By Doreen Leggett
Captain Mike Abdow has walked across the busy parking lot of the Chatham Fish Pier many times with a couple of big, beautiful striped bass, and people will call out and ask if they can buy them.
Abdow will say “Sure,” then walk into the back door of the Chatham Pier Fish Market where that bass will soon be in the case.
“I think that’s important to people,” Abdow said. “This little fish market has been there forever.”
The fish market, also a take-out restaurant, has had a long presence by the water. The original building, which has grown in size, was called Nickerson’s Fish and Lobster, founded in the 1950s by Willard Nickerson. It was sold out of the family for several years, but purchased by his son, also Willard, in the early 2000s before going to Andy Baler in 2009.
Nowadays the cases are filled with everything from local lobsters, bluefish, scallops, black sea bass, as well as fish from away – salmon from California and shrimp from Florida. Behind the counter is orchestrated chaos as staff deftly moves to weigh tuna and bag oysters, while others pass heaping plates of calamari, fried clams and tuna sandwiches through the take-out window. Just behind an open partition, cooks work on meals and just beyond that busy room, thousands of pounds of live lobsters wait in a salt water well, the Atlantic Ocean imbuing them with a distinct taste.
New owner Steve Gennodie feels lucky to have those local crustaceans in that water until they can be transformed into a buttered lobster roll (among other dishes). The taste gives new meaning to location, location, location.
“The flavor is amazing – coming right out of the water, that particular water,” said Gennodie.
Gennodie can name the captains who brought in the local catch. He knows where the fish from off-Cape comes from as well, having visited some single traffic light small towns to the south, barbeque pits galore.
“We like to know the boat,” he said. “The biggest drive to purchase (the market) was to really develop these relationships with fishermen.”
When he bought the place early this year, and opened in May, he hung a sign on the back of the building listing all the fish he buys, trying to set a tone.
“Change down here is always suspect,” he explained. “We can give the fishermen a little more money because it goes to retail. It is going through less hands.”
Gennodie is new to the Chatham Fish Pier but he isn’t new to the business. There are few degrees of separation between him and many familiar faces at the pier, and he had crossed paths with the previous owner, Andy Baler, more than a decade ago.
Baler had been in almost every aspect of the fishing business for more than 30 years and was also running Nantucket Fish Company, leasing a bay at the pier to load and truck the catch.
He knew he wasn’t going to re-apply for the lease because he had opened a sushi restaurant in Chatham in 2014 and had plans for another, now open in Falmouth. Baler hadn’t put the fish market up for sale, but it is a small community and word gets around.
Gennodie, whose family had vacationed on the Cape for years, bought a house in Chatham in 2016. One of his neighbors runs a scallop boat, one day they were having a conversation and it came up that Baler was thinking of selling.
“I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it,” said Gennodie earlier this summer, as he sat in his upstairs office. “To me it’s a no brainer.”
The purchase fits. Although the market can process fish, Gennodie owns his own processing facility on the Boston Fish Pier. He also has a fleet of trucks and two fish markets, one in Hingham and the other in Milton.
Gennodie grew up in New York, right on the Hudson River, and did some recreational fishing, but it wasn’t a driving force in his life. Food preparation was.
He went to the Culinary Institute of America and that led to a job as a chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. They sent him to their sister hotel in Boston in 1994. From there it was on to the upscale Mistral restaurant where he became close with a seafood supplier who became a partner.
Ten years after he hit Boston, in 2004, he opened Rocky Neck Fish Company, which Gennodie, by then a Danvers resident, named after the spot in Gloucester where he often took his kids to eat. From his location on the Boston Fish Pier he unloads a lot of bigger trips. Much of the catch, pre-COVID, went upscale restaurants. With the pandemic it has been slower.
“It’s pretty ugly,” he said.
His six trucks are still running between four locations and he likes having the ability to sell fresh fish in his retail markets. On a recent rainy day, he was sending someone to pick up shellfish from ARC, the hatchery in Dennis. He also buys from Chatham Shellfish and if a captain walks in the back door with a halibut he will pick that up.
Gennodie and his wife Jodie have three kids and a couple dogs, so things can get hectic; he splits his time between the Cape and the mainland. Since the market is a more recent endeavor he spends most of his time here.
He does a bit of everything, cutting fish, driving if he has to. And he hasn’t stepped away from his culinary roots.
“I work in the kitchen quite a bit,” he said, adding that the lobster bisque is his recipe and what folks would get at a five-star restaurant.
Baler explained that it takes someone like Gennodie to make the place work.
“People were interested in it for years, but there was no way they would be able to handle it,” said Baler, who was down at the pier the other day. “It’s a very multi-level business.”
Baler added that Cape Cod fishermen are a different breed.
“It’s a mastery to know how to work with these guys. Cape Cod is tough,” Baler said. “You have to advocate for fish and fishermen; they expect a lot from you, he said.
“He had the desire to go in there and keep it what it was,” said Baler. “I like him.”
Those who walk in may see a few new items on the shelves – haddock skin dog treats (with local haddock), for instance – but above the window that looks up the hill towards Chatham Bars Inn is an old black-and-white photo of a fisherman, Nickerson’s grandfather, and he has been hanging in the business for more than 50 years. Gennodie also has historic photos he found in the attic hanging in his office and just over the exit door a big striped bass.
Mike Abdow caught it and gave it to Nickerson, who then left it for Baler and then Gennodie.
“The fish was part of the sale,” Gennodie said with a grin.
That is not to say Gennodie hasn’t made changes. He tries to sell as much local product as he can, but also uses connections to offer product from other coasts.
“We have an eclectic group that comes here and they want that grouper from Florida,” he said.
That eclectic group generally sees Dan “DJ” Kenny, who worked at the retail shop in Hingham before coming to the Cape. Kenny also has a background in cooking and fishing, mostly for tuna. Up until a few years ago he worked in capital markets, but was laid off. One day he was booked on a charter and the mate didn’t show up. When the captain asked for someone who knew what they were doing and that he didn’t have to call their mother to get them up, DJ raised his hand. It was a short jump to managing fish markets after that.
“Finance is in the rearview and I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
Their first season has gone well, he said, despite the pandemic.
“We are lucky we have the foot traffic,” he said.
But it’s more than that.
“(Gennodie) is doing a good job,” said Abdow, adding that the fish market does well because people want to cook at home and the restaurant does well because people want to get the heck out of the house. “And when he makes money we make money because he buys more fish.”
On a recent sunny day the restaurant was packed, with tradespeople stopping to get lunch, picnic tables and chairs outside filled with people.
“It’s a lovely spot,” said Nancy Wolf from Dennis, who had been there once before with her husband. They were back with another couple enjoying calamari and clams.
It’s “delish,” they said, but it’s more than the food. It’s the atmosphere, eating local and watching the boats come in.
“That’s the fun,” said Wolf.
Gennodie has won approval to add a seating wall and patio toward the side of the building, so more can enjoy.
“I love the fact we have the fish pier, and access to it,” he said. “The history of the pier – that is definitely what drew me in to buy the business.”