as far away as New York City. The products were delivered by railway express, iced in barrels. Thus, the birth of Mavar Shrimp & Oyster Company.
The 1930s saw the beginning of a small canning plant to produce canned shrimp and oysters. Sales grew over the years and reached throughout the country making the canning operation one of the largest in the industry. The 30s also gave rise to Mavar Boat Company which produced wooden commercial fishing vessels for its own use. By the late 1960s, the Mavars had accumulated a fleet of 43 vessels. The 70s saw the boat company producing steel fishing vessels for its own use.
As a side venture, in 1958, the family company manufactured canned cat food under the Kozy Kitten label. The product was produced from the small “trash” fish that collected in the fishing nets. Sales of the cat food were very successful and by 1988, H.J. Heinz Company bought the entire operation.
Self-discipline, ingenuity and plain hard work allowed the Mavars to see a dream through to fruition and the emergence of one of the most successful seafood dynasties in the southeastern United States.