On the occasion of his seafood market turning 30, I asked proprietor Jack Morrison to reflect back on the early days. That sort of longevity is an achievement for any independent retail food operation, but especially so for one that opened in the middle of a recession and has weathered several since.
Nassau Street Seafood was, of course, Morrison’s first Princeton enterprise. Since then this entrepreneur has added two popular restaurants (Blue Point Grill and Witherspoon Grill), spearheaded the housing and retail redevelopment on Spring Street, and brought the seasonal farmers market to Hinds Plaza.
Princeton was just one of several New Jersey towns where Morrison could have landed in the early 1980s. “At the time I was in living in Media [PA] and was a partner in a wholesale seafood operation, which then opened a retail side,” he says. “I had been doing this for two years when I met my bride-to-be at a wedding in Philadelphia.”
The future Debbie Morrison was living in North Jersey, so for the next three years Jack commuted between there and Media. “I was sleeping on friends’ couches, at my future-in-law’s, anywhere,” he laughs. “Finally we said, ‘let’s just pick a town in between Millburn and Media.’ We looked on a map and Princeton popped out. It was smack in the middle and was available to several modes of transportation.”
When the couple visited, they immediately fell for the look and feel of the town. “We loved that it had a main street – Nassau Street,” he says. “My aspirations at the time were to have a seafood market on a main street somewhere. I had looked in Millburn, but there was nothing available.”
Three months after the Morrisons moved to Princeton in 1981, Jack found the spot at 256 Nassau Street where the store is today. “This location was at the ‘quiet’ end of town, and rents were cheap. There were a number of businesses down here, but most buildings were empty,” he recalls, saying that many people assured him that nothing would make it there. “Because of the empty storefronts, I was able to negotiate a lease pretty easily, and we opened in August 1982.”
But was Princeton ready for an ambitious seafood market at the north end of town? “I always like to say that on my first day we did $113 in sales, and that my mom bought $108,” says Morrison.
He learned quickly that the first order of business was to respond to his customers’ needs. “At that time I was oriented to the wholesale fish market in Philly, but within six to eight weeks I realized that the typical Princeton customer knew more about seafood than I had in my quiver. They were New York-driven. So I found out where the Fulton Fish Market was, and I went up and introduced myself around.
To this day I thank the old guys for showing me the ropes,” he says. He picked up pointers from the more responsible veterans at the market and shadowed fish buyers from such big-name markets as Citarella in Manhattan and Bon Ton in Greenwich CT. “I discovered what they looked for and which guys they bought from,” he says of Citarella’s Joe Gurrera and Bon Ton’s Howard Frankel.
It was, Morrison states, an exciting time to be at the old Fulton Fish Market. “But a lot of my energy also came from the customers we had from the start,” he says, “from the academic, cosmopolitan, international communities here.” He names in particular Noko Manabe, whose scientist husband, Sykuro (“Suki”) Manabe, was a pioneer in bringing to light global climate change. “Noko insisted I buy sashimi-grade tuna – this was back in 1982! And skate! And snails!” he says.
Eventually, Noko Manabe came to the store one day a week to make sushi. When sushi sales went through the roof, Morrison brought in interns from a Japanese sushi house chain in New York City. These young chefs were brought over from Japan, where they would serve a multi-year apprenticeship before they could even hope to become a sushi master. “I’d bring them down after their work at the restaurant was done and they’d make sushi on Mondays and Thursdays. They would sleep in my truck on the way down. Then I’d put them on the train,” he says.
When I point out to Morrison that his store was among the first in my memory to stock local produce and local artisanal products, such as Terhune Orchards fruit, wines of Belle Mead’s erstwhile LaFollette Vineyards, and Twin Hens pot pies, he laughs it off. “I like to say we’re so out we’re in.”
He then uses Pam and Gary Mount of Terhune as an example of yet another factor in the continuing success of Nassau Street Seafood. “When the time is right, Pam and Gary will pick their peaches or their apples. But only when the time is right,” he begins, then relates how he was recently trying to place an order for swordfish from a longtime source at the Fulton Fish Market. “The sword captain wouldn’t sell it to me, saying, ‘It’s not for you; it’s a hot water fish.’” That the fish was caught in water warmer than ideal meant that its flesh would not be top quality, and this trusted purveyor was letting Morrison know that it wasn’t up to his exacting standards. Morrison bought it from a Canadian (colder water) source that day.
“Also, we’ve evolved into a hospitality company,” Morrison notes. “There’s the contribution of a core group of people who have a passion for food and for people. It’s a different way of looking at things: we’re all about engaging the customer.” He mentions Nassau Street’s longtime team of Jose Lopez, Colin Rooney, and Jeremy Stein, and Steve Murray, general manager of Blue Point Grill.
“Being responsive to customers is, to me, Retail 101,” he concludes. “If you look at everything I’ve done — the market, the restaurants, the real estate development, the farmers’ market — I’ve seen an opportunity and built on what I see it is that the customer wants.”
But that’s only part of his success formula. Morrison relates how, recently, a nephew of his who is a chef showed him his business plan for a restaurant. “My response was to tell him I’ve never gone about it that way. Rather than, say, develop a plan for the perfect restaurant, I always saw what was lacking and built around that.”
Pat Tanner blogs at www.dinewithpat.com.