Jon Alexis of TJ's Seafood Market on Expansion, The Fishing Industry and Lobsters that Need a New Home
Recently we sat down with Jon Alexis, owner of TJ's Seafood Market at 11661 Preston Road, to discuss the seafood business, which turns out is pretty easy -- he's passionate about his business and doesn't need much prodding when it comes to chatting about it. He recently singed a 10-year lease for a new spot at Shops at Highland Park that will specifically be a seafood market with the option to dine-in. Here's our conversation followed by a quick look at how a lobster makes it from boat to market.
Jon Alexis with plans for expansion.
How did your family get into the fish market business?
I was 20 when my parents bought this place. I'm 32 now. My parents were customers from the very beginning. Every Saturday my dad came here and got shrimp from TJ's. We didn't live close, but he drove in because he knew it was fresh. TJ's was founded in 1989 and we moved here from Virginia Beach in 1989.
In 1999, when the original owners were ready to sell, my dad was looking for a business to buy and he sees an ad in a paper for a business for sell and he calls the number, then TJ's answered. And my dad said, "Oh, I must have dialed the wrong number, I was calling about a business for sale." And he had just been here like an hour prior and he thought he hit redial or something. They said, "This is the business for sale." And, they knew us as customers and knew we wouldn't mess it up.
Had your dad been in the seafood business?
No. The Hayden family (original owners) stayed on and taught us a lot about the business. I worked from Day 1 in 1999. I then ran away from the family business like every kid does. Then came back and when they were ready to retire, I bought it from them. And part of the deal was that they get free fish for life. Plus, it's quality control. If my mom approves, then I know it's good.
Who do you buy your fish from?
We try to bypass the middlemen whenever we can and go directly to the source. By law, we can't go to the boat owners because it has to be inspected and stuff like that, so it's one step above that. So, the local purveyor buys it from the boat and we try to buy it from them.
When shopping for fish, what should a customer look for or ask?
It's not always as simple as "what came in today." Well, did it get here today? How long did the purveyor have it? How long was the boat out? Did it go out for one day, or several days and are you getting the bottom of the boat or top of the boat? So, we work with purveyors that we trust and sometimes we say I want 50 pounds of Copper River salmon. Or sometimes we'll say, "I need about four fish that are 3 to 4 pounds, and send me something that is really fresh."
How can you tell if a fish is fresh?
A whole fish is the world's best vacuum pack. It doesn't start to degrade until you filet it. We try to get a whole fish and not cut it open until someone says, "I'll take a filet of that."
Also, don't trust a seafood market that doesn't run out of things. We want to get small quantities of things. Most fish are interchangeable in recipes. If someone needs a mild flakey white fish, then we'll try to encourage them to get what's fresh. Between snapper, red fish, stripped bass and grouper, they're all very similar fish. If they trust us, we can point them in the right direction. I can't guarantee you what fish I'll have, but I can guarantee that the filet you get will be pristinely fresh.
Two winters ago when the weather was awful, we had a customer come in and said, "Well, where are my oysters?" I wanted to say, "'Mam, if it's terrible weather and your fish market has everything, it couldn't possibly be fresh."