Louie’s Seafood Market in Colchester handpicks Boston Market fish
This week’s edition of The Local Flavor features Arnold Pappas from Louie’s Seafood Market in Colchester. Raised in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Arnold was born in the seafood industry. The Ipswich Shellfish Company was opened in 1935 by his uncle, whose whole family helped with fishing, distribution, management. business and everything in between. Arnold worked weekends and summers, filling roles as needed and falling in love with the industry.
It was after high school that Arnold moved to Southeast Connecticut to help with a new branch of the business. His time there, along with a few other jobs in Massachusetts, gave him the knowledge and experience he needed to venture out on his own. He quickly found a comfortable spot in the heart of Colchester and, with the help of his loving wife, opened Louie’s Seafood Market in November 2015.
Blaine: Can you tell me more about the business your family started?
Arnold: It was a big family. A pair of brothers would go out, harvest clams and bring them back to their sisters to shell them. My uncle would then sell them to restaurants. This is how the Ipswich Shellfish Company was born. The business has grown into a corporation with five different locations on the east coast.
Blaine: Did you work with them while growing up?
Arnold: Oh yes. I started from scratch, sweeping the floors to shell the clams, then ran the shelling house. I did this on my weekends and during my summers. I also spent a lot of summers looking for clams. I earned money on the side. I graduated from high school in 1982. My business career has been mostly for me, with the family business.
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I moved here in 1983 to Connecticut to lead the division that was opened here. Connecticut seashells. It was still my uncle’s company. I was one of his employees. I started out as a truck driver. I worked my way up to becoming a sales supervisor and manager. But, when you work with your family, politics gets in your way.
I went in another direction to expand my knowledge in the food industry. I worked with Aegar Food Supply out of Mass, then Cambridge Packing Company. I received a very good education not only on fish and meat, but on everything that goes on the plate.
My family came back to me and asked me to come back to Connecticut Shellfish, so I did. I went back there for a while. I discovered that the culture still hadn’t changed. They weren’t advancing. I ended up leaving. I have always wanted to open my own store. I found a nice little place in Colchester and opened Louie’s Seafood Market almost six years ago.
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I also want to say that my wife has supported me a lot in my business. It was my passion, not hers, but she put her goals aside so I could open Louie’s. I knew I couldn’t do it on my own and she was there to help me. She didn’t know much about the business, but she was fantastic with managing the storefront. She helped order our groceries and was excellent at answering questions from arriving customers.
Blaine: Many seafood stores are often on the coast. How do you manage the supply, being in Colchester?
Arnold: In Connecticut, it doesn’t matter where you are. You might have a little more business on the coast due to the higher population, but otherwise you’re fine. Most of the fish Connecticut receives comes from two hubs: the New York hub called Hunts Point Seafood Market and the Boston hub called Boston Seaport. Fish caught in New England and the Northeast are prepared and shipped to these two ports.
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Otherwise, it is imported from elsewhere. 90% of seafood in the United States is imported. Our fishing industry is kind of crazy about sustainability. They are trying to get it under control, but it is a long and slow process.
I personally go to Boston, Massachusetts, with my contacts. We go up 2-3 times a week and hand pick all the seafood to bring it back to Colchester. Meanwhile, the competition on the shore is trucked in. I’m one of the only places in Connecticut that will hand-pick their own fish.
Blaine: What are you looking for when picking fish by hand?
Arnold: As I express to my clients and to people in general, we buy with our eyes. If we are looking for clothes, we are looking for colors and patterns. With fish, we are looking for that visual appeal. We want to see a nice shine, no fading, depending on the species of fish. We also look at the smell and texture.
There are different levels of fish quality, as with any protein. We only buy the highest quality seafood. Having been in the industry for over 40 years, I know what good quality fish is. I also have the contacts to find what I am looking for in terms of quality. If the quality is not there and does not meet my expectations, I will not buy it. I won’t buy a fish just to put it in my case. My clients are too educated now and I will not serve them a substandard product. Quality comes first here.
Blaine: What are some of your bestsellers in your store? Is it week by week?
Arnold: We have a wide variety of seafood, as well as specialty groceries that complement seafood. It’s pretty common in most markets. Salmon is probably the best-selling fish we sell right now, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of followers for our cod or scallops. We also sell quite a bit of swordfish and prawns. If you have a good quality product, it sells.
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Blaine: Any seafood that you would recommend readers to try?
Arnold: Ah yes, for sure. We have our weekly specials. We transport Icelandic cod and haddock. We only sell scallops that my cousin picks by hand. We also offer sushi. I carry a # 1 yellowfin tuna and once again the swordfish is excellent.
We’re not doing anything pre-prepared and cooked yet; you need a special license for this. We plan to set up a frying station by the end of the year.
Arctic char is one of my favorites. It is a farmed fish from the trout family. He has a really nice profile; this is delicious. It has started to gain popularity since I started wearing it full time. There is also hake. It’s a nice sweet and buttery flavor, more than cod or haddock.
Blaine: Given your family history and your history in the seafood business, what lessons are you using today for Louie’s?
Arnold: I worked with really well educated people. Not just for seafood, but also for books. I learned never to deviate from what you set out to do. You do it to the best of your ability and you don’t let that change that.
To give you an example, when the economy was going badly, we stuck with our ideologies and philosophies of delivering quality seafood to our customers. I could have gone out and bought less seafood and taken it out to try and get by. Instead, I stuck with what worked and I’m still here today.
Our customers have recognized that we maintain or improve our quality. You can’t buy by price rather than quality. Good food is not cheap, and cheap food is not good. Especially with seafood. If you buy a seven dollar piece of cod versus a fifteen dollar piece of cod, there will be a difference.
Blaine: What changes and challenges has COVID brought about?
Arnold: It was a huge adjustment. Not just in the way we treated our customers, but also in the way we were able to source our food. It was much more difficult in terms of restrictions with the out-of-state COVID guidelines.
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Massachusetts led with restrictions early on, compared to Connecticut. I executed most of their warrants before the governor did. If I had to go to Massachusetts and put on a pair of gloves and a mask to go shopping at a seafood establishment, I did. I put on sneeze guards and put hand sanitizers on the door. I was strict on social distancing, only allowing five people in the store at a time. I saw the writing on the wall with COVID.
Our activity actually doubled once the restaurants closed. We were one of the only sources of high quality food. We had to put in a lot more hours and sleep a lot less because we couldn’t find the employees to meet this extra demand. As things relaxed, people told me they came here out of respect for the way the business was run during COVID.
Blaine: Something you would like to tell your customers who have supported you through COVID?
Arnold: We have been truly blessed with the support we have received. I want to thank you for all the support, kindness, patience and respect we have received over the past 20 months.