Sylva market changes local foodscape

Armed with an e-newsletter and an indefatigable entrepreneurial spirit, Eric Hendrix is determined to bring the fruits of the ocean to the mountains of Western North Carolina.

“The goal is to consistently provide fresh fish in the mountains, because you just can’t get it,” Hendrix said, who runs the aptly named Eric’s Fresh Fish Market on Back Street in Sylva.

But the real magic of Hendrix’s business is the way he has grown the project from an idea into an icon on a shoestring budget.

“The idea came to me when I was walking one day, and it was a full year and a half before anything happened,” Hendrix said.

Hendrix started the fish market in 2008 as a side venture to complement his salary teaching composition at Western Carolina University. When his contract wasn’t renewed last year, he decided to go all in selling fish.

“Necessity is a great motivator,” Hendrix said, laughing.

These days, Eric’s Fresh Fish Market is open Wednesday through Saturday. Hendrix gets deliveries from Inland Seafood in Atlanta twice a week.

His mission may be simple, but the reward it provides is varied. On a Wednesday afternoon Hendrix may have Scottish Salmon, Rain Forest Tilapia, Dover Sole, Costa Rican Mahi Mahi, Gulf shrimp, Virginia select oysters, and Maine Mussels.

Hendrix constantly preaches a mantra of freshness, quality and variety.

“You can eat beef, pork, chicken. Or chicken, pork, and beef, and there’s only three possibilities,” Hendrix said. “When you go into the ocean there’s thousands of possibilities.”

Inland Seafood has been a key to his ability to supply restaurant quality fish in a variety you don’t get at the grocery store. Once he identified a niche market for fresh seafood in the mountains, Hendrix hounded Inland to let him serve as a local distributor. Inland is a gigantic wholesale distributor that covers 12 states by truck. It serves the region’s best restaurants and specialty markets 90,000 pounds of fresh fish each week.

Mike Hulsey, Inland Seafood’s retail division sales manager in Atlanta, is a huge fan of Eric’s.

“I can’t even remember how he found us,” Hulsey said. “But he’s an enterprising individual, and I love the guy. He’s just interested in doing a better job than what the grocery stores are doing in providing fresh seafood with the real information customers need.”

Hulsey, who describes himself as a fish lover, said Inland sells to Hendrix because they believe in what he’s doing.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Hulsey said. “If a consumer calls from that area –– and this happens all the time –– and says, ‘Where can I get fresh fish?,’ I like having someone I’m confident sending them where I know I would buy the fish.”

For Hendrix, the distribution model is simple. Get the freshest fish you can and get rid of it as soon as you can.

“The fish you get from me is delivered to Inland the day before it’s delivered to me,” Hendrix said. “There is no middle man, and without the middle man the freshness is guaranteed.”

But Hendrix didn’t have the luxury of buying a fancy new space and filling it chock full of fresh seafood on giant beds of ice. He has employed a pay-as-you-go business model and grown the business slowly.

His greatest tool in that regard has been his weekly e-newsletter, which contains information about what’s fresh as well as the community business news of other downtown Sylva merchants. Hendrix has harnessed his skills as a networker and communicator to become a reliable source of what’s happening about town, and he’s growing his business at the same time.

“Networking is really crucial in any economy and in today’s economy particularly,” Hendrix said. “One of the goals with the newsletter is to market downtown Sylva as a real destination.”

With over 1,000 registered subscribers, Hendrix’ e-mail has turned into a marketing tool that drives the business forward. Sure, Gmail made him upgrade to a bulk account, but that’s good news, right?

Customers read his “Catch of the Week” email and reply with their orders. Hendrix knows how much to order from Inland and what people really want to buy, so seafood doesn’t languish in his shop.

David Liberman, a regular customer who reserves fish via email, raves about the market.

“I lived in Miami for years and used to eat fish there all the time, but fish in the mountains is a problem,” Liberman said. “I think of him as a blessing to the community.”

Liberman says he now eats fish once a week and looks forward to his stops at the market. Having grown up in Brooklyn, he likens the experience at Eric’s to the experience of grocery shopping in his youth –– a meet-and-greet transaction with food.

When you visit Eric’s Fresh Fish Market, Hendrix’s energy is evident. He greets all the customers by name. In the space of 30 minutes, you’ll see him cut up a salmon, tap notes on his newsletter, and sell a handful of Dover sole filets all while carrying on a conversation.

Hendrix isn’t an easy person to categorize. Raised as a military brat, he later spent four years in the U.S. Army. In the mid-‘80s he moved to Franklin from Kansas City, Mo., and started the first Mexican restaurant west of Waynesville.

After a divorce, Hendrix used his GI Bill credit to go back to school at Western Carolina University. A writer and songwriter, Hendrix got a master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from WCU in 2006 and looked forward to a long run as an assistant professor until his life took yet another new turn.

Sue Lipton is a vegetarian but she visits the market every week to shop for her husband, who favors its sea scallops and Scottish salmon.

Lipton said her loyalty to Eric’s is based as much on the business’s vibe as its product.

“I really, really appreciate the way he interacts with everyone,” Lipton said. “He always has time for everyone. The community is so important to him.”

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