Robert Reany exchanges pleasant banter with his workers as he helps prepare for the Friday lunch crowd at Columbus' North Market. The 41-year-old entrepreneur moves confidently from behind the well-ordered displays of fresh fish and salads chilled on ice to sit at a wooden picnic table on the market's sun-drenched boardwalk. With obvious pride, he begins talking about a subject he knows well: how to sell some of the best fresh fish in town.
"I've been profitable since Day One," boasts Reany, who opened Bob "The Fish Guy" three years ago with $10,000 and more than 20 years of experience in New York's savvy, oceanfront industry. First-year sales of his premium-quality seafood and side dishes were $450,000, he says. With a steady-even stunning-profit margin of about 40 percent, he now reels in more than $700,000 annually and expects to open a second outlet soon.
Reany explains his success simply. "There was very little investment," he says of the tiny 13-square-foot space where he started his business with one clerk and a smattering of used and leased equipment. Proceeds from the sale of his partnership share in a New York fish-retailing business, as well as some extra equipment he opted to unload, financed his entire start-up phase.
"The rent, payments and payroll were low enough and I didn't carry that much inventory," he explains. "It's a fresh product and I bought and sold it right away."
But Reany is also a seasoned entrepreneur with vast knowledge in his chosen field.
While 16 and still in high school, Reany worked part-time at Blue Water Fish Market in the Bayside area of Queens, N.Y., just around the corner from where he lived. He increased his hours to full-time after graduation and remained there for six years before taking a job at Hollis Fisheries in Hollis Queens, N.Y. The owner of that fish market, Teodoro Guadalupi, became his most influential mentor.
Reany later partnered with Guadalupi and a personal friend, William Rousseas, in Marine Fisheries, a thriving, upscale seafood market in Great Neck, Long Island. His duties included buying, pricing and preparing the fish for display-experience that would come in handy when Reany eventually struck out on his own.
"Working with Teddy was tough because he was much older," Reany says. "He had a certain way of doing things and we let him do it pretty much because he had given us the opportunity and we were making good money and were happy."
Problems arose, however, when Guadalupi retired and left his share of the business to his son, a man with whom Reany did not get along. Reany left the partnership, briefly owned a "totally unprofitable" stationery store, then went to work, unsuccessfully, as a manager in the fish section of a supermarket.
"It was the worst year of my life," Reany recalls. "There was so much bureaucracy, and the product was so bad. It was a terrible experience."
Reany briefly rejoined Marine Fisheries after the younger Guadalupi died unexpectedly, and although the money was good there, Reany admits that the partnership aspect of it-answering to other people-was "getting old." Furthermore, the traffic and high cost of living in New York got him and his wife, Kimberly Hanson, talking more and more about moving away. When Hanson accepted a lucrative job offer as director of circulation at Victoria's Secret Catalogue in Columbus, Reany knew it was time to make a fresh start in a business of his own.
Tackling the Midwest
If you can make it in New York, as the song goes, you'll make it anywhere. But succeeding in the fish business in Columbus was far from a foregone conclusion for Reany. While New Yorkers were willing to pay dearly for high-quality seafood, Reany was unsure if Columbus natives would spend as much as $15 for the privilege. A casual observation of the lunch menu at Katzinger's Delicatessen in German Village put Reany's fears to rest.
"I was waiting in line to order lunch there one day, and saw that pastrami sandwiches were selling for $8," he recalls. "So I figured if people would pay $8 for a pastrami sandwich, they'd spend $15 on a piece of swordfish."
Reany spent several weeks visiting Ohio wholesalers to find the best sources for various fish. Using the Yellow Pages, he scoured every fish market and supermarket he could find to check out his potential competition and to determine what he could do differently. Not only did this research confirm Reany's belief that he could offer fresher fish than most, but it also convinced him he could display it better than anyone else. What he was not convinced of, however, was that he could find, consistently, the quality of fish in Ohio that he had found in the Big Apple.
When Reany initially set up shop at the North Market in November 1995, he began making a weekly pilgrimage to New York's Fulton Fish Market, the only place he was confident he could buy the quality and variety of seafood he needed. This fish would sell out within about three days; then he would "fill-in" with lake fish from local wholesalers.
"You couldn't get better lake fish in New York," he admits.
