Tyrone Hightower's wild ride into the seafood business

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Tyrone Hightower is a go-to around Raleigh, N.C. for everything you want to know about buying and cooking N.C. seafood, but it was a wild ride to get there.

“How I ended up in the seafood business is what I would consider, a little bit of happenstance and destiny,” Hightower said.

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This story is party of NC Catch’s “Recognizing African American Participation in the North Carolina Seafood Industry” project. North Carolina’s Black seafood business community has partnered with researchers in this historic project conceived by NC Catch to build understanding of the vital role African Americans and people of color play in the state’s seafood industry. Narratives, video and oral histories tell the stories of Black fishers, wholesalers, chefs and others working in seafood. A N.C. Sea Grant 2024 Community Collaborative Research Grant has helped fund the project.

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The owner of Apex Seafood & Market grew up catching and eating freshwater fish like catfish, bluegill and crappies around Norlina. After earning a N.C. State degree in animal science, Hightower worked for 23 years as a veterinary assistant/technician doing everything from emergency care to exotic animal medicine. Servals, sloths, kangaroos, fish, reptiles, skunks, pet primates and sea turtles were among his patients.

Along the way, Hightower talked to many people who wanted a reliable source of fresh seafood but didn't want to travel all the way to the N.C. coast to get it. With a deep understanding of aquatic species, their nutritional value and how to determine superior seafood quality, he decided to fill the void.

Hightower shared his story in an interview for NC Catch’s “Recognizing African American Participation in the North Carolina Seafood Industry” project team. Hightower doesn’t have a physical market location. Instead, he sells seafood at Raleigh-area farmers markets. The interview happened while Hightower was working the Midtown Farmers Market in Raleigh. The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

You took a big career turn from animal science into seafood.

I had hopes of becoming a veterinarian. But the more I was in the field, the less I wanted to do it. I enjoy being able to talk to clients and patients and have a relationship with them, but not so much the full medicine aspect of it, though. That's mainly the reason why I just decided that I didn't want to do it anymore.

What was it like starting a small seafood business inland?

I started the business about five years ago (around 2018). A lot of seafood suppliers, they didn’t want to work with me because I wanted to purchase small amounts of seafood. And most of the fishermen and fish markets were wanting me to purchase their whole catch, which a lot of times was 100 pounds of spots or, you know, 200 pounds of tuna, and I don't even sell that much in one weekend sometimes.

How did you make it work?

I called around to some local seafood markets and just asked them who their suppliers were. And most of them would not tell me. I have one employee who told me who their suppliers were. I don't think his boss knew. But he told me and then I called those suppliers. One of them said yes to me.

One of the vendors that I talked to was very nice. I give him credit for kind of educating me about everything because I had no idea at the time, what 21/25 count shrimp are, I was like, "what are those?" He said that's how many to come to a pound. So, before I even purchased any seafood for three months, he just called me up. Every week. We talked, and he said, well, this is what I have available. And so, by the time I got to the point where I needed to get seafood, it was a much quicker thing, and we were able to communicate in fisherman's language.

You wanted to sell North Carolina seafood?

I was intent on doing just local seafood. There's only one place I know of that does completely local. And they do a really good job at it. But for the most part, you kind of have to sell some non-local items. Salmon, I'm sorry to say, is my number one seller. Number two would be my shrimp.

Your chalkboard this morning says you’re sold out of all your fish!

Yes, everything except for maybe fish cakes and crab cakes. Well, and the shrimp cakes. Yes, shrimp cakes. Shrimp cakes are — a lot of people don't know about those. So, they're hesitant to try them. But they are more in line with the crab cakes, and crab cakes started out as a slow seller too, because most people were expecting me to have made them myself. I get them from a great company. Mattamuskeet Seafood (Mattamuskeet, N.C.). But the crab cakes have caught on, and I haven't had one customer that has tried them and said they didn't like them.

When you said people in the community wanted fresh seafood. Were you talking about African American neighborhoods with traditional dishes like bonefish, or were you just talking in general?

In general, everybody just said they want fresh seafood. A lot of the markets that they were going to, they had been burned by. They got some questionable seafood, not so fresh seafood, or it was seafood not from where they were expecting it, or not advertised where it was from. Or if it was seafood that was previously frozen but was not advertised as that.

Now I do have seafood that I pack and seal and freeze. And I started doing that during the pandemic, when there was a shortage of seafood in the grocery stores. And people wanted to stock up on their protein sources. But very few people are going to buy five pounds of salmon or five pounds of black sea bass and are going to eat it within three days. So, to help everybody with that I started packing, sealing, and freezing stuff so that people can just take it from its frozen state, put it in their freezer and just take it out and defrost it as they saw fit. But any frozen seafood that I have stays frozen.

How has not being able to purchase North Carolina seafood in large quantities affected what you can sell?

