When Jermaine Owens was 12 years old, he remembers watching his father Thomas Reed, hard at work processing fresh fish at Cooper’s, a local retail fish store on Carpenter Street in Greenport. The young Owens would see the boats come in and dump their catch, and then watch as his father, a professional fish cutter, would apply his skill. In those early days, the seed of a vision was planted, one bloomed at an unlikely time — in the middle of a global pandemic.
In February, Owens realized his dream of starting his own business, creating North Fork Seafood LLC, a full-service seafood company that sells fish to several commercial customers and restaurants and also offers home delivery for individuals and families.
Starting a business at the height of the coronavirus lockdown might seem like a risk, but in many ways, it was perfect timing for Owens, a Peconic resident who was born in Riverhead and spent his childhood growing up in Greenport. Before launching North Fork Seafood, Owens worked for Cor-J Seafood in Hampton Bays as a professional fish cutter, an industry he’d been employed in for 30 years, he said. Starting his own seafood business was on his mind, but COVID-19 accelerated his plan.
“We’ve actually grown in the wake of COVID,” he said. “Something beautiful was born through this.”
Owens’s business grew faster than even he anticipated. On July 3, he opened Shelter Island Seafood, a new fish market operating out of the former Bob’s Fish Market building at 87 North Ferry Road. After adding a retail arm to his wholesale enterprise, Owens completed the business trifecta on the first weekend in August by opening a restaurant in the space. Customers can now come to Shelter Island Seafood to buy fish at the market or enjoy seafood-based menu offerings created by chef Tim Coughlin. Owens’s brother, Paul Parks, works alongside Coughlin in the kitchen.
Owens and his girlfriend, Danielle Cullen—his “soulmate and business partner”—spent nearly all of July renovating the space. He said she consistently encouraged him to pursue his dream and is an integral part of the operation, helping to organize the delivery schedule and handling other important aspects of the business. He also credited her with seeing past the rough looking exterior of their new retail space, saying she had “the vision” of what it would be before they did much needed upgrades.
Owens knows it’s tricky time to open a restaurant. Still, he said, “people have been swarming in”—particularly because some other restaurants on Shelter Island are closed or operating at limited capacity. There is plenty of outdoor seating on the nearly two-acre piece of property, and diners can call in orders ahead of time and have their food brought to their tables when they arrive.
Basing his operations on Shelter Island is a strategic move as well, Owens said. After months of trying to find the ideal location to process fish for his wholesale operation, bouncing around in different spots, he’s now able to run all three arms of his enterprise out of one space. The Shelter Island location is ideal for serving his customers on both the North and South Forks. Owens has also partnered with Ted and Kathy Bucci of Harbor Light Oyster Company, who sell the oysters they grow in Greenport out of Shelter Island Seafood.
Owens’ wealth of experience and knowledge make him perfectly suited to his work. Fishing was one of his favorite pastimes growing up, a skill he honed thanks to the guidance of his aunt, Diane Freeman, who took him fishing for the first time before he was 10. (He said his father had no interest in actually fishing.) Around the same time, he got his first job cleaning buckets on the fishing boat Brand X. He said he still has relationships with people he met on the boat as a youngster.
Being in tune with the tight-knit communities on the North Fork, and making so many connections in the fishing industry at such a young age, is now paying dividends for Owens.
“We’re directly connected to a lot of the local fishermen,” he said, emphasizing the freshness of his product: The fish is caught, cut and delivered on the same day. Ninety percent of the fish he sells both in the market and restaurant and to wholesale customers is sourced from fishermen on the North Fork, and the rest from Shinnecock and Montauk.
Referrals from customers have been a big driver of growth: One customer in Greenport referred him to another in Orient, and before he knew it, that referral led to a large network of home delivery customers in Orient. “When we drop fish off to people, they’re so appreciative,” he said. “They’ll send pictures and videos of their dinners, and always with a really nice text message saying how great it is.”
Owens gets glowing praise from commercial and residential customers. Samantha Payne-Markel runs the sales department for Grace and Grit, a full-service catering business in Southold that sources fish from North Fork Seafood. “You know it’s always fresh and local, and he fillets everything himself, so the quality of seafood you’re getting, it’s not just local but perfectly filleted,” she said.
Payne-Markel praised him for being diligent about following safety protocols for contactless delivery and making sure his customers feel comfortable. She said she’s particularly happy to support another local business, especially knowing the product is top notch.
“He is a master fisherman himself, and understands the quality of the fish,” she said. “We’re always trying to focus on staying local, and when someone is building a business, we want to support them any way we can.”
Like others in the restaurant and catering field, Payne-Markel said she’s experienced plenty of upheaval and uncertainty recently, but Owens has been a constant.
“It’s so refreshing when you have somebody you can count on that you can trust — and not only that, he’s the nicest guy,” she said. “He’s a great fisherman and a great friend, and that makes a big difference.”
Building trust is key for home delivery clients, too. Ned Baldwin has been living in his Orient home since March, after shutting down his restaurant, Houseman, in Lower Manhattan because of the virus. The noted chef and author heard about North Fork Seafood from a friend, and decided to give home delivery a try. He was impressed right away, and said that Owens put his mind at ease at a time when he, like many people, was very wary of going to the grocery store or even taking any kind of delivery at home.
“There was all this stress about transmitting the virus, and we were being really conservative about the way we were shopping for food,” Baldwin said. “My friend told me that there was a guy who delivers seafood, and I’ve always been a fan of the Southold Fish Market, because if they’re not catching it within 15 miles, they don’t have it, and I like that.”
After a few deliveries, Owens would reach out to let him know what he had, and he appreciated that initiative. He also appreciated how diligent Owens has been about wearing a mask and gloves and maintaining social distance. “It made me feel really safe eating his food,” he said.
There is another bonus for Baldwin. “I like to fish, so I pump him for info about what’s biting where,” he added with a laugh.
That kind of mutual trust and respect with customers is what is most important for Owens, who said he’s happy to be a bright spot in someone’s day in difficult times.
“It’s really important to me that our customers receive the freshest fish,” he said. “In these uncertain times, a lot of people don’t want to go out, so having something fresh that you know hasn’t been in stores on the shelves for a week or two, and knowing where it’s sourced from and that there are no middle men, I think it’s actually a sense of normalcy for some people.”
North Fork and Shelter Island Seafood is located at 87 North Ferry Road, Shelter Island. The market operates Mon-Tues 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and Thurs-Sat 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. (closed Wed). The restaurant is open Thurs-Mon, 12 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. (closed Tues-Wed). To order ahead call (631) 765-8181.