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One on One: Joe Harmon

Co-owner, Joe's Fish Market

Joe Harmon, Co-owner, Joe's Fish Market, Charleston,
    W.Va.
By Fiona Robinson
October 01, 2006

Seafood retailer Joe Harmon has been in business in Charleston, W.Va., for 25 years and has hit more than his fair share of bumps along the way. In 1981 he went to work at General Seafood, which fell victim to arsonists in 1997. The second General Seafood, in which Harmon was a partner, was situated on a barge and went bankrupt in 2002.

Harmon is hoping that a lot of hard work and perseverance will make the current business, Joe's Fish Market, a third-time charm. Harmon and his brother, Robin, opened the market in 2004 in an abandoned convenience store in the middle of downtown Charleston.

The Harmon brothers have their work cut out for them: Charleston, with a population of slightly more than 50,000, is not a coastal seafood Mecca. It's a three-man operation with Joe, Robin and one part-time person. The store is open five days from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and weekly sales average $7,500.

I spoke with Joe Harmon on a Monday (one of his days off) in early September to see how the store is doing.

 

Robinson: How did you 
get into seafood?

 

Harmon: I was working in a bank and got laid off. I started part time for a friend who owned General Seafood, and my brother did as well. We liked it - it was a big change - and we stuck with it.

 

What was your first 
seafood business?

[Robin and I] worked at the first General Seafood for 17 years. It was in an old warehouse with a restaurant and retail market combined. It was no frills - meals were served on paper plates - but it had a cult following. Arsonists burned the building down.

 

What was the next business 
venture?

After the fire we bought a barge [with the original owner of General Seafood] and refurbished it for another General Seafood market and restaurant, but we bit off more than we could chew. It started off inexpensive and wound up being a $600,000 project. We went from a $1,000-a-month lease [at the warehouse] to $6,000 with the barge. That was an eye-opener. We went bankrupt in two years. It was a horrible experience.

What kind of problems did you run into with the barge-based 
business?

It was built in the late 1920s and was pushed [on the Kanawha River] from town to town with musical bands. It was a cool old boat. We started looking into what it would take to fix it up. We found that, when you build on water, you run into problems. There were close to 20 windows, but none were the same size. So installing insulated glass meant each one had to be custom made.

That was just one thing. We also had to hook up into the city sewer. We had an air-conditioning system that was supposed to take water in from the river and hook into the heating system, but it never really worked.

 

What seafood products do you

carry at Joe's Fish Market?

We try to get a big variety of products for our small area. We carry 15 different varieties of seafood. We have vendors that drive through a few times each week. Before it was all air shipping, and our freight was constantly bumped. Now we have trucks coming through, which helps with inventory. We order almost daily, which gives us a steady supply. We smoke our own Arctic char, salmon and trout weekly.

 

What is your most popular

retail item?

Yugoslavian fish stew; my brother created it 20 years ago. It's a spicy, tomato-based, hot seafood soup. We sell gallons of it [every week]. It's sort of like a bouillabaisse. It's enormously popular around here.

Seafood-product wise, it would be wild and farmed salmon. We also sell a lot of scallops. Most people are just familiar with processed [scallops]; when they try the real thing, they're hooked on it.

 

Who do you buy from?

Stavis in Boston, through Sysco Cincinnati, and Poseidon Seafoods in Charlotte, N.C. They have regional offices; our representative is in Bristol, Tenn.

 

What is your biggest challenge

in making the seafood market

a success?

Seafood is expensive, and this state is somewhat depressed. It's hard to make what you need to make just selling seafood. Our margins are tight. We mark everything up as much as we can - about 50 percent. It's hard to sell Chilean sea bass for $20 plus a pound, but we do. After you pay all the bills, there's not much left over.

We're looking for other areas to pad our profits. We're putting a new kitchen in now, and soon we will start doing carryout lunches, including fish tacos and sandwiches, stews and salads. The kitchen has a six-burner stove, ovens and a fryer.

Robin comes in at 4 a.m. and makes all the soups and salads. We sell a lot of twice-baked potatoes. Fish is something you can cook in 10 minutes, and if [customers] have something else to go with dinner, that makes it easier [for them].

 

What is your customers' 
biggest concern?

[They're most concerned with] quality - a lot of [seafood] is really expensive. We've always tried to get the very best seafood we could get. We never use processed scallops. Customers are pretty loyal when you educate them.

 

Do you have any competitors?

Our only competition is with grocery stores. We have a personal relationship with our customers that [supermarkets] have difficulty establishing. Our customers are our friends. They come and go off and on over the course of the day, sometimes buying something, sometimes not. They frequently come in and help themselves to a hot cup of coffee or a cold drink. They come behind the counter and watch 10 to 15 minutes of a baseball game or news program and talk about sports or politics or their families or our families.

My brother compares our store to Floyd's Barbershop on the old Andy Griffith show. The most satisfying comments from our customers are those that tell us that we simply make Charleston a better place to live.

 

Do your customers ask about farmed vs. wild seafood?

Yes, we get a lot of concerns about wild and domestic [seafood]. I recommend the farmed salmon. Sometimes the wild is good, and sometimes it's not good at all. You can read 100 different articles and get 100 different opinions [on wild vs. farmed product].

We had Copper River sockeyes and kings, and they were great, but [the quality] still varies somewhat. Farmed salmon is always good. I like the Canadian product; we carry that primarily.

 

What do you like best about 
being a seafood retailer?

I like the interaction with the customers, and I like to eat. I try everything that comes in the door. I eat a lot of salmon; I love scallops. We eat a lot of catfish; it's inexpensive and a great fish.

 

What would you change 
if you could?

I wish I had more money to put into [the market]; otherwise I like it [the way it is]. The building was a dump, and we totally changed it around. We buy things as we can afford them. We scavenge for used equipment; we never have enough money to buy new. I can't drive a nail, but I have friends who can do wiring and plumbing.

 

What advice would you give to someone opening a similar-size seafood store?

Don't go into it poor. It always helps to be well capitalized before you start. Something expensive is going to break, and there will be slow times [when it's helpful to] have a cash reserve.

 

What do you do in your 
spare time?

I like to hunt and fish [West Virginia is] a very rural state; I can drive 15 minutes and be in the middle of nowhere. [Robin and I] go bird hunting and fishing.

 

Editor Fiona Robinson can be 
e-mailed at frobinson@divcom.com

 

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