But the $200 expense for truck rental and gas for his treks to New York, plus the wear and tear on his body from nine hours of driving each way, began to take its toll. By February 1996-less than three months after opening his shop-Reany decided it was in his best interest to make peace with the Ohio-based suppliers and fight the daily war for quality.
Pumping up the volume
Reany contends that Ohio-based wholesalers now sell a wider variety of fresh fish than when he started his businesses, so he can use them almost exclusively. A total of five suppliers, including Cleveland-based Waterfront Seafoods and Euclid Fish, keep his shop well-stocked.
With his expanded location in the North Market, which is roughly three times the size of the original, he also sells more variety than he used to. For example, where Reany used to stock four sizes of shrimp at the smaller site, he now sells eight sizes at the larger one-and sells just as much of each, boosting his total sales considerably.
Food critics John Marshall and John Champlin of Columbus Monthly credit Reany with having the most extensive selection of fish and shellfish in Columbus.
According to Tom Jackson, president and CEO of the Ohio Grocers Association, selling a lot of seafood may be the key to Reany's unusual start-up success.
"For people to be profitable in seafood, they have to do a large volume," notes Jackson. "You have to have the right customer base and location for that to happen because the way to build a fish business is by keeping the fish fresh-so you're turning it over all the time."
Reany's insistence on quality may help his fish sell quickly, too.
"If something isn't perfect, he sends it right back," says Gary Noe, a regional manager at the Columbus operations for Seafood International, one of Reany's suppliers. "I have a lot of respect for him; he certainly knows his product."
Michael Bartosic, a sales and purchasing manager for Waterfront Seafoods, agrees that Reany is demanding.
"He knows what's good, what's borderline, and what's not going to cut it in a couple of days," Bartosic says.
That's why Reany insists on buying directly from suppliers. He doesn't want his fish sitting around in a warehouse awaiting distribution-a practice he says was common at the supermarket where he previously worked.
Reany doesn't consider supermarket fish sections to be direct competitors. Yet Noe, whose company also supplies Kroger, says the same quality seafood that Reany sells can be purchased in some Kroger stores with high-volume fish sales. In addition, Reany's prices are competitive and sometimes better than the supermarket chain.
"In the fish industry," Noe cautions, "cheaper prices equal a cheaper product."
For his part, Reany says he's unconcerned with pricing strategies, and marks up his fresh fish 35 percent to 40 percent. The clientele at the North Market, he admits, are largely middle- to upp er-class and able to afford such prices. He differentiates himself from the competition, he says, by adding a more personal touch.
"We try to be as informative as possible," he explains. "A lot of people are afraid of fish."
Challenges ahead and behind
Reany's fast success has left him itching for a new challenge. His current shop can almost run without his being there, so he's considering Grandview, Bexley and Worthington as possible sites for a second location. Reany plans to take some of his employees, which now number six full-time and two part-time, to the next location with him. Then Reany will build, through trial and error, the next group of contented workers. After all, rounding up the first bunch was trouble enough.
Reany remembers going through dozens of sales clerks and kitchen workers in Columbus' low-unemployment market before locating his current staff.
"People would come in like a house on fire and quit after three days," he says.
After hiring shop manager, Doug Denny, staffing seemed to get easier, Reany says.
"Doug was very smart and learned quickly," he explains. "He gave me more free time so I could be more patient with hiring people. Also, we could take turns training new people."
Denny says he likes Reany's no-nonsense, New York approach of taking care of problems as soon as they arise. Then there's Reany's informal management style, which employee Kevin Bertschi cites as a plus. Reany is so laid-back he even lets Bertschi and others pay themselves daily from the cash register and leave a note.
Keeping more than one worker at the stand at all times helps keep workers honest, says Reany, who has dismissed just one employee for stealing.
"They have autonomy," Reany says. "No one ever busts their chops. Some of them are just tired of wearing suits and ties to work."
Reany pays his staff between $6 and $12 an hour. Recently, he started to offer health benefits to his full-timers "to do something nice for them," and he pays the roughly $60-a-month fee to cover each employee. His philosophy is to treat employees the way he wants to be treated.
"A lot of times I'm not here all day long, and my business is in their hands, my money is in their hands," he explains. "So I don't want anyone to be upset with me."
That's an attitude he plans to keep as he expands his Bob "The Fish Guy" shop into as many as five more locations throughout the city.
"This is what I do best," Reany says.