The fish story grows, and grows
This November, I’m getting married. I wish I could say the man I’ve chosen has eyes only for me, but that simply isn’t true. He has a serious thing for fish.
I don’t mean he likes a good fillet of cod every once in a while, cooked down in a little bit of olive oil and white wine with fresh tomatoes and spinach. That would be perfectly benign. No, he lives and breathes fish—grabbing chunks of raw tuna, holding them up to his nose, and breathing them in with a big, contented sniff. “Doesn’t it smell amazing?” he’ll say.
Our home is like one big swooning ode to fish: a hand-carved replica of his first bass hangs on the dining room wall. We have fish plates and fish serving bowls, fishing maps and books about sushi and lobster mating habits lying around. The laundry pile smells like a seafood market, and the washing machine is routinely clogged with things like bass scales and lobster shells. He even stores kindling in fish totes.
If you’ve been nosing around these pages for a while, you’ve probably met my fiancé. He’s Alex Hay of Mac’s Seafood; Teresa Parker featured him and his brother, Mac Hay, in an article titled “A Fish Story” that ran back in the spring of 2005. It told the story of how they grew up fishing with their grandfather, and how when they were only 15 and 19, respectively, they managed to turn their passion for the catch into a job. They opened a fish market on the Wellfleet Town Pier in 1995, and it’s been a torrid affair ever since. In the past few years since we met, though, things have really gotten out of hand. When Teresa told the brothers’ story, Mac’s Seafood on the pier had already grown from a simple fish market to include an upscale clam-shack serving take-out and ice cream cones, and the brothers had opened up another market fish in Truro Center. And in the four years since, they’ve opened a fine-dining and sushi establishment called Mac’s Shack on Commercial Street in Wellfleet; opened a satellite seafood stand in the Wellfleet Marketplace (though this has since closed); brought their cousin Sam Bradford on board as Chief Financial Officer; and built their first real office space, which they jokingly refer to as “Corporate Headquarters.” (I have an office across the hall, and Mac’s wife Traci runs an art gallery downstairs, so it’s hard to take them too seriously.)
This spring, they’re getting ready to throw open the doors at another fish market on the corner of Brackett Road and Route 6 in Eastham. All told, they’ll probably have over 150 full- and part-time employees on the books. It takes them all winter just to get ready for three crazy months.
The impressive thing is that despite all this growth, Alex and Mac (and Sam too, these days) have managed to stay friends. They’re in a band together (Alex drums, Mac plays guitar, and Sam sings). At least once a week, they cook together, and on Sundays, the whole family still goes to dinner at their grandmother’s house in Sandwich (at least in the off-season). This year, Mac even built a house right through the woods from us—“a nine iron away,” they say. If you ask Alex how they make it work, he’ll just shrug. “Business is business and family is family,” he says.
They’ve also managed to keep their original family values when it comes to fish. Their grandmother and grandfather taught them to eat right out of the bay as kids, and the idea has stuck with them even as they’ve grown. “I think we’ve taken it for granted that we’ve always bought locally,” Mac tells me. (Yes, I made them sit down for a very official interview.) “Our chowder—the clams are almost always Wellfleet clams. They have to get processed in New Bedford and shipped back, but still, most places aren’t making their chowder this way.”
Almost all of the seafood they sell comes from within a 100-mile radius (organic-fed, farm-raised Scottish salmon and Canadian halibut being the two big exceptions) and most products come from Wellfleet waters. “We can get littlenecks, oysters, sea scallops, bay scallops, lobsters, striped bass, bluefish, flounder, sea clams, dogfish, conch, tuna, all from within five miles,” says Mac. Alex interrupts.
“We are in one of the world’s premier fishing grounds,” he says. “We get first dibs.”
Managing fish quality is Alex’s department, and while that once meant heading out for the morning with his grandfather to catch stripers, these days it means a lot more talking on the phone. He’s still getting the same quality fish, but it’s a rare day he gets to catch any himself.
Staying on top of fish quality is key, but that alone doesn’t explain the brothers’ success. They’ve also kept their products affordable, in a way that many local foods are not. Part of this has to do with buying power; as they’ve grown into a bigger company, they’re able to guarantee a market for fishermen and negotiate a better price. But keeping a good price point also has to do with making the most of what they buy.
Take cod, for example. They buy the best (most expensive) cod available— usually local, line-hooked, day-boat caught—and they buy it whole. They cut the fish themselves, setting aside the carcasses for
making stock to use in sauces and soups. The choice cuts of fish— the fillets—they sell in their markets, fresh to customers looking for that night’s dinner. Any small pieces that don’t make the display case can be fried up and used in a codfish burrito or quesadilla or a batch of Jamaican fish tea for lunch at the Pier. The next day, whatever fillets don’t sell in the market are delivered to their restaurant kitchens, where they end up grilled for fish sandwiches or fried up to top a plate of fish n’ chips.
