The Family Business: Mark and Sam Lewis
Sam Lewis never wanted to be a fish guy.
When it came time to choose a career, he fought the very idea of it. He could be a firefighter, or a construction worker, or an insurance salesman—anything but a fish guy, stuck for life with the family fish business.
"My friends were getting jobs in mortgage during the heyday of easy money, while we were busting our asses selling fish," he says. "I thought, 'This fish thing—it stinks.'"
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The swift-talking 33-year-old describes his younger years as he's sitting in a cramped Fullerton office, its walls speckled with Post-its, a miniature shark-jaw skeleton bonded to a wooden plaque and a framed photograph of a man proudly holding a swordfish the size of a tree trunk. Just outside the door, two workers in black-rubber aprons and matching rubber boots stand over a wet tabletop, slicing the bright-orange flesh of the day's supply of salmon, the resulting slabs ready to be vacuum-sealed, plopped into ice boxes and loaded into vans heading to farmers' markets across Southern California.
Yes, Sam became a fish guy, and on this Friday morning, he seems quite chipper about it. He's just come back from the San Pedro wharf, where he scooped up the night's catch unloaded by local fishermen before dawn. Next to him is his father, Mark, who founded the popular fishmongering business Dry Dock Fish Co., headquartered in a drab white building on Commonwealth Avenue that, from the outside, looks like it has been shut down for years.
"I needed to mature," Sam says of his gradual decision to go into a father-son partnership. "At 24, I thought, 'I gotta get my shit together, and I already have something that somebody put their life's work into.' It was my biggest head start, and I finally realized that."
"Now, he's better than me," says Mark, a 64-year-old with a slightly Arabic accent. "He convinces people easier than I can. I think it's because he looks German."
Mark, who has a disarming chortle, is about to head over to Huntington Beach Farmers' Market, where he'll man a row of ice crates brimming with fresh ahi tuna, sake salmon, mahi mahi, Chilean sea bass, Hawaiian opah, albacore scallops, oysters, clams, house-made ceviche and poke, and fish bones for simmering in broth. Of catering to his clientele, he explains, "Asians, they like certain things. Latinos, they like certain things. White people, if you give them something other than a filet, like, if it's got a head, they go, 'Ohhh! It's looking at me!' You're dealing with all kinds of people."
Born in Marseille, France, Mark was raised in Casablanca, Morocco, where his father made a living building castles for the king of Morocco. During off-hours, the armed guards would let him enter restricted areas of the rivers and catch fish to bring home to his family.
"You know mussels?" Mark asks. "In Morocco, those were like the size of your shoe. One mussel would be your dinner."
He immigrated to the United States when he was 15, landing in New York, and later settling in Anaheim in the early 1980s. He started making women's clothing for a living, but the business went bust, leaving him depressed and frustrated. To calm his nerves, he would go fishing in Huntington Beach, San Pedro, San Diego, Big Bear—wherever he could find a bite.
"I'd eat the fish, then I'd catch some more and give it to all my friends," he says. "Then I'd catch some more, and I'd have too much, so then I'd sell it."
Thus, a fish business emerged. With the help of his wife, in 1986, Mark opened Dry Dock Fish Co., for which he'd clean, cut, weigh, bag, label and sell the fish himself. When his only child, Sam, was about 5, Mark would bring him along to the docks.
"Oh, I loved it," Sam remembers. "I was like his shadow all day. At that time, Dad worked with an Italian family. There was Nino and Pino and Lilo. There was this big ice machine in the roof, and it would drop ice and make this huge mountain, and the kids would run up there and sit on it and slide down while our dads negotiated the fish."
Mark says Sam was "just a little guy" when he started working at Dry Dock, wrapping the fish at the farmers' markets for customers to take home. "One time, he wasn't wrapping fast enough, so I tried to do it, and he started crying," he recalls. "The customer said, 'Oh, let him pack it!' Then he packed it and even got a tip."
During his teen years, Sam entered a phase of rebellion, getting into enough trouble that Mark pulled him out of Magnolia High School at the end of his junior year. "He said, 'I don't know what's going on, but the longer you stay there, the stupider you become,'" Sam recalls.
In his early 20s, Sam searched for a career path, but his résumé and record were far from gleaming. "You know all that stuff you do when you're a dumb kid? It really comes back to you," he explains. "It became apparent to me that I gotta make this fish thing work, or I'm really not gonna go anywhere."
So he dove into the fish business, learning simply by doing. "We didn't have time to sit down and train this and train that," Sam says. "It was like, 'You figure it out. I gotta go do this.'"
"It was like, 'Now you know; now you fly,'" Mark adds.
While figuring out how to run a fish business—dealing with fishermen, buying equipment, managing employees—Sam says his father was like an "invisible hand."
"He had the strength to let me make my own mistakes," Sam says. "Never once did he say, 'Don't do this; don't do that.' He would just say, 'Okay, let's see how that works,' knowing that it's probably not going to work. And when I'd go, 'Man, that didn't work,' he would kind of sit there and smirk. That helped me learn better than if he just told me ahead of time."
Mark describes his philosophy: "If it's a big hole that you're gonna fall into and never come out, you have to step in. But with the little holes, you know they're gonna be okay. So you let 'em fall."
These days, Mark works with Dry Dock more as an adviser, concentrating more on its sister business, Lemon Lady, which makes and supplies preserved lemons and limes for seafood recipes.
Meanwhile, Sam does much of the roll-up-your-sleeves work of sourcing the fish, scrutinizing each one for its quality. "I take everything that leaves this shop very personally," he says. "That's somebody's dinner, and it's not a hamburger. They work hard for that 20 bucks a pound, so it's important the end user eat it and go, 'Mmmm.'"
Mark nods in approval. After a quarter century of building and growing the company from scratch, he's happy to hand it over to his son. It's Sam's fish thing now.
"I'm getting off the merry-go-round," he says with a smile, "and he's getting on."
This article appeared in print as "Something Fishy This Way Comes: Mark Lewis & son Sam."
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