« October 2006 Table of Contents
One on One: Joe Harmon
Co-owner, Joe's Fish Market
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
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
[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
What was the next business
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
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
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
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
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'
[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.
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
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
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
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