By Doreen Leggett
Fresh off a weekend pop-up raw bar serving oysters from their farm, lobster rolls from their Sea State food truck, and “Small Boats, Big Taste” haddock chowder from the Fishermen’s Alliance, Pat and Jenny Ross stood in their market in Bourne as fishermen showed up at the back door with fresh local product.
“This wasn’t on the life plan,” laughed Pat, who grew up in Bourne but only shellfished recreationally, occasionally, with his dad.
Both Pat and Jenny went to art school before they met, Pat for photography in Boston, Jenny for design in New York. They met at a Halloween party in 2009.
He segued into healthcare policy, she was a designer at New Balance, but one day on a business trip Pat stopped at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Square.
He saw oysters from Peter’s Point, which is in sight of the Gray Gables neighborhood where he lived.
“Just the idea that these oysters were being served across from the White House sparked my curiosity,” he said.
The two decided to look into starting their own oyster farm. Jenny had grown up along the shore in Connecticut and spent summers in Truro so she too had some salt water in her veins.
Pat worked a few days on different farms and got pointers, particularly from Scott Mullen, who owns Scorton Creek Oysters in Barnstable and Peter Chase from Sippewisset Oysters in Falmouth.
When they talked to officials in Bourne, they realized they had their work cut out for them because there were no aquaculture farms in town. But the couple was serious. Officials eventually asked them to propose an area that could be approved by the state and the U.S. Army Corps.
They did, and received their first grant, near Toby’s Island in Buzzard’s Bay. Jenny said the spot wasn’t ideal. They were in exposed deep water and needed a winch and hauler to harvest.
“The oysters were great. It was just hard to work out there,” she said.
They won a second grant, but that area soon was closed seasonally. So now they start oysters there, in Monk’s Cove, and grow them out near the head of Buzzards Bay.
“That’s our nursery. We have an upweller powered by solar and wind,” Jenny said.
Once people saw the grants were not intrusive, and that they could have local oysters, the town became more supportive. There are now two other grant holders in Bourne.
“Having the farm meant there was always a reason to get outside, get out on the boat, every single weekend, even into months like November and December. A calm, still day could be chilly, but so beautiful out on the water,” Jenny said.
The Ross’s last grant came through in 2019, “so right before the pandemic. When we could sell to restaurants, the restaurants closed,” Pat said with a wry chuckle.
The two regrouped and went through the permitting process to become a dealer.
They began selling their oysters at pop-ups, a Farmers Market and online, customers picking up at Gray Gables Market.
They began to expand as well, buying a truck and serving lobster rolls and fish bought from Red’s Best in Boston.
“It just snowballed,” said Pat.
They renamed the growing business Sea State.
The purchase of a character-laden, grey-shingled fish market on Route 28 was also not something they had planned for, but things have fallen happily into place.
Cataumet Fish was a landmark, owned by Peter Fisher for 40 years. Pat had gone to school with his son.
“It was for sale and we sort of said, No, that would be crazy,” Pat said.
But one week three people asked if they were planning on buying it, remembered Jenny.
“You can see the loyalty, a lot of years went into it being what it is,” Pat said.
So Pat called Peter, then worked at the market for several days before he and Jenny decided to purchase.
“It’s been amazing to get to talk directly to customers, and introduce them to a fish they hadn’t tried before, or talk to them about the other local products we carry,” said Jenny. “All are chosen carefully from other local and/or small batch producers. I have an idea of how every single item in our shop can complement seafood, and I love talking to our customers about how to use them.”
Langdon Allen, a long-time customer, is glad they stepped up.
“I love that they are in the seafood business so they know what they are doing, and I love that it literally is a mom and pop operation,” Allen said.
Allen said Cataumet Fish has supplied 55 lobsters, plus an abundance of clams and other delights, at a traditional clam bake his family has held on the beach for 70 years.
He could go to a chain grocery store and buy lobsters for half the price. But he won’t.
“I want to make sure it’s local,” Allen said. “They have an interest in quality goods and that means something to me.
“I’ll buy swordfish, I’ll buy bluefish and striped bass. I buy a lot of haddock,” he said, adding that he had been there that day. “There is not much I haven’t bought.”
Allen has also bought haddock chowder that Cataumet Fish sells along with fish stew from the Small Boats, Big Taste program run by the Fishermen’s Alliance.
“It’s delicious,” he said.
“People love it,” Pat added. “It’s doing amazing, really good job with the recipe.”
Pat spends most of his time at the shop, which they re-opened before Memorial Day. Jenny, who still works designing sneakers, helps with marketing and booking events, such as raw bars or oyster shucking classes.
They both work hard to source local fish. They continue to work with Red’s Best, and order from Foley Fish out of New Bedford. Fishermen also come in.
“We have a handful of fishermen who have been bringing fish here for 30 or 40 years,” Pat said.
Sometimes they get more than they can sell in store, or species that don’t move that well, such as scup. The Rosses move product to New York to try and keep markets for Cape fish.
The bulk of their sales come from the big five that are shipped in; cod, haddock, salmon, swordfish and shrimp. But there is a lot of interest in local fare as well.
“People will come in all the time and ask, ‘What’s local?’” said Pat. “We get more customers who are happy when they learn we carry some species generally not available at other markets despite being landed locally, like black sea bass, tautog, skate, even bluefish.”
They have recently been selling butter clams from Beachpoint Shellfish in Barnstable and selling out.
The Haddock Chowder and Provencal Fish Stew from the Fishermen’s Alliance has sold out as well and Jenny has been making trips to Chatham to pick up more.
“It’s so great to partner with a family-run fish market continuing a wonderful tradition at the other end of the Cape,” said Seth Rolbein, of the Fishermen’s Alliance, who helped start the Small Boats, Big Taste program. “We started with a focus on serving food banks and food pantries during COVID, and that’s still really important, but now we’re ready to move into retail. Pat and Jenny are helping to show us the way.”