Seafood fresh off the truck, rain or shine

Posted April 05, 2009, at 8:15 p.m.

THOMASTON, Maine — Rain or shine, each morning Alvin Dennison drives his customized pickup truck to his turnout off Route 1 in Thomaston and arranges the red, white and blue signs that advertise his wares.

Lobster, fresh mussels, clams. Shrimp meat, scallops, haddock.

Selling seafood from a truck on the side of the road is no way to get rich, especially this year, Dennison said, but it’s a living.

“If I work every day, I can still scrape out a dollar,” the white-bearded Owls Head man said Friday. “I’m going to do this as long as I can stand here and shoot the breeze. I might have my wife push me around, but I’ll be here.”

Traffic whooshed by on the rainy road as Dennison, 61, weighed clams and bagged lobsters for his intermittent customers. They pulled over despite the dreary weather and made cheerful small talk as they paid him in cash.

“It’s the best and the freshest seafood on the midcoast,” said Don Gjertsen of South Thomaston, who has shopped at Dennison’s truck for five years.

That truck, officially a licensed mobile vendor with the state of Maine, has been parked at the turnoff on Dragon Cement land for much longer. Dennison first set up shop there in 1993, a few years after the closure of his longtime employer, National Sea Products in Rockland.

The Vietnam veteran is a fixture on the coast with regular customers and an inimitable sense of style. Weathered American flags dot the turnoff, and there is room in the jumble of patriotic seafood price lists for a hand-painted POW-MIA sign. “You are not forgotten,” it reads, in stark white on black.

Dennison was drafted and served as a supply clerk with the Army’s 1st Logistical Command.

“I came home from Nam in ’69,” Dennison said. “If I had known then what I know now, I would have been here in ’69. You can’t get a better job. I get to talk to everybody.”

In fact, he enjoys his work so much that he said he has encouraged several other people to get into the business. Dennison is happy to share some trade secrets.

“I’m a good gabber,” he said. “Being a veteran helps a lot, too.”

Dennison figures most of the area veterans have stopped by his truck. Generating a regular clientele helps keep him in clams — of both the literal and figurative varieties — as does the fact that his business has low overhead.

Most of his products come from Maine Shellfish Co., which delivers right to the truck, and he hardly buys anything straight from the fishermen. Dennison keeps his markup around 25 percent, he said, lower than it is at most stores.

It’s not easy money.

“A lot of days you don’t gross $100,” he said. “I might make $25 or $30, depending on what sold. To make a living like I do, you have to work seven days a week.”

There are plenty of slow hours, which he fills in the cab of the red Dodge Ram by listening to talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh. While 99 percent of his clientele know his politics, he doesn’t put up signs in election years.

“Nope. I don’t want to kill my business,” Dennison said.

When asked about his best day at the truck, he remembered a New Year’s Eve several years ago when customers lined up for hours in the rain, chatting together as they waited for their orders.

But then Dennison smiled behind his beard.

“I figure every day is the best day,” he said. “I’m up, I’m alive, I’ve got my health.”

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