Still trolling for business: Seafood market stays afloat despite downturn, rising fish prices

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Just as soon as Garland Skinner was old enough to scale a fish, his daddy put him to work.

Skinner is the co-owner of Morehead Seafood Market and Grill at 205 S. Tarboro St. in downtown Wilson.

“When I was a little feller, if I wanted a bicycle, I had to step in to work and scrape flounders all day long,” Skinner said.

The business, 77 years old this year, has been owned and operated by Skinner and his wife, Sandra, since 1981.

In that year, the Skinners took over the business from Garland’s father, Lloyd “Red” Skinner, who hoped his son would carry on the family business.

“He was born in ’41, so he was practically born in here,” Sandra Skinner said of her husband. “He was standing up on a Coca-Cola crate at that table scraping fish when he was a little feller.”

Young Garland learned how to fillet a fish fast.

“Didn’t take long watching my daddy do it,” Garland Skinner recalled. “It took me about six weeks and I could do it just as good as he could. I was about 12 or 13. Just as soon as I got out of school, I was up here every day.”

During the Friday lunch hour, business was brisk as customers came by to pick up orders of sea mullet, spot, croaker, flounder, speckled trout, whiting, Norfolk spots, porgies, fat mullet, catfish, tilapia, butterfish, scallops and shrimp.

“We carrying about 21 different kind just about every day,” Garland Skinner said.

The couple put in the grill in 1987.

“When we first put the cooking side in, they were lined up on the sidewalk. We used to have to keep the door open there were so many,” he said. “I just wish it was back the way it was. Yes, sir.”

At one point, the business had nine employees and had two trucks coming in with seafood each day.

“Those were the good old days,” he said.

“When we here and we were young and the children were young and all, downtown sidewalks were full of fish on Friday and Saturday,” Sandra Skinner remembers. “On Friday night, the store used to stay open until 9 o’clock at night. There were the most people, and then everybody started moving out. We used to sell fruits and candy out front, oranges, apples, grapes, everything, especially during the holidays. We had 50-pound bags of peanuts. People would come up here and buy whole boxes of apples, boxes of oranges and tangerines. It was just wonderful. You would not believe the difference. We sold Christmas candy and it just all went away and I blame it all on Walmart.”

“We’d still have that if business was still here,” Garland Skinner said.

The couple’s oldest daughter, Denise Bryant, works as the fry cook at the business, preparing mostly fish plates.

“You’ve got to keep your eye on it until it turns golden brown,” Bryant said. “Some people like it fried really hard and crispy.”

Larry Woodard of Wilson is a regular customer who usually gets the Hungry-Hungry Man special for $10.

“It’s good for the price. You get what you pay for, quality and quantity,” Woodard said.

The meal includes five trout fillets, a half-pint of slaw, six hushpuppies and fries.

“That’s the favorite one we sell a lot of,” Bryant said.

Friday is usually Morehead Seafood’s busiest day.

“It’s fish day on Friday,” Bryant has observed. “They just like to have fish on Fridays. Maybe it’s because it’s payday, or maybe just the way they were raised.”

Sandra Skinner said the business has gotten harder over the years.

“The fish have gotten scarce and so expensive,” she said. “Business downtown is so slow and our age, too. We’re getting too old to put up with this aggravation. We have to listen to the customers complain about the price. We can’t help it. It’s just like the flounder. They cost us like $7 a pound. We sell it for $10. It doesn’t cover the rent, the electricity bill and payroll.”

A truck from Atlantic Seafood Co. in Hampstead arrives every Wednesday to supply the fish from coastal fishermen.

“They sell it to the driver, then the driver puts his price on it and brings it to us, so by the time it gets to us, it’s very expensive,” Skinner said.

Skinner said she is encouraged to see the effort being put into rebuilding Wilson’s downtown.

“I declare, I wish I was younger,” Skinner said.

They are hoping development of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park will do something for downtown.

“I can hardly wait,” Skinner said. “I wish I was younger. The warehouse that’s going to be apartments, I just can’t wait to see it. I just think that’s going to help a whole lot. There’s a lot of new shops that’s coming down here. The Whirligig Park is so unusual and all I think it’s going to be neat. I wish I was younger so we could stay open full-time and we’d be swamped with all these people that are going to move into the warehouse. I can hardly wait.”

The Morehead Seafood Market and Grill, 205 S. Tarboro St., can be reached by calling 252-291-1003.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturdays.