This Small Business Owner Found Success by Helping Customers Feel Safe: It's 'a Beautiful Thing'

PEOPLE's Voices from the Coronavirus Crisis will share firsthand accounts of the people facing unique challenges during the pandemic

Jermaine Owens
Jermaine Owens. Photo: courtesy Danielle Cullen

Jermaine Owens is the co-owner of North Fork Seafood and Shelter Island Seafood Market, a Long Island-based seafood company that sells fish to commercial customers and restaurants. After getting his start in the industry at a young age, Owens, 43, worked three decades as a professional fish cutter prior to opening North Fork Seafood in February — right before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. While other businesses were struggling, Owens saw his thrive — in part due to his home delivery service — and it became so successful that he opened a second seafood market and restaurant in July. Here, Owens talks to PEOPLE about operating two businesses in the midst of a pandemic, why he believes they've done so well and what he's learned along the way.

I was about eight years old when I got my start in the fish business. My father used to work as a cutter on a loading dock where big boats would come in and drop off their catch. As I grew up, I watched him fillet the fish and began to educate myself.

Right away, it made sense to me. It was a great, family-friendly atmosphere. I knew I wanted to do something that made people feel good, and I always thought providing fresh fish would do that, especially after seeing people ask if we had a certain fish, that possibly nobody else would have, and we were able to provide.

The look on people's faces, the smile that it brought when they realized that we could provide whatever they wanted, it made them happy and was something that I wanted to duplicate. By the time I was 11, I got my first job on a boat and cut my first fish, and for the last 30 years, I worked in the fishing industry.

Around February, I was wholesaling and providing fish to a bunch of restaurants and I thought it was about time that I tried to step in a market role. That's the ultimate goal — to set up a nice retail store where people come in and get the fish that they need. So my girlfriend and business partner, Danielle Cullen, and I opened up North Fork Seafood.

Jermaine Owens
Jermaine Owens. courtesy Danielle Cullen

When the pandemic hit a month later, we had our doubts. Everything came to a standstill and it was very challenging. I sat down with Danielle and realized the need was still there, so we decided to start offering home delivery. That's when everything went crazy.

Since nobody wanted to go out to the supermarket at the time, we received a huge response. Not only were we delivering, but also having a direct connection so that were no middlemen.

We went and sourced the fish. We handpicked it. We brought it back to our home base and filleted it up. We put it in a vacuum-sealed bag and safely delivered it with a mask and gloves. And in a short period of time, it blew up from one person to close to 500 people across the North and South forks of Long Island.

On July 1, we decided to partner with Ted Bucci [owner of Harbor Lights Oyster Company in Southold, New York] and his wife Kathy to expand the business. Ted had the same vision, so we came together and made Shelter Island Seafood Market happen.

A month later, we attached it to an eatery/oyster bar. We got noticed by a local publication called Northforker. It all just worked. I think the stars and the moon aligned and we made a beautiful thing happen.

Jermaine Owens
Jermaine Owens. courtesy Danielle Cullen

It's definitely a sense of normalcy to be able to come into the restaurant. We still do the six-feet apart thing and the masks. The outdoor seating is also huge because we have picnic tables, spread out on our beautiful, covered patio, that seats six or eight.

People are just happy to come and sit down and enjoy. They feel comfortable, and that's the first thing we wanted — even when we started the home delivery business — was to make our customers feel safe and comfortable.

I've seen a pattern where if you're good to people and do the little things to make them feel at home, you're most likely to be successful. That's what we try to exercise here, and overall, the response has been positive. If there's anything that's making them feel uncomfortable or if they've got an opinion about something, we're always listening and trying to improve.

To have this type of success while other businesses are struggling, it's almost surreal. I sit in the back cutting fish but can see everything through a little window, and every day, there's a line of people happy to come in and purchase fresh fish. That hits the heart differently. Of course, making a living and being able to hire people in a time of uncertainty is really special and rewarding.

And to have success with your significant other, that's priceless. Danielle is definitely the brains. She makes more than half of this thing tick. and is very vital. She's not just my soulmate, but she's the best business partner that you can have. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Jermaine Owens
Jermaine Owens. courtesy Danielle Cullen

Looking ahead, we want to try and keep this momentum up. Maybe get another location and keep spreading the love. This was 30 years in the making, and it feels like I'm awake in my dreams.

It's hard to be successful in a normal atmosphere, so to be able to thrive in this is definitely very special. It's almost something that you can't really explain. You can't really find the right words.

I think if you just keep your head focused, try and surround yourself with the right people — positive people that want to see you do good — and never give up, things will work out. Ninety percent of the people in the world are not going to have your same vision, so you've got to find your niche and I think everything else falls into place after that.

  • As told to Joelle Goldstein

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