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.
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." Have you ever had to end a relationship with a vendor? There's a difference in saying we'll never buy from a vendor again and sending a shipment back. But, yes, we have done both.
Sometimes we have vendors that tell us "Gosh, you guys are too picky. We don't have time to deal with you." More power to 'em. That's fine. Our vendors know we're picky but still like to do business with us. There are certain vendors we don't do business with because of dishonesty or inconsistent product.
How often do you work with small fishing outfits? We're joined at the hip with small fishermen.
No one has more to lose from over-fishing than an independently owned seafood market. This is all we do. If the grocery store couldn't sell seafood, they make more money on their paper towels and Vogue magazines, but this is all we do. And small fishermen are the backbone of the industry. So, yes, we have fish where we know the name of the fisherman who caught it.
Tell me about your smoked fish. We smoke salmon and halibut. We brine it overnight in garlic, bay leaves, brown sugar, white pepper, kosher salt and a couple other secret ingredients. Then we smoke it over hickory chips.
When I say smoked a lot of people think lox. That's a cold smoke. This is a hot smoke.
You're opening a new place on Oak Lawn. How long had you been looking to expand? For about three years now. And it took us six months to negotiate the place. A seafood market is just a funny little space, we need a lot of things. So it was just difficult to work out.
Will it be exactly like this market? Not exactly. People keep telling us they're so excited we're opening a "restaurant." Technically, it's not a restaurant. It's a seafood market with seats. Customers walk up and can take a pound of salmon home, or you can say, "Cook that salmon for me and give me two sides." But, it's different than a restaurant in that it's completely transparent. You'll see us see us cut it, grill it and serve it.
There won't be table service though? There won't be table service.
And drinks? Wine by the bottle and wine by the glass. The beer program is going to be really cool. We're getting all the regional beers from seafood areas. So, we're going to have Anchor Steam from San Francisco, Abita from New Orleans. Not necessarily craft beers, but the beer that you would get when you're in the region. What about the menu? Basically, we'll have different specials for each day. The fish case is the menu. And every single preparation we have on our menu, we'll tell you how to do at home. Nothing would make us happier then for someone to say, "I want to make this at home too." Everything we do there, you can do it at home.
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On the menu we're going to have a raw option of the day, a ceviche of the day, a steamed pot of the day, a taco of the day, seafood salad of the day. What we want to reinforce is that fish is interchangeable. We want people to feel comfortable walking in saying, "I know I want to make fish tacos, what should I use?" We'd love to help people with that.
For novices, what's your advice for coming into to buy a filet? The experience that people get here is the education. A lot of our staff are culinary school graduates, so if someone comes in and says has no experience with fish, we want to educate them.
I think fish is easy, but I'm not a professional cook -- I remind people of that on a daily basis. If you can set a timer, you can cook fish. Getting a steak medium rare is hard. Roasting a whole chicken is hard. Cooking a piece of fish is easy.
The Lobster Boat-to-Plate Program at TJ's Seafood Market