ANN ARBOR – Forty years have passed since Mike Monahan and Paul Saginaw opened Monahan’s Seafood Market -- one of Kerrytown Market & Shop’s oldest establishments -- in December of 1979.
Since then, ownership changes -- namely Saginaw shifting his focus to Zingerman’s Delicatessen in the early 1980s -- and shifts in buyer trends have come to define the market today.
Monahan’s connection to the market started before it carried his name. He worked at the market when it was still owned by Real Seafood Company where Saginaw was a manager. “It was a great business but it wasn’t doing really well at the time,” said Monahan.
Together, Monahan and Saginaw bought the market using loans from family and friends, and within a year they doubled sales.
Catering to international tastes
“The difference between what we were doing and what they had done before is they were doing a fish market but they were catering to the typical suburban cod, whitefish, crab and shrimp (buyers),” said Monahan. “And here we are in a town that’s full of people from all over the world that eat a lot more fish than most Americans eat. And that market wasn’t really being tapped.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Kerrytown was a predominantly African American neighborhood and demand for fish from the surrounding community was high.
“We started catering more to the neighborhood and we started finding out what all the people coming in from other countries wanted,” said Monahan. “And if they asked for something we weren’t familiar with, we’d find out what it was and we’d buy it. Even if we had to buy a case of it to fill one order we’d do whatever we could to get the new things in that people were asking about. Pretty soon, we started building up a pretty good foreign trade which we still have today.”
Monahan said that while mainstream grocery stores Kroger and Farmer Jack sold fish, they lacked quality and offered a limited selection. He saw a gap in local supply, and decided to fill it.
“All of a sudden we were selling a lot of fish for sushi and we were selling a lot of live blue crab to the Chinese community,” said Monahan. “And we were selling live eels to Italian people. Whatever people would ask for, we would find and we would learn about.”
This is what would set Monahan’s apart from other fish retailers in the area. Not only did they strive to deliver what their customers asked for, they made it their mission to learn about each species and how to prepare it. You can still find Monahan’s extensive recipe catalog on its website today.
“We were just kids. We knew a few recipes," said Monahan. “We knew how to judge freshness and we knew quite a bit about fish. But we had a lot to learn. So we learned more about the different species and how to prepare them.
“And we would ask the customer when they bought something how they were going to prepare their fish that evening. Usually it sounded really good and often simple enough that we could actually give it a try at home.”
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When asked why he decided to share his secret recipes with the community, Monahan replied, “There are no secrets. The customer’s success is our success. We have nothing to hide and everything to share.”
Shifting customer trends
Aside from competitors like Whole Foods and Plum Market opening in town, Monahan said shopper trends at Kerrytown Market & Shops have changed over the years.
“We’ve been here so long, we’ve gone from the time when moms were mostly stay at home moms," he said. “During the day there’d be lots of young mothers with strollers coming through buying the evening’s dinner and everybody was still sitting around and having dinner together. This was 40 years ago. Things started changing a bit.”
With more and more mothers entering the workforce, Monahan said foot traffic to the market began to slow significantly during the week. In an effort to bring in more weekday buyers, they launched oven-ready dinners, which are still popular today.
One might be surprised to learn that Monahan’s lunch service is relatively new. While lunch seems to be the driving force of business today from anyone who visits the buzzing market at lunch time, the restaurant side of the business only began 11 years ago.
Monahan said he had been thinking about serving lunch for years, but shifting from a market to a market-restaurant is a major step, requiring extra cleaning and hiring a cooking staff. Ultimately, he decided to make the leap and said it has been a great way to put their recipes to work and experiment with new approaches.
“The lunch is just the right size where we could have a lot of fun with it, and it’s a whole different group of people that normally wouldn’t come in,” said Monahan. “The idea was to get people in and introduce them to a lot of different new things that they might want to try for dinner. We have had a lot of that great crossover where people have lunch and grab a piece of fish for dinner.”
Aside from classic items like fish and chips, steamed mussels and calamari, the market also offers a case-to-cook menu where customers can pick a piece of fresh fish from the case, select a sauce or rub and the chef will prepare it on the spot.
Maintaining freshness far from the coast
When asked if it’s a challenge being a fish market in the Midwest far from the sea, Monahan replied: “It’s a great thing that we’re far from the sea.”
“We get fish here so quickly now, I would put our freshness against pretty much any market on the coast,” he said.
With regular flight and truck deliveries, freshness is not really an issue, he said.
Monahan’s Seafood Market gets a regular delivery from New England that picks up fish in Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. He requests to keep the majority of the fish whole so that it is handled as little as possible before it arrives in Ann Arbor.
“The fish coming out of the ice on the truck is in really good shape,” said Monahan. “Especially the fact that we’re buying mostly whole fish that we cut here. Most people don’t do that because we pay freight on those heads and bones. Instead of having them fillet it, we pay the extra freight and then we have the cost of labor of filleting them here.”
Monahan explained that the moment a fish is off the knife and exposed to air, the fat and moisture in the meat begins to evaporate and the fish begins to lose weight.
He added that another advantage to not being in a port city is that there is no regional bias.
“Imagine trying to sell a Lake Superior whitefish in Gloucester, Massachusetts," he said. “Nobody would buy it. But I can take the best of Gloucester, the cods, and the haddocks, the flounders, the scallops and everything else, and have a market for that here. We can serve anything you can imagine. It’s a great place to have a fish market.”
Reflecting on 40 years and looking ahead
Monahan’s Seafood Market is very much a family-run business. Monahan’s brother works there and all three of his children have worked at the market. His youngest daughter still works there. His manager of 30 years, Bernie Fritzsch, has had his children and grandchildren work there.
“It’s kind of emotional,” said Monahan when asked how it feels to reach 40 years. “The time goes by very, very quickly. And you’re working so hard you don’t really see the time go by. Just looking back at all the family, and the customers we’ve gotten to know so well and watch their children grow up, we now watch them come in with their children."
When asked if he has considered plans for retirement, he responded that he doesn’t plan on leaving the market anytime soon.
“I’m 68 and I’m still able to do it," he said. “And I think it’s good for your mind and body if you’re physically and mentally challenged all day. I have not thought of putting it out on the market yet. I’m still enjoying it.
"I’m really loving working with my daughter right now. She’s gone from being a little kid to taking on responsibility and jumping back into the kitchen when the chef needs help. It’s pretty amazing to watch her work.”
At the end of the interview, Monahan asked if he could add one more thought.
“No matter what your vision is, no matter how hard you work, you depend on the people around you so much,” Monahan said, becoming emotional. “And without my wife, without Bernie, without everybody else, Justin our cook and Mario and everybody else, we wouldn’t be anything. It’s a major team effort.”
Monahan’s Seafood Market is at 407 N. 5th Ave.
- Monday through Friday: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- Saturday: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Sunday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Lunch is served Monday through Saturday: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.