“I’d load up bait trays, fuel boats, put traps on boats,” Gray said. “Then, I’d jump back on my bike and ride to school, only to ride back to the docks after school to unload the boats. I was probably the only 9-year-old making $75 bucks a day.”
Reminiscing about his early days in the seafood industry, Gray sits at a table in the middle of the Wicked Fresh Seafood & Meat Market. Located just off Main Street in downtown Waynesville, the business will celebrate one year in operation next month.
“Those first couple of months after we opened, we were wondering if we’d done the right thing, everything was slow and people weren’t coming in,” Gray said. “But, things have been picking up since then, especially recently with people [under the current circumstances] being at home and cooking more.”
With Gray at the helm, Wicked Fresh is a direct line to seafood from Maine. The live lobsters are shipped overnight from his cousin’s boat, while the prized scallops and rest of the seafood selection are harvested from an array of independent vendors up and down the coast.
“If I call my cousin with a lobster order before 3 p.m. then I can have fresh lobster from his boat up in Maine to my store in Waynesville by 10:30 the next morning,” Gray marveled.
Though a Mainer through and through, Gray found Western North Carolina via Florida. After a short stint as a CNA down there, he and his fiancé, Wicked Fresh co-owner Maria Cintron, packed up their family and belongings and headed for Haywood County after a serendipitous trip to Maggie Valley.
“We just fell in love with this area, the people are so friendly and welcoming, just like the folks back in Maine — everyone seems to take a genuine interest in each other, and that matters,” Gray said.
Looking back, Gray, now 51, can only smile and shake his head in awe when he talks about being a teenager and deciding to drop out of high school to become a full-time Maine lobstermen.
“The money was just so good. I was a freshman and I could make more than my stepdad was at that time,” Gray said. “When you work on the ocean, you can make a good living. You’ve got to work your ass off, but you can make a good living.”
Being out in the elements on the mighty Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by the sheer beauty and raw splendor of Mother Nature, with a complete freedom to haul fish and make a living with his hands — it all appealed to Gray.
“I was lucky enough to hook up with this old-timer. He’s since passed, but he showed me how to do things and how to do them his way, which was the right way,” Gray said. “Years later, I ended up bowling in a men’s league with him when he was around 85 years old. The stories these old lobstermen would tell — it was unbelievable.”
When he was 19, Gray joined the U.S. Army and served in the Gulf War. It was an extremely difficult and emotional experience for Gray, who found himself in the midst of fierce combat, memories that still echo loudly in his mind. After seven and a half years in the military, Gray returned to civilian life.
“After I got out of the Army, I went right back to Maine and into the woods for seclusion — I didn’t want anything to do with anybody,” Gray solemnly said. “But, it was the birth of my daughter that ‘brought me back.’ It was a full circle kind of thing where I wanted to make sure that I’m there to walk her down the aisle someday.”
These days, Gray’s teenage daughter helps out at Wicked Fresh. It means a lot to Gray to see her learn the family business, the value of hard work, and to interact with customers.
“I’m a lucky guy to be a dad to that little girl,” Gray said, pointing to his daughter behind the store register. “She’s 14 years old and could just be at home right now sleeping in like most 14-year olds. But, she’s up and here every day from open to close. I hope this is something she’d like to stick with, but I just like getting to spend the days with her.”
Rising up from the table at Wicked Fresh, Gray reenters his workday, which, thankfully, has been filled lately by the sounds of the phone ringing with folks in search of fresh fish.
“In the seafood and meat business, you can’t bring in anything mediocre. Every piece we sell is our reputation on the line — it has to be the good stuff,” Gray said.
And though Gray’s over 1,200 miles away from Gouldsboro, that distance seems that much closer with each lobster sold, each customer walking away happily with fresh seafood.
“When I go home to Maine, I still go out on the boat with the guys,” Gray said. “When you’re out there on the ocean and all you hear are the seagulls, the hum of the boat and the waves crashing — it’s therapeutic. Once you’re a fisherman, it never leaves your blood.”
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