Somewhere off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii, the crew of a fishing boat is hoisting a squirming net of tuna out of the salty waters and dropping its contents into a hold.
Within 36 hours, some of those fish will make their way onto the ice that fills the glass display at Chattanooga Seafood Company. From there, the skillets and plates of the local populace await.
Joining the sushi-grade tuna (a term that means the seller has judged it safe to eat raw) on the ice will be thick filets of catfish, tilapia, grouper, sea bass, halibut, mahi mahi and more – all transported inland in a matter of hours from various waters to owner T.J. Jones and his staff.
Jones offers more than raw seafood at Chattanooga Seafood Company, located in the former home of Sofa King Juicy Burger (you read that correctly) on Dayton Boulevard in Red Bank. Customers who time their visits well have their pick off trays of smoked salmon, housemade Chatty Krabby Patties, shrimp salad and more.
If Jones is feeling generous – and he always is – his patrons will be able to try a bite of his product before they make what can be an expensive purchase.
The free samples are a hook Jones never regrets casting. “The feedback has been overwhelming,” Jones says on a Friday morning as regulars begin to line up along his display. “We already have some very loyal customers.”
The freshly caught seafood is not the only thing that has drawn these salt water gourmands to the small gray stucco building and its oversized parking lot. Contained within a wall of industrial refrigerators is a selection of housemade products intended to dress the fish and fill the remainder of a customer’s dinner plate.
Jones sells a lot of dill sauce, which he says pairs nicely with the smoked salmon, and is proud of how well his rémoulade complements his Chatty Krabby Patties.
Customers can also grab a couple of Chatt Town Twice Baked Spuds, a container of mac and cheese and some of Uncle Jeff’s Key Lime Pie and make a quick meal of it.
“Seafood is nature’s fast food because it’s quick and easy to prepare,” Jones says.
Getting fresh seafood into a shop in Chattanooga, which is a six-hour drive from the closest beach, required Jones to establish a network of vendors who excel at bringing the product to inland shops.
Jones makes regular trips to the Chattanooga Airport to pick up seafood from vendors in Boston, for example. Other vendors truck in products harvested from the waters of the East and West coasts and flown in overnight to various warehouses.
This robust network is capable of delivering tuna to the Chattanooga Seafood Company 36 hours after it was pulled out of Hawaiian waters, Jones says.
Not all of the product Chattanooga Seafood Company sells requires such a long reach. Jones says he also offers rainbow trout from Pickett Trout Ranch in Whitwell, a hatchery located 33 miles from the Scenic City.
Jones also has connections that enable him to acquire special items – such as live lobster – when a customer notifies him of their craving at least 24 hours in advance.
All of this is a part of what Jones calls his “crazy idea.”
While fresh seafood was available at groceries and restaurants in Chattanooga before Jones opened shop, there was no dedicated outlet. Jones was elbow deep in programming code at Automation Industrial Group when he decided to change that.
“Robotic programming is a young man’s game,” Jones, 41, says. “It’s taxing work that keeps you on the road. I decided to put in those hours for myself instead.”
Jones was no stranger to the food industry. He opened a Mr. T’s Pizza & Ice Cream franchise in Red Bank when he was 21 and then sold it in 2006. But seafood was a whole new game for him.
For inspiration and mentoring, Jones turned to the man he calls “Uncle Jeff,” a family friend who owns a seafood shop in Cincinnati.
While spending time with Uncle Jeff last year, Jones became convinced that an opportunity for the same kind of shop existed in Chattanooga.
“People who are used to having access to a seafood market are moving to Chattanooga from all over the country,” he explains. “We needed this.”
Uncle Jeff not only taught Jones everything he needed to know to operate a seafood market inland, he also gave him the closely guarded recipe for his Key lime pie.
That pie now rivals the smoked salmon for top product at Chattanooga Seafood Company.
Social media and word-of-mouth helped to spread the word about the shop after it opened in March. Jones says the shop also reels in new customers at the Chattanooga Market, where he sets up a booth every Sunday.
All of this keeps Jones hopping like a salmon swimming upstream. And it makes him appreciate the end of each day, when he can take his leftovers home and prepare a quick and easy meal.
He favors his sushi-grade dry scallops, racquetball-sized chunks of meat he says take only a few minutes to prepare. (”Dry” is the seafood industry term for scallops that have not been treated with phosphates.)
“Dry scallops caramelize beautifully and are simple to prepare,” Jones says. “People tend to overthink seafood. I hope we can change that.”