Fresh fish and a side of resilience: third generation seafood businesses in Seattle

100 Resilient Cities defines resilience as the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses or acute shocks they encounter.

Seattle’s fishing and seafood industry is most visible along the shoreline and in places like Fisherman’s Terminal, but includes businesses throughout the city. (Photo credit: Charlotte Dohrn)

 

Seafood restaurants, marinas, and maritime industry buildings occupy much of Seattle’s urban shoreline. In this story, we’ll leave the docks and travel inland to visit two seafood shops in my neighborhood, one very old and one new, to learn about how they’ve adapted to change.

It’s easy to miss the turn to Mutual Fish Co. – the traffic on Rainier Avenue South moves fast. Once inside, it’s hard to decide where to look first. Memorabilia from the store’s long history hangs on the walls, a large tank of shellfish takes up the middle of the store, and refrigerators and shelves of ingredients line the perimeter. Most of the fish – some familiar and some I’ve never heard of – is in a cold case under the tall counter, behind which staff are prepping orders, wearing rubber boots and aprons to keep them dry as they constantly spray down surfaces and repack ice. My mom used to pick up salmon for special summer meals here when I was a kid. I would watch, enthralled, as the workers expertly prepared the fish – from whole salmon to grill-ready fillet in a minute. 

Mutual Fish Co.’s exterior is unassuming compared to its reputation: famous chef Tom Douglas once said, “There are only a few constants in my world – family, the Dixie Chicks and Mutual Fish! While my relationship with the Yoshimura clan is old, their fish never is.” (Photo credit: Charlotte Dohrn)

 

Mutual Fish Co. has been in this building for over 50 years, supplying fresh fish to Seattle’s restaurants and residents all the while. A family-owned business, Dick Yoshimura started Mutual Fish in 1947 and moved to the current location in 1965. His son, Harry Yoshimura, and grandson Kevin Yoshimura, eventually took over. 

Inside Mutual Fish Co. – while you wait for your turn at the counter, you can peruse the iced cases of fish, crustaceans, and shellfish, pulled mostly from nearby waters and Alaska. (Photo credit: Charlotte Dohrn)

 

I caught up with Kevin Yoshimura just as the store was opening for the morning. We talked briefly about his family’s story and changes in the seafood industry. “A lot of people don’t know what good seafood is anymore, but on the other hand, many more people have the ability to get fresh seafood…. Now you can get fresh, Copper River King in the midwest, a few days after the season opens…..” 

Yoshimura also talked about the future. “Resilience is being able to bounce back…. Evolution is more what we’ve done. Because we’ve been around for so long, you have to evolve. I think resilience is what will happen over the next few years, around the country, how we get over being shut down for months on end.” 

Just up the road from Mutual Fish, in the heart of the Central District, is Seattle Fish Guys. When you walk in the door, you are greeted with a case of fresh fillets, marinating poke, and oysters ready to be shucked. Once full of café tables, the team has reorganized due to COVID-19, blocking off their seating and moving grocery products to the front. It’s abuzz with activity – staff taking to-go orders, packing up insulated boxes for pick-up, and prepping behind the counter.

Seattle Fish Guys is tucked away on the ground floor of a new apartment building. The market and cafe sells fresh fish and shellfish as well as dine-in and to-go options. (Photo credit: Charlotte Dohrn)

 

Based on the crisp interior and stylized logo, I assumed Fish Guys was part of the new wave of restaurants cropping up in neighborhoods around Seattle, keeping pace with the new apartment buildings. Reading up on their story, I learned that while the restaurant is new, the owners have deep roots in Seattle’s seafood history.

Co-owners Desiree Chinn and Sal Panelo opened Fish Guys in 2016. Panelo’s career spans the previous 32 years, with tenures at iconic Seattle fish spots in the Pike Place Market, Mutual Fish Co., and Uwajimaya. Panelo’s connection to seafood extends beyond his own career – he, like Kevin Yoshimura, is the third generation in the industry. His grandparents founded Linc’s Tackle Shop in 1950, a few blocks from where Fish Guys is now. The small fishing equipment store had an outsize role in the community. It remained open for decades, even as Seattle changed around it. Chinn, too, has deep roots in the neighborhood – her dad graduated from Garfield High School nearby.

When Linc’s closed in 2017, articles described how it had been a mainstay for local fishermen, who would stop in for equipment and to trade tales. Panelo spent time at Linc’s as a child, listening to these stories. As Seattle mourned the loss of it’s “third place for fish people,” Panelo and Chinn were working hard to carry on the family tradition at the new restaurant. 

Fish Guys serves delicious poke – among other fishy treats. Due to COVID-19, they are serving only to-go, as well as new options like “Fish for a Week” kits. (Photo credit: Charlotte Dohrn)

 

I talked with Desiree at the end of a busy day. “We are going on 10 weeks now.… We are packing these meal kits, which have tons of ingredients. It’s all fresh fish, cut the night before, to put into these kits for people to cook at home. We are also doing what we can to help out – sourcing desserts from local bakeries so they can stay in business. We have the flower vendors from Pike Place Market in here, we offered space to them at no cost….We’ve added all these extra grocery items that we’ve never had before. It’s great, but it’s hard because our space is small.” 

So much has changed at Seattle Fish Guys since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – everyone has been working overtime to adapt. Impacts to the industry as a whole are sweeping – restaurant demand has plummeted, supply chains are disrupted, and economic hardship is widespread.  

Resilience – the ability to survive, adapt, and grow – despite stresses and shocks –  threads through these stories. The Yoshimuras have sustained Mutual Fish Co. for decades, evolving and adapting to changes in the industry and consumer preferences, but resilient in the face of pressures that have driven closures of nearby legacy businesses. The Fish Guys team founded a new business – but one that aims to provide some of the same connection to fishing culture and community gathering space as the first family business. Both are minority-owned businesses in neighborhoods facing gentrification and a history of disinvestment. Their high-quality and often local products connect Seattleites to the sea. Their family histories link us to the city’s history, even as communities and community spaces change. The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented shock – closing dine-in options, cutting restaurant sales, and potentially transforming the industry. As the owners of seafood businesses like Mutual Fish Co. and Seattle Fish Guys face these uncharted waters, resilience takes on new significance.