Local seafood store has new name, same products and service
By Rich Palzewic
HOWARD – Long known as Seaway Foods in Howard, the local seafood store recently underwent a name change.
Located at 2223 Velp Ave., Seaway is now Bearcat’s Fish House.
Owners Billy and Nicole Smith also have a store in Algoma under the same name.
“We’ve owned the store in Algoma going on eight years, but acquired the one in Howard in April of last year,” said Billy Smith, whose father-in-law, Dale Klimek, also helps in the day-to-day operations of the store. “We ran the operation for a year, and after we felt comfortable with the community knowing we were here, we decided to switch the name to the brand we’d been working on for years.”
Smith grew up in Alaska, played junior hockey for the Green Bay Gamblers and attended Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan.
He said the company focuses on fresh and smoked fish, but also has specialty products.
“Our smoked-fish products have been doing well over the last year,” he said. “We have many different flavored smoked salmon, whitefish, chubs, herring and lake trout. All of those fish can be smoked, but we also carry many of those same items fresh. We also have lake perch, yellow perch, walleye and frozen seafood.”
Smith said Bearcat’s works with suppliers from Alaska to the East Coast, Canada and South America.
“We work with distributors all over the world, but some are local, too,” he said. “The local guys we work with mostly give us whitefish and some of those Great Lakes specialty items. We can’t get chubs or smelt all the time, but when we do, we try to get them from the local suppliers. We don’t do any of the fishing ourselves.”
When the store receives a shipment of seafood, Smith said it might need to be filleted, checked for quality, rinsed, checked for bones and retailed.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith, whose wife, Nicole, takes care of the off-site management materials like marketing, said his business has taken a hit in the wholesale industry.
“Many of the restaurants are doing takeout and doing OK, but many are struggling financially,” he said. “The retail side of our business (in the store) has been relatively stable. We are getting community support even though we are asking our customers to be compliant with the restrictions in place. We have taken a hit without supplying local restaurants, but we are making it through and will be fine. We are fortunate to have the business we have.”
Smith said he had a dilemma when deciding whether to close or remain open in March.
“I have skilled labor working for me,” he said. “If I lay my workers off and they don’t know when they’re coming back to work, my training curve is extensive. Whatever happens, my goal is to keep my guys going as long as I can. Luckily, our retail business has been good enough to keep and afford everyone to stay on. If we only sold to restaurants, I would’ve had to lay off employees, restructure things and get more creative to make money.”
Smith said running a business is a give-and-take relationship.
“My employees rely on me,” he said. “Whenever we are slow, I keep them going, because when we are busy, we need them. You’re not always making tons of money. At times, you have to take care of the people who are helping take care of you when you need them most.”
Bearcat’s in Howard is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with extended hours until 5:30 p.m. Friday.
Smith said he hopes to offer Saturday hours in Howard soon.
For more information, visit bearcatsfish.com.