By organizing their menus around what they sell in their markets, the brothers ensure that there is no wasted fish (and no wasted money, either). As Mac puts it, “How does large capacity enable higher quality and lower prices? It’s really a volume thing: by having multiple items for sale, and distributing them in ways that add value.”
The reason most places don’t deal with fish this way is because it’s a lot of work. First off, there’s the paperwork. In order to legally store and process raw seafood, you have to have a HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) certified facility. This is essentially the government’s way of monitoring temperature consistency and cleanliness. “The program started in 1994, but it wasn’t really enforced until the late ‘90s,” explains Mac. “At our market—which was on the pier—they weren’t going to continue to allow us to buy direct from people coming off the pier. Fishermen would have to go to a HACCP facility, turn the product around and bring it back to us, which is pathetic.”
Rather than start buying from someone else, the brothers decided to open their own HACCP-certified facility in Truro. (That was 2004, we think, though there was quite a bit of discussion on this.) Not only was it another fish market, but it also enabled them to start selling wholesale to other restaurants.
This turned out to be huge. For starters, acting as a wholesaler keeps the middleman in the company, which is good for the bottom line. But it’s also important for keeping quality consistent, as Alex points out. “Truro enables us to keep the supply going, so that in July and August when things get really tight, we have 20 or 30 oystermen lined up, we’re not at the whim of any one guy who’s having a bad year.”
“And if you get the supply from a wholesaler,” adds Mac, “you might not be getting Wellfleet oysters. They might be bringing you Duxbury’s. There’s no question that Truro has given us a huge advantage in terms of the quality we can offer at our restaurants.”
With a HACCP facility and a primary purchasing network in place, next comes the work of dealing with the raw product. Buying whole fish rather than fillets, clams in the shell rather than shucked, and lobsters rather than pulled meat makes is ultimately more economical, but it does means more labor. Last year, Alex personally cut about seventy-five percent of all the fish the company sold. Striped bass purchases alone totaled over 12,000 pounds, and towards the end of August, he had a bum shoulder to prove it.
All this growth hasn’t been entirely comfortable for either brother. For starters, they rarely get to go fishing any more, which is why they got into the business in the first place. Then there’s the whole idea of professionalism. As Mac puts it, “We’ve had to develop concepts like policy. We never wanted to become that corporate.”
They struggle with the “corporate” issue all the time—after all, when you start a business as teenagers, it’s hard to let go of the Peter Pan mentality that accompanied those first few years. “We want to keep a large business feeling and act like a small mom and pop operation,” says Alex, “but that’s hard.” The hardest part, they both agree, is employee management, particularly in a place as seasonal as the Cape. A good percentage of their employees are young and transient, and the most lasting workforce they had—a group of Jamaicans who came every summer for almost a decade—hasn’t been allowed back into the country for two seasons now because of changes in immigration laws. Having to retrain most of their workforce year after year is exhausting.
Just the idea of having so many employees tires them out some days. “There’s a lot more responsibility now to lead by example and set a good one,” says Alex. “There used to be a button on the cash register that would send a ticket to the kitchen: ‘Get me a beer.’ We’ve had to get rid of things like that.”
So with three fish markets and two restaurants, what’s next? “Right now we’re working with two companies in Maine to smoke our fish and make patés and stuffed clams and clam pies in an FDA-approved facility,” Alex says. They can sell fish smoked on-site and patés made on-site in their own stores, but they’d like to sell them in other markets as well.
To do that legally, they have to farm it out. Otherwise, they’d have to get a wholesale food license and a smoking permit, and build yet another HACCP-certified facility intended for smoking fish and making prepared foods (the FDA likes to keep raw and prepared foods separate), which would mean spending about a quarter million dollars they don’t have.
If this seems like a lot of unnecessary shipping, I agree, but there really isn’t any legal way around it. One day, they hope to have the capacity to build these facilities on the Cape, maybe even in a cooperative way so that other companies could use them, too. But for now, that dream is still a few years off.
At this pace, who knows; I might wake up to find they have it up and running by next week.
Elspeth Pierson is the creator of the Local Food Report, a weekly radio show with the Cape and Islands NPR station exploring the edible resources of our area. She also writes a daily blog about food, www.diaryofalocavore.com, and works as a freelance writer for a variety of New England publications. She lives in Wellfleet with her fiancé and their very hungry dog, Fisher.