The Hays think outside of the conventional restaurant box
By Doreen Leggett
Over the course of a few decades, Mac’s Seafood has grown from one small fish market on the Wellfleet pier to 10 markets and restaurants, a processing facility, catering business and wholesale shellfish company.
This year Mac Hay, who owns the company with his younger brother, Alex, was expecting a banner year. They had re-invested in the businesses and felt they were solidly prepared going into the summer.
COVID- 19 changed all that.
“The first couple of weeks were so traumatizing on so many different levels,” Mac said. “This isn’t going to be a year of profit.”
About 25 years ago, when Mac, not yet 20, began his business career, an uncle gave him a book, “Who Moved My Cheese?”, an amusing parable about dealing with big changes in life.
Mac thought of that book when the world turned upside down.
“Everybody’s cheese just got moved,” he said.
Initially the thought was to just keep moving: keep fishermen fishing, keep wholesalers afloat, keep buyers buying.
Once they reached out to the Small Business Administration and took a few breaths, they realized they would be able to survive.
So the brothers sat down, with Sam Bradford their cousin and chief financial officer, and decided to focus on what they could do. That came down to community.
“We’ve launched some programs to keep some local product running through the fishermen,” said Mac.
Among the programs is a partnership with the Wellfleet non-profit S.P.A.T. (Shellfish Promotion and Tasting), where shellfishermen are paid for clams and oysters taken to Wellfleet Shellfish Company, owned by the Hays.
Alex oversees the operation, where the shellfish is sorted there and turned into chowder, or left as is and dropped off at local food pantries and soup kitchens.
The 41-year-old has been calling food banks across the nation, trying to figure out a way to expand that idea and get great protein from the sea to more people, also creating a more reliable market for fishermen.
But his primary focus remains letting everyone know they are still open.
“We didn’t really stop,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure the boats and the (shellfish) farmers we work with get a check every Friday.”
Mac said their business plan is fairly useless now, which has given them opportunities to think out of the box.
“If we aren’t focused on making money what can we do?” Mac added with a laugh. “Not having to make money -- it’s very freeing.”
The company has taken on four or five new initiatives intended to serve local seafood in different ways, with different strategies.
“We did it because we understand the micro-economy of it and it’s the best product on the market,” Mac said.
The company has also partnered with some senior living residences, including Liberty Commons in Chatham, which just served 100 pounds of haddock, transformed into tacos and other meals, to residents and staff.
On top of that the Hays launched Mac’s Meals, offering meals at close to cost for home delivery or pick-up at their retail stores in Eastham and Chatham. People have taken to donating money so more meals can be given to people hurt by the pandemic.
“That has been really well received,” Mac said. “It’s not completely altruistic. Helping other people in need makes this process more human, more tolerable.”
Imagining new enterprises was what drew the brothers into business in the first place, that and their grandparents teaching them how to eat right out of Cape Cod Bay as kids.
The Hays grew up in Wellesley, but their mom’s parents had a house in Truro where they spent much of their time.
Since Mac is older by at least four years (sometimes five, Alex points out) he began working first at what was then the Harbor Freeze, at the Wellfleet Pier. Alex remembers scooping ice cream when he was 12 or 13, while Mac was in the fish market next door.
“It had some hokey name I don’t remember,” Alex says.
In 1993, the guy running the market decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. The owner, a friend of the family, asked Mac to take it on. Their granddad would smoke fish and their grandmom would cook Portuguese kale soup, but operations were in the hands of young Hays.
“That is where all the magic began,” said Alex with a chuckle.
Eventually they took over the restaurant while managing to get through college, both as philosophy majors. Mac was a chef in Boston and New York while Alex travelled the world, to college in Trinidad, the University of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and sailed around the West Indian Ocean.
Their experiences blend into the menus at the restaurants, where the attempt is to present something unusual, cool, but quintessentially local – a plate of whole sea bass staring at the diner, for example.
The company’s emphasis is buying local. They fillet fish themselves and what others throw away they take pride in using as stock for sauces and soup. Many of the fillets are sold in their retail markets or become fish and chips at the restaurants.
“That’s why I get up every morning, because we are dealing with the most amazing product,” said Alex.
That holds true in a pandemic. “We need to get back to real people and real food,” he said.
That attitude isn’t surprising considering their background, said Andrew Cummings, a well-known shellfisherman in Wellfleet who has known the duo for close to 20 years.
Their grandfather was a fisherman and their grandmom a gardener, so eating from nature was what they did; “It wasn’t a social statement.”
Cummings said at first he wondered how the two, who people assumed came from privilged circumstances, would do.. But, he said, “they have always worked their asses off and when they said they were going to do something they did it. Sure, they have some money in their background, but they applied for business loans when they were kids and got them.”
As it turns out, they started the business the more traditional way: The company was started with borrowing $500 from 10 friends and family, for a total of $5,000
As they continue to grow, becoming perhaps the biggest employer on the Outer Cape, there are people who say they are taking over.
Cummings doesn’t buy that.
“They are doing something you could do, but you just didn’t do it,” he tells the naysayers.
They have also engaged in the community, helping launch Wellfleet S.P.A.T. that runs the Wellfleet Oyster Fest and hands out scholarships, while serving on various boards, including the Lower Cape Community Development Partnership.
“And they were down in Chatham banging nails,” said Cummings, referring to their purchase of Chatham Fish and Lobster in 2019.
The Hays say that with the closure of restaurants, except curbside pickup, people’s relationships with food are changing.
Mac, eating at home far more often, said he thinks that’s going to carry over; one of his pandemic goals is to finish a cookbook. But being a chef at heart he wants to cook for many, not a few.
“I need the restaurants to open back up,” he said.
Curtis Hartman, former chair of the Truro board of selectmen, has known the brothers for close to 20 years and is an admirer of their accomplishments.
“The first place I met Mac was on the pier. He was just a beardless youth with so much enthusiasm,” Hartman remembered.
Hartman asked Mac to donate his time and skill to cook for auction winners to help raise money for Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill.
“I have never seen a cook have more fun,” he said. “He shares that love of food with so much enthusiasm it is impossible not to be swept away.
“My hope is that my 10-year-old granddaughter’s first job will be scooping ice cream for Mac.”
Those who know the brothers say their fish obsession doesn’t end at work. Their homes are filled with fish art and pottery and Alex is always cooking up misshapen shellfish (that he can’t sell).
Alex believes he is a better cook than his brother, a tidbit Mac decidedly does not agree with. Alex handles more of the shellfish and fish buying sides, but he has fond memories of being in the kitchen with his older brother.
“Working with Mac was a lot of fun,” he said.
The two remember driving down to Chatham daily to get fresh fish from David Carnes at Chatham Fish and Lobster many years before they wound up buying the business.
The same with their cousin, Sam Bradford, who joined the company two decades ago to take over the finances. Bradford, a little younger than Alex, started working at Mac’s when he was 17, coming summers from New York.
He now runs Chatham Fish and Lobster, which has a wholesale plant in Commerce Park that processes and packs fish. Chatham Fish has relationships with about 150 restaurants across the Cape; Wellfleet Shellfish Company handles national orders.
Many of the people who taught the Hays and Bradford how to judge the quality of fish are still there.
“I’ve known these guys down here since then. It’s pretty fun for me,” Bradford said.
The retail side of the business is doing well even in the pandemic:
“The bright side is Cape Codders have been so overwhelmingly supportive of trying to buy local. That has been so heartwarming to see.”
Mac is hopeful that when life starts trending back to normalcy, positive lessons will remain.
“I hope the sense of community lasts. We are still all in this together,” he said.