A chat with Sol Amon
It's entirely possible that a lot of the camera-toting tourists who visit Seattle and stop by its famous Pike Place Public Market think there's only one fish shop there. You know, the one near the entrance, where guys in orange slickers toss fish back and forth. But there are actually four, and Pure Food Fish Market, if you take Sol Amon at his word, sells more fish than all of them. Amon's father Jack, who immigrated to the United States from Turkey in 1911, was a lifelong seafood guy who coincidentally owned the now-famous Pike Place Fish Market from 1946 to 1956 before he and his son started a new shop together. So, since there's been an Amon hawking fish at Pike Place for 103 years, this guy Sol might just know what he's talking about.For five or six days a week, you can still find Amon, 84, at the store he's owned for 55 years. He remembers selling king salmon from Alaska for mere pennies per pound and the early days of shipping fish, packed on ice in wooden crates, on trains across the country. Amon now delivers his fish first class on overnight shipments. The mail order component of his business keeps growing (it's about 20 percent of his overall sales now) and maybe it's because of the website's name — it's hard to argue that freshseafood.com, a domain his daughter Helene Behar bought 30 years ago, isn't a stroke of genius.
How long have you worked inside Pike Place?
Since I was 17, working for my dad. Back then the fish business was a poor man's business. But then the doctors made it a rich man's business when they said [seafood] was good for you! The pope OK'd fish on Fridays, and we thought it was the end of the world. They still say it's good for you.
Then why do you think U.S. seafood consumption is slowing?
Prices and availability are slowing it down, more than anything else. It's difficult. Just about everything we have on the counter is $7 [a pound] and up. Most salmon are $20. Halibut is $22. This year the [halibut] quota is less, so those prices won't be going down.
Did you ever not want to work in fish, that you'd rather do something else?
At the beginning when I bought it [in 1957], I thought it was a difficult business. Prices were cheap and you couldn't make any money. White king salmon were just 29 cents a pound. For me, in 1962 it all changed. That's when the World Fair came to Seattle. It showed me we could do well. We started to ship in wooden boxes, three to four days to destination. From then on I thought it was a good business so I stayed on. Always made a good living for me. It's fun, and every day it changes.
Can you give me an example?
One day you get a lot of sockeyes, some days you get none, but you get kings, and some are large, some are small. You have to adapt your business to what you get and also to what the customer wants. It's not what you want to sell; it's what they want to buy. And every day there's different customers.
Are shoppers surprised that there's more than one fish market at Pike Place?
We do a lot more business than [Pike Place Fish Market], for a fact. But we live off them. We thrive off of them. They bring people in. We're very professional in the way we handle our customers. If you're charging this much you have to know what you're doing. Actually, if we were the only fish market here, the market wouldn't be the hub of the fish business. It's one of the few places where you can get a whole tuna. Between all of us, you'll find it. Competition is good; it keeps you alert, keeps you in line.
What does the future hold for you and for your shop?
One of the reasons I come down every day is to tutor my grandchildren [Carlee Kulman and Isaac Behar, who both work at the market]. It's a blessing. I want to turn it over to them, and give them an idea of how to merchandise, buy and meet the public. It'll take a few years, but I have hope. I don't think we'll sell it unless they don't want it.
I'll probably die before I retire. I enjoy it, as you can see. It's better than staying home. It's my hobby. It's not work. When you have a job you enjoy it's not work, it's a pleasure.
By James Wright, SeaFood Business senior editor
Published on 26 February, 2014