How COVID-19 Changed Mac’s Seafood’s Business Plan

August 2020 IssueFeatured Stories

Over the course of a few decades, Mac’s Seafood has grown from one small fish market on the Wellfleet pier to 10 markets and restaurants, a processing facility, catering business and wholesale shellfish company. 

This year Mac Hay, who owns the company with his younger brother Alex, was expecting a banner year. They had re-invested in the businesses and felt they were solidly prepared going into summer. 

COVID-19 changed all that. 

“The first couple of weeks were so traumatizing on so many different levels,” Mac said.

About 25 years ago, when Mac, not yet 20, began his business career, an uncle gave him a book, “Who Moved My Cheese?” It was an amusing parable about dealing with big changes in life. 

Mac thought of that book when the world turned upside down.

“Everybody’s cheese just got moved,” he said.

Initially the thought was to just keep moving: keep fishermen fishing, keep wholesalers afloat, keep buyers buying.  

Once they reached out to the Small Business Administration and took a few breaths, they realized they would be able to survive. 

So the brothers sat down with Sam Bradford, their cousin and chief financial officer, and decided to focus on what they could do. That came down to community.

“We’ve launched some programs to keep some local product running through the fishermen,” said Mac.

Among the programs is a partnership with the Wellfleet non-profit S.P.A.T. (Shellfish Promotion and Tasting), where shellfishermen are paid for clams and oysters taken to Wellfleet Shellfish Company, owned by the Hays.

Alex oversees the operation, where shellfish is sorted and turned into chowder, or left as is and dropped off at local food pantries and soup kitchens.

Now, with restaurants opening up and the Cape full of people, it’s hard to imagine the uncertainty of spring. But Alex’s primary focus then was letting everyone know they are still open. 

“We didn’t really stop trying to make sure the boats and the (shellfish) farmers we work with get a check every Friday,” he said. 

Mac said their earlier business plans are fairly useless now, which has given them opportunities to think out of the box. 

“If we aren’t focused on making money what can we do?” Mac added with a laugh. 

Mac’s Seafood Market on the Wellfleet Pier. The company has grown over the years from this single market to 10 markets, restaurants, a seafood processing plant, catering business and wholesale fish supplier.  COURTESY OF MAC’S SEAFOOD

 

Changing It Up

The company has taken on four or five new initiatives intended to serve local seafood in different ways, with different strategies.

“We did it because we understand the micro-economy of it and it’s the best product on the market,” Mac said.

The company has also partnered with some senior living residences, including Liberty Commons in Chatham, and launched Mac’s Meals, offering meals at close to cost for home delivery or pick-up at their retail stores in Eastham and Chatham. People played the program forward by donating money so more meals were given to people hurt by the pandemic.

“That has been really well received,” Mac said. “It’s not completely altruistic. Helping other people in need makes this process more human, more tolerable.” 

Imagining new enterprises was what drew the brothers into business in the first place, that and their grandparents teaching them how to eat right out of Wellfleet Bay as kids. 

From Wellesley To Cape Cod

The Hays grew up in Wellesley, but their mom’s parents have a house in Truro.  

Older brother Mac began working first at what was then the Harbor Freeze, at the Wellfleet Pier. Alex remembers scooping ice cream when he was 12 or 13, while Mac was in the fish market next door.

“It had some hokey name I don’t remember,” Alex says.

In 1993, the guy running the market decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. The owner, a friend of the family, asked Mac to take it on. Their grandfather would smoke fish and their grandmother would cook Portuguese kale soup, but operations were in the hands of young Hays.

“That is where all the magic began,” said Alex with a chuckle. 

Eventually they took over the restaurant while managing to get through college, both as philosophy majors. Mac was a chef in Boston and New York while Alex travelled to college in Trinidad, the University of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and sailed around the West Indian Ocean.

Their experiences blend into the menus at the restaurants, where the attempt is to present something unusual, cool, but local – a plate of whole sea bass staring at the diner, for example.

Real food For Real People

The company fillets fish themselves and what others throw away they take pride in using as stock for sauces and soup. Many of the fillets are sold in their retail markets or become fish and chips at the restaurants.

“That’s why I get up every morning, because we are dealing with the most amazing product,” said Alex.

That holds true in a pandemic. “We need to get back to real people and real food,” he said. 

That attitude isn’t surprising considering their background, said Andrew Cummings, a well-known shellfisherman in Wellfleet who has known the duo for close to 20 years.

Cummings said at first he wondered about two Wellesley kids with silver spoons in their mouths. But, he said, “they have always worked their asses off and when they said they were going to do something they did it. Sure, they have some money in their background, but they applied for business loans when they were kids and got them.”

As they continue to grow, becoming one of the bigger employers on the Outer Cape, there are people who say they are taking over. 

Cummings doesn’t buy that.  

“They are doing something you could do, but you just didn’t do it,” he tells the naysayers. 

They have also engaged in the community, helping launch Wellfleet S.P.A.T. that runs the Wellfleet Oyster Fest in typical years, while serving on various boards, including the Lower Cape Community Development Partnership. 

“And they were down in Chatham banging nails,” said Cummings, referring to their purchase of Chatham Fish and Lobster in 2019. 

Changing Times

The Hays said that when restaurants closed to everything except curbside pickup, people’s relationships with food changed.

Mac, eating at home far more often, said he thinks that’s going to carry over; one of his pandemic goals is to finish a cookbook. But being a chef at heart he wants to cook for many, not a few.

He was over the moon when restaurants opened back up. 

Curtis Hartman, former chair of the Truro board of selectmen, has known the brothers for close to 20 years and is an admirer of their accomplishments. 

“The first place I met Mac was on the pier. He was just a beardless youth with so much enthusiasm,” Hartman remembered.

Hartman asked Mac to donate to cook for auction winners to help raise money for Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill.

“I have never seen a cook have more fun,” he said. “He shares that love of food with so much enthusiasm it is impossible not to be swept away.

“My hope is that my 10-year-old granddaughter’s first job will be scooping ice cream for Mac.” 

Those who know the brothers say their fish obsession doesn’t end at work. Their homes are filled with fish art and pottery and Alex is always cooking up misshapen shellfish he can’t sell.

Alex believes he is a better cook than his brother, a tidbit Mac decidedly does not agree with. Alex handles more of the shellfish and fish buying sides, but he has fond memories of being in the kitchen with his older brother.

“Working with Mac was a lot of fun,” he said.

The two remember driving down to Chatham daily to get fresh fish from David Carnes at Chatham Fish and Lobster many years before they wound up buying the business.

The same with their cousin, Sam Bradford, who joined the company two decades ago to take over the finances. Bradford started working at Mac’s when he was 17, coming summers from New York. 

He now runs Chatham Fish and Lobster, which has a wholesale plant in Commerce Park that processes and packs fish. Chatham Fish has relationships with about 150 restaurants across the Cape; Wellfleet Shellfish Company handles national orders.

Many of the people who taught the Hays and Bradford how to judge the quality of fish are still there. 

“I’ve known these guys down here since then. It’s pretty fun for me,” Bradford said.

The retail side of the business is doing well even in the pandemic: 

“The bright side is Cape Codders have been so overwhelmingly supportive of trying to buy local. That has been so heartwarming to see.” 

Mac is hopeful that when life trends back to normalcy, positive lessons will remain. 

“I hope the sense of community lasts. We are still all in this together,” he said. 

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