Tess Bright securing the catch of the day, aboard her father’s fishing boat. | Photo courtesy of Hooked Up Seafood
Career shifts—whether they were voluntary or not—have been an unfortunate hallmark of the pandemic. People in every industry have heard the inevitable buzzword “pivot” more times than a loaf of sourdough has been pulled out of the oven.
But for Tess Bright, that meant finally fulfilling her dream of extending her family’s New Jersey Hooked Up Seafood shack into an online marketplace. While the pandemic forced them to shut their doors, the Brights were determined to continue supplying their community with fresh and sustainable seafood all year round.
“We knew that it was something special and we saw the community they had built over 12 years,” Bright says of her parent’s seafood restaurant. “None of us at the time were jumping on the opportunity to take it over, but we were all like, ‘Shoot, we can’t let that die.'”
Keeping in mind the realities of a global pandemic and also the struggles of hardworking fisheries in the Jersey Shore, commercial fisherman Bill Bright and his four children kicked this new version of their venerable business into high gear.
When the pandemic hit, Tess had the realization that growing up in New Jersey, most people rely on restaurants for fresh seafood, and people didn’t know where to go when the industry temporarily shut down.
“Farm to table is huge,” she says. “And everyone wants to hear the story of where their beef comes from, but so many people are oblivious to where seafood comes from—what fresh seafood is, what it tastes like, how it’s prepared. There are so many people who aren’t confident enough to buy it and cook it at home. And we realized so many people don’t like seafood because they’ve never had good seafood.”
The fresh seafood served at the restaurant in Wildwood, New Jersey, comes straight off of their father’s long lining commercial fishing boat, the F/V Defianceand is pan-seared or blackened.
Captain Bill, who has been a commercial fisherman on the Atlantic for 35 years, takes pride in his daily boat to table catch starring classics like tuna and mahi mahi, and also some special catches like Swordfish, John Dory, blue claw crabs, and littleneck clams (grown by Bill’s uncle). You can order steamers, fish tacos with homemade pineapple mango salsa, or a dinner platter with fresh seasonal summer sides.
“When you go to Hooked Up Seafood, it’s a theatrical experience in terms of the atmosphere,” Tess says. Picnic tables are set up next to Bill’s long lining boat where guests will witness the fisherman go down into a fish hole, get a tuna, drag it next to the table, filet it, break down the fish and then take the tuna steaks into the kitchen.
During the summer of 2020, the show was sunsetted but fans of Hooked Up Seafood would be notified when Bill’s boat was out so they could place an order of raw fish that was packaged with recipe cards and homemade herb compound butters. “People felt like they’re a part of that family experience and dining in our own home with our own family recipes,” Tess says.
The goal was not only to feed the masses with fresh seafood, but to educate them on how to prepare their fish at home and to create a direct relationship between consumers and fishermen.
“Sharing that piece of it is what has drawn a lot of people in,” Tess says. “Who are your fishermen? What do they do in their spare time? What’s it like to be offshore?”
This direct connection with customers inspired Tess and her sister Sara, who had always thought of going into business together. Hooked Up Seafood’s pandemic-style, pop-up sales seemed like the perfect place to start.
When the season settled, Tess