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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Fish tricks


Photography by Andrew Sherman

Joe and Sam Roman and Nathan King are three childhood friends who have built a diversified seafood business in the Wilmington area. King has a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech, while the Romanos gained their degrees at UNC Wilmington. In 2005, they started a business with 50 crab pots, a pickup truck and a hand-painted sign. Now the annual payroll tops $2 million as more than 50 regional restaurants rely on their products and the company operates seven local retail markets.

The pandemic knocked out the wholesale business when restaurants shut down but retail demand increased immensely, King says. In early 2020, Seaview opened a deli to sell fresh prepared seafood at their midtown Wilmington market. The period “reinforced how essential the retail food business is and more specifically, how important our local food supply chain is.” Noting that all stakeholders are important, King emphasizes that “we put our team first. If our team is taken care of well, our customers, vendors and the community will follow in the same path. The fish market allows for often-timid youngsters to interact with all types of people. While the work can be challenging, it is certainly rewarding.

Comments are edited for length and clarity.

How did you meet?  

We grew up in the same neighborhood in Virginia Beach. Sam and I have been friends since elementary school. His brother, Joe, is four years older. We grew up teaming up on odd jobs like yard work, so we developed a good working relationship before leaving for college.      

Was the business profitable during its first three years, before buying a fish market? 

We were in our 20s, we shared a residence, got a small allowance and put all profits into growing the business. We did not put anything in our pockets but the company was able to move forward. It was more like a hustle at that time.

When did you realize it could be a much bigger company? 

At the very beginning, we were solely selling our crabs to local markets and restaurants. After a year or two of wrestling with selling at a wholesale level, we set up a 10’ by 10’ tent and a “Blue Crab” sign on the side of Carolina Beach Road. This allowed us to connect directly with the end customer and sell our catch for retail prices. We only had crabs to sell but it allowed us to see and feel the healthy demand for locally sourced seafood. Once we added shrimp to the roadside pop-up market, the opportunity and vision came together.     

What is the most fun part of the work for you? 

I enjoy seeing a thought or idea manifest itself into something real. With seafood, the work involved can be challenging and fatiguing. After it is all said and done, and we have something to show, it’s very rewarding. I enjoy the camaraderie with our team. 

What is most challenging?

Training. Seafood has so many nuances and small idiosyncrasies, it’s hard to fit everything into a traditional training manual. Experience is the best teacher.        

You figured out digital marketing early on — how did that happen?

When we were on the side of the road, we received a healthy tip to start collecting email addresses from our customers. It led us to starting our weekly seafood update that we publish every Friday. It became part of our pitch and way to keep in touch with our clients, highlighting our offerings and telling a seafood story of the week. We have been consistent with the Weekly Seafood Update since 2008. Facebook, Instagram and Shopify have slowly and organically been worked into the mix.    

How seasonal is the business?

Very seasonal. The summer is obviously the most busy. The holidays are very busy, as well. We slim down after the new year. We start building the team back up in April and May. During the slower months, we try to keep our willing team members working with growth projects and facility maintenance and improvements. Many team members enjoy doing something other than regular seafood operations.       

After strong growth in 2021, how is 2022 progressing?

We certainly feel the economy slowing down. There is always a fine line to walk with growing and keeping good standards and consistency. At this point we are more interested in efficiency, organization and structure as opposed to adding other revenue streams. We have some exciting growth plans for the Spout Springs Market near Fort Bragg. Also, we have just purchased a food trailer and are excited to put that to work.    

Does the company still source seafood on its own? 

We produce crabs, clams and oysters with our own boats and licenses but the great majority of what we sell is from other fishermen, dockside fish houses and dealers. Sam leads up our production side. We have approximately 200 crab pots in the Masonboro Sound and leases in the Stump Sound area that allow us to cultivate shellfish.  

Do you wholesale fish outside of N.C. waters? 

We look to fill as much demand with North Carolina products as possible. For those that North Carolina does not produce, such as scallops, lobsters, crab legs and salmon, we rely on supply from other areas.    

Why did you want to enter the restaurant business? 

It is where the seafood can come to life. In the seafood industry, research shows that about two-thirds of all seafood consumed is prepared for diners. The other third is cooked at home. The concept of having a kitchen adjacent to the fresh market was very appealing. It also allows for our team to try seafood that they are selling without them having to cook it themselves. The smell of freshly fried shrimp and seasoned steamed crabs certainly helps with the often stronger smell of raw seafood. The commercial kitchen also allows us to create dips and spreads, seafood cakes, soups and more to sell at our other locations or other businesses.     

What has been your best business decision?

Our reinvestment of capital year after year.  

What decision do you most regret?

Most poor choices have come back around as valuable lessons. Starting small and growing into things has always helped hedge our bets and reduce the risk. Perhaps this approach has held us back at times but growing too quickly can be dangerous in its
own light.

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David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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