These farmers markets are the markets where people are more likely to purchase the higher-end seafood such as the groupers. The other fish, such as the bonefish, like spots, and croakers, and stuff like that…Unfortunately, I'm not able to carry those fish because I have to buy them in such huge quantities, in 25- or 50-pound increments. I can't sell that much of any of my fish, except for maybe salmon I can get rid of that amount. And shrimp. I can get rid of those increments at one market during the weekend.

If I had a brick-and-mortar, possibly I would be able to sell larger quantities of those fish. But I don't think that I have enough interest that I would even delve into trying to sell those fish. A lot of people are afraid of buying whole fish. For me, whole fish are easier to cook. They are more forgiving than filets, and the bones actually give it a different taste. There's all kinds of things that you can do with whole fish. Me, I'm not a big vegetable eater. So, if I get a whole fish, I usually will stuff it with some type of vegetable so that I get my meat and vegetables at one time.

What is your favorite seafood?

Triggerfish is my number one and then followed by golden and gray tilefish. Black sea bass is next. And monkfish. Rounding that out I would probably say sheepshead.

Your son works with you in the business?

My oldest is 17. He's grew up in business with me. He's actually at the Holly Springs farmers market right now. He started doing his own market about three years ago. I let him loose after he had been with me for so long. And I was trying to branch out because I started out at the Apex (farmers) market. And I had a lot of customers who were telling me you need to try the Holly Springs market. So, I took off. I started alternating between the Apex and Holly Springs market. This one (I’m at today) is the Midtown Farmers Market.

He's actually in college right now. He goes to North Carolina Central. For the past two weeks, he's been driving from Central to the market to do the market. Then after the market, he drives back to school.

The “Recognizing African American Participation in the North Carolina Seafood Industry” project is about African Americans telling their stories of having worked or working now in North Carolina’s seafood sectors. Tell us about your experience as one of those people in the industry now, and with a son who is interested in following you into the business.

It's good. It's like the fishermen that are on the coast, how a lot of their children are choosing to not continue in this field. Because I guess there's more profitable ways of living. But for me, I enjoy talking to people, I enjoy educating people. Obviously, I have to make a living, though. But I enjoy educating people more about the seafood versus selling it. I want you to make an informed decision about what you're eating, what you're consuming. So that, you know, if I sell you some swordfish and I didn't let you know about the flavor profile of it, then, more than likely, you're not going to come back to visit me.

As for my son, he works the market and he enjoys talking to people too and educating people. And he has a lot of people that actually ask about him.

To be honest, I probably would not recommend this career to my children because it's just become harder to do throughout the years, especially with the regulations that are being put on the fishermen on the coast. There's not as many of them in this career field anymore, which means that we probably aren't going to have as much seafood coming in. And I think it's the law of supply and demand. If there's more demand for the seafood and the supply is less, then the price is going to be higher. And that is cost prohibitive. For example, tuna was available this week for me to get but it was at a price point that was too high for me to purchase and sell to my customers. So, I chose not to purchase it.

Do you eventually want to have brick-and-mortar location?

I've talked to a couple of fish markets. And some of them are struggling to keep their doors open and stuff. So, I kind of go back and forth. It's like, ‘Oh, I want a brick and mortar.’ And then when I hear that, I'm like, ‘Oh, I'm glad that I'm completely mobile. And I don't have that overhead and stuff like that, though.’

Have you experienced any particular challenges being an African American in the seafood industry?

Even though it's unsaid, I do think that there is. I've noticed that a couple of times, I've gone to some of my suppliers, and I get a different price than some of the other customers get. My prices are a little bit higher. But you know, I'm not supposed to know that. So, I just go ahead and purchase that at my price point, even though it is a little bit higher, so there is a little bit of discrimination…But I still need products, so I deal with it.

And then there's not a lot of faces that look like mine in the seafood industry. And I've noticed more within the last couple of years. John (Mallette), at Southern Breeze Seafood (in Jacksonville, N.C.). He's come onto the scene. I like seeing him. Ricky Moore at Saltbox Seafood (a chef/restaurant owner in Durham, N.C.). Keith Rhodes (chef at Catch Restaurant in Wilmington, N.C.). It's good to see others that look like me in the industry. So that I'm, you know, not alone in it.

Is it advantageous to work with the people you mentioned?

I think it is advantageous to network with them because they can guide you through some of the hurdles that they've already gone through. Or send me to other people that I can get a fair price from. Or just literally their experience, since all of them have been in the industry longer than I have. So, I can pass that knowledge on to someone else, whether they're more seasoned than me or whether they are just coming onto the scene themselves.

I just want — and I know this is wishful thinking — but I want the seafood industry to just be more open, to be more friendly. Because we're all in it, hopefully, to try to supply everyone with the best product that we're able to and the most nutritious product.

NC Catch chair Barbara Garrity-Blake and journalist Liz Biro contributed to this report.

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