Fresh seafood comes to town

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

There's a new business in town – the Wild Caught Fish Company, a combination restaurant and boutique seafood market on the south side of U.S. 90, just west of town.
It's difficult to miss the eye-catching turquoise blue and white building on the corner of Willow and Washington streets, with its weathered-looking patio, outdoors picnic tables, figurine sea creatures on the wall and coastal flavoring.
Still in its soft-opening phase while the operational kinks are being worked out, the business appears already to be thriving, judging from its often crowded parking lot and the postings of satisfied customers on its Facebook page.
Owner Tim Cook has definite goals. His mission, he says, is to provide quality seafood at affordable prices, form alliances with other restauranteurs and food providers in the area, and build a high-quality and sustainable business that's integral to the community.
“We try to push high standards,” Cook says, referring to both his products and employees.
Cook is no newcomer to the area nor the seafood or restaurant industries. His family, he will tell you, owns a large farm north of Greenville that's been operational for the last 30 years; and he himself owns 40 acres and a cabin in Jefferson County and a second restaurant near Marathon in the Florida Keys.
Not to mention that he owns two commercial fishing boats – one that docks in Jacksonville and the second in the Keys, and which operations provide his restaurants a constant supply of fresh seafood.
“We're different from other places,” Cook says. “We catch as much of our seafood as we can. And we use as much local fresh stuff as possible. We're not into using foreign seafood.”
The market, he notes, will feature a varying selection of fresh seafoods, including Keys spiny lobsters, rock shrimps, Gulf oysters, stone and blue crabs, mullets, sheep-heads, black groupers, flounders and sundry other wild-caught fish.
“We'll bring fresh products every three days from the Gulf of Mexico or Jacksonville,” Cooks says.
Additionally, he says, the market will offer packaged dishes, such as smoked mullet, baked salmon, fish dips, shrimp salads, cooked crab plates and other specialties prepared by the restaurant’s cooking staff.
The market will also, he says, offer fresh vegetables and produce that customers can buy along with their seafood purchases.
“It'll make for one-stop shopping,” Cook says, adding that besides providing convenience for shoppers, it helps him maximize space and diversify revenue streams.
“We'll also be doing specials, like 40 lbs. of shrimp fresh off the boat for $40,” he said. “And we'll always have lobster tails.”
The market, he notes, is licensed to accept electronic benefit transfers (EBTs), a form of food stamps.
“We're the only seafood place that accept EBTs,” Cook says.
Deliveries to specialized customers will also be part of the mix, he says.
As for the restaurant side of the operation, it will offer a variety of foods that are not the typical fare.
“We're not a franchise and we're not your ordinary just-fried seafood place,” Cook says. “We try to cater to finer seafood diners. For example, we'll be offering Oysters Rockefeller made with cheese and spinach to separate ourselves from the average fried seafood places. We'll also make fresh desserts, like cobblers and cakes.”
This is not to say that the restaurant won't offer fried foods, Cook clarifies, noting that fried mullet, for example, will be a regular feature.
“It's a funny thing,” Cook says. “In Jacksonville, you couldn't give mullet away. But in the Panhandle, people go nuts for it.”
A typical lunch special, he says, consists of a fish or chicken po'-boy with a side order and tea for $6.50.
A sampling of the selections from the restaurant’s grand opening limited menu include crab cakes, blue crab fingers and bacon-wrapped lobster bites for appetizers; fried mullet, whole catfish and grouper for entrees; and grits, cole slaw and mac-and-cheese for sides. Occasionally, Cook says, the restaurant will feature specialties such as lobster tacos and even sushi.
Entrees, he adds, come with a complimentary serving of what he calls the establishment's “signature hush puppies.” Plus, he says, the restaurant will offer alcoholic beverages (beers and wines) and live entertainment on the weekends.
The restaurant's maximum capacity is 50 people, 20 indoors and 30 outdoors. Which seating numbers Cook views as just right for a quality dining experience as well as for practical reasons.
“Our goal is not to have a massive amount of seating,” he says. “You want to make it a friendly and nice experience.”
Too, he's looking at the long-run and factoring in the cyclical boom and bust nature of the economy into his considerations.
“Right now it's a boom economy,” Cook says. “But that can change, and we plan to be here for the long-term. I would never open a place that's just a restaurant or just a market. We want to capitalize as many revenue streams as we can.”
What prompted him to start a seafood restaurant/market in Monticello?
“I could see the need for a really good seafood place here,” Cook says.
But what pushed him over the line, he says, was Joe Costanzo, owner of the Rev Café, for which Cook did the remodeling work, as he did for his own place. When he broached the idea of a seafood restaurant/market to Costanzo, Cook says the latter encouraged him to go for it.
Although Cook describes himself as being primarily in the restaurant business, he will also tell you that he “does a little bit of construction work and a lot of traveling.”
The point is that he has hired a manager with 30 years of experience in food service to run the local operation.
Cook expresses his business philosophy succinctly.
“I pay good money to get quality people,” he says, noting that besides the manager, the staff consists of eight other employees, three of them experienced chefs and all quality workers.
Part of his plan is to form partnerships with others of the town's ongoing businesses that complement his own. Already, he notes, he has touched base with Tupelo's Bakery, Mafia Pizza, The Mays House and Johnston's Meat Market. The idea, Cook says, is that the different businesses can sponsor joint events, feature each others products and work in alignment rather than strict competition.
“For example, I've talked to Tupelo’s about doing desserts for us,” Cook says. “The Mays House plans to gets its grouper from us. And I sell Johnston's sausages. In the end, it helps us all.”
The Wild Caught Fish Company is located at 1305 W. Washington St. Business hours are 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, call (850) 997-1717.