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What's in Store: Grassroots growth

Brooklyn-based CSF turns to Kickstarter to fund traditional retail store

Bianca Piccillo and Mark Usewicz are not afraid to get their hands dirty.  - Photo courtesy of Mermaid’s Garden
By Christine Blank
November 01, 2013

After running a successful community supported fishery (CSF) and a seafood wholesale business for more than a year in Brooklyn, opening a seafood market seemed to be the next logical step for husband-and-wife team Mark Usewicz and Bianca Piccillo.

Plus, there is a strong demand for fresh seafood outlets in Brooklyn, Usewicz and Piccillo discovered. Soon after they moved to their Prospect Heights neighborhood seven years ago, they realized that there were not a lot of high-quality fish markets to be found. 

“We had to go to Manhattan to go get fish. The line at our local fish market was a half-hour long, and most of the fresh seafood would be sold out by the time we got off work at night,” Piccillo says.

After gauging interest from residents of their neighborhood, Usewicz and Piccillo formed a business plan and invested their own money to build the 1,400-square-foot Mermaid’s Garden fish market, slated to open this month in Prospect Heights. 

They also are trying to raise $15,000 through a Kickstarter fund to help with building and operating expenses. As of Oct. 7 the fund had reached $11,381 through 106 investors. 

While Usewicz and Piccillo have not operated a fish market previously, they are certainly not new to the seafood industry. In addition to the Mermaid’s Garden CSF and wholesale/consulting business, Piccillo was trained as a marine biologist. Then the foodservice industry called to both owners. Usewicz received his culinary training in Paris at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine, and then worked as an executive chef at top restaurants in New York and opened his own restaurant, The Independent, in Boston. 

Starting in the field at 16 years old, Piccillo worked as a server and manager at high-end restaurants for several years. “I was interested in fish from a culinary standpoint. That all came back to me when we were talking about opening a fish market,” Piccillo says.

The new Mermaid’s Garden store features around 450 square feet of retail space, a fully functioning commercial kitchen and an office/storage space. The open-air retail space in the front of the store will be the focal point. 

“You can see the people working and filleting fish. People really enjoy it, and I think you should have a connection to what is going on — to see the work that is involved in filleting a piece of fish. Americans are used to getting a sanitized piece of fish, so it is good to be cognizant of where their food comes from,” Piccillo says.

The 6-foot fresh seafood case will feature three to four whole fish daily, along with eight to 12 filleted fish and a variety of shellfish. The most important factor in the store’s product selection will be serving fish that is in season and is harvested by small boats.

The duo’s sourcing philosophy was developed by getting to know fishermen from Montauk, N.Y., New England, and other places around the country, via the Mermaid’s Garden CSF. Since the spring of 2012, the CSF has provided local seafood weekly. 

Starting with 80 members, it has quickly grown to more than 350. “Even though New Yorkers have a reputation for being discerning, people have been great with getting a different fish every week,” Piccillo says.

Piccillo and Usewicz plan to source solely from small boats, from all over the country. “It is really important to support small fishermen,” Piccillo says. “They have all these regulations — which will help the fisheries in the long run — but are really hard in the short term. Plus, if we don’t buy from them, we will not only lose jobs, but we stand to lose a part of our culture in our coastal communities.”

It is also essential to the founders that the seafood sold at Mermaid’s Garden is sustainable and traceable. “We can tell you who, where and how your fish was caught, because we think it’s important to know the path your fish takes from the ocean to your plate,” Piccillo and Usewicz wrote on the Kickstarter website. 

In addition to fresh seafood, Mermaid’s Garden will feature dry grocery products, prepared sides such as vegetable and grain salads and a selection of prepared seafood items. 

Despite the owners’ culinary backgrounds, Usewicz and Piccillo don’t plan to open a restaurant or café within the new store. However, its commercial kitchen will be utilized to make prepared seafood items and will also serve as the site of cooking classes that Usewicz will host.

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.


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