The number 13 happens to be a lucky one for the DeRito family.
Thursday marks the 13th anniversary of the day Tony and Kira DeRito opened for business as Olympia Seafood, the fresh fish market in the baby blue building at 411 Columbia St. next to Percival Landing and the Olympia waterfront.
The husband and wife team have seen their business grow in customers and sales — roughly 5 percent per year. That’s a pretty remarkable feat in the face of the recent Great Recession.
Tony DeRito, a stocky, tattooed native of Redlands, Calif., has a theory or two on how the business expanded when the overall local and regional economy contracted.
“People cut back on eating out,” he said. “They know they can come here and get a fresh piece of fish that is less expensive than eating at a restaurant.”
Plus, he said, Olympia is a community of people who love fresh, locally grown food, and are willing to pay a premium price for quality products.
As a regular customer of Olympia Seafood, I have a few ideas of my own why they’ve been successful, and able to hire six full time and part time employees in recent years when other businesses were laying people off.
For one thing, they have a stranglehold on the fresh fish market. Sure, there are seafood vendors at the Olympia Farmer’s Market, and seafood sold at most of the major retail food outlets in the area. But for sheer variety and availability six days a week, Olympia Seafood is in a league of its own.
At any given time, there’s about two dozen fish and seafood products in the walk-up display case that separates the customers from the employees. If it’s in season, they have it, buying from South Sound and coastal tribal and non-tribal fishers as often as possible, including Kira’s father and brother, who operate a crab and salmon-fishing boat based in Westport, Kira’s home town.“Some kids have a lemonade stand when they’re growing up — Kira sold crab,” Tony, 40, quipped.
The two met in Seattle at a crab wholesale distribution event in 1999. A year later they set up shop in Olympia, along with another couple, who left the business in 2002.
Customer service is their forte. Have a question on how best to prepare a filet of halibut or petrale sole? They and their employees have an answer. Wonder how much salmon to buy to feed a party of 8? They’ll tell you.
“Fish is expensive protein,” Kira, 39, said. “We like to help our customers get comfortable with how to prepare their seafood. Often it’s a matter of talking them down from trying to be too elaborate with their presentation.”
“I just told them I want to grill some white fish on the barbecue tonight, and they recommended black cod,” regular customer Joshua Cummings said as he left the seafood store Tuesday night with, you guessed it, a chunk of black cod.
While a lot of their advertising is word-of-mouth, Kira started a weekly email newsletter a few years ago that includes weather observations, recipes, a seafood special of the week and updates about the DeVito family, which includes their daughter, Sailor, who is 10.
When Kira started writing the newsletter, she hoped to reach 1,000 customers. Today she sends it out to 2,500 customers.
As we talked, I watched Kira filet a 50-pound halibut and 22-pound king salmon caught off Westport. Small scraps of fish are saved to make cod burgers and salmon burgers. Bags of fish bones are stored in the freezer and sold to customers who want to make their own fish soup stock or crabbers looking for bait.
“We try not to waste anything,” Tony said.
For the first several years, the two of them worked day and night, daily. Then they started taking Mondays off, and hired two college students to work part-time.
One of the newer employees is Mike Holbein, a chef who decided to take a break from the craziness of a restaurant kitchen about a year ago.
“I used to shop here as a chef and fell in love with the place,” he said. “It just fits right in with the Pacific Northwest lifestyle.” “It’s great to have his cooking knowledge behind the counter,” Kira said.
Greg and Julie Calhoun fit the definition of regular customers. They come in about once a week, and in the summertime, prepare dinners on their boat at Fiddlehead Marina. Tuesday night it was cod burgers and a small container of seaweed salad.
As I parted company with the DeVitos, I asked each of them: “What’s your favorite seafood?”
“King salmon,” Tony said without hesitation. “Crab,” Sailor chimed in. “Scallops,” Kira answered.
Oh, about those scallops: Just pan sear them about 90 seconds per side.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 email@example.com