For John Woolley, working with fish is second nature. After all, his great grand father and his grandfather were both fishermen before his father decided to sell the treasures of the sea rather than catch them.
So it was on June 16, 1960 that was opened near the border of Howell and Freehold. Woolley said when his dad John A. Woolley opened the store Route 9 was a much different place that it is now. "There was mostly local farmers and a little bit of through traffic headed from New York City down to Atlantic City or Lakewood," he said.
That traffic also provided part of their original customer base instead of people having to go down to the beach to buy fish at the docks. "It was all just local caught stuff," he said. "There was nothing out of the Fulton Market or other ports of origin."
Since that time he said the store has brought in daily deliveries from the massive market in New York bringing only the freshest items to his customers. "He'll call me sometimes two or three times in the morning," he said of his delivery updates. "Usually he stops calling around 7 a.m. so I get an hour or so of sleep," he added with a laugh.
From the early morning phone calls to the late night scrubbings the store gets Woolley said his job is the definition of a labor of love. "It's a business that I've always enjoyed being in," he said. And he has been in it since the age of 10 when he would sweep and clean and learn the basics of working with fish.
Woolley's may not be the oldest business in town but he said he is proud to be part of the community. "It's all about building from within and shopping locally and that's what we like to promote," he said. "We like to spend money with people that spend money with us."
That includes the farm market that operates right next door and figures prominently into Woolley's future plans for his business. After seven years of planning by the end of the summer he hopes to see the completion of a 3500 square foot addition. That addition, he said, will be his version of a Maryland Cra House.
With what he calls a menu with "mostly heart healthy items," he said patrons will be able to enjoy all the favorites the fish store offers and more. "The restaurant is natural," he said. "We need that added space to bolster what we're doing in the retail market."
For a shop that is already busy on a regular basis Woolley said the new addition should help move his customers faster as the items available for takeout will be readily available. "People come in, they want their clams opened to order, they want their shrimp peeled to order, they want their shrimp cooked to order," he said. "These are items that would be prepped and all cooked to order in the restaurant."
The farmer's market, he said, will play a vital role in the success of the restaurant while also continuing to help other local businesses. "Produce is much like seafood," he said. "It has a certain shelf life and every day that the produce is not taken care of, just like seafood it loses a lot of its shelf life."
Leading up to and carrying through the opening of the restaurant Woolley said the store will continue to see the same high level of product that they have for more than 50 years. He said the most popular items are salmon, shrimp lobsters and crab but they also bring in a variety of special items as well. "We pretty much buy day by day so what you're seeing here today you're not going to see here tomorrow."
Being around for more than five decades he said there is a loyal group of customers who can come on a daily basis so he needs the variety to satisfy them. "We can't let them buy the same thing every day because we just won't see them for very long," he said. "If somebody buys the same salmon for three weeks running they'll just get tired of salmon and thereby eating seafood and then maybe they'll just have straight salads."
Woolley said it is important to not only have the best product, but also at the best price for his customers. "We have our daily specials and they're hard to beat sometimes," he said. "You can buy mussels three pounds for five dollars and that feeds a family of four over pasta," he said. "That's an economical meal."
If for whatever reason his store does not have an item a customer is looking for on a particular day he can usually get it the day after. "A lot of the items that are requested are hard to find items," he said. "They're asking me because they've already asked other people."
Even a company that has been around for 50 years can always use new customers and Woolley's has just the vehicle to attract people driving by on Route 9. Right out front is a bright red 1958 truck that Woolley said reminds him of the 1961 his dad used to bring fish in from the docks and the market. "It was gold," he said of that truck. "This one's slightly different." It may be different but it has still been in the family for close to 30 years and Woolley said it can still be taken out on the road. "But I don't haul fish in it anymore," he laughed.
These days when seafood can be bought at a counter in any supermarket or in the frozen foods section, Woolley said he believes what he is doing is important and valuable to the community. "I'm a dinosaur, but it's something that I think is a worthwhile item to keep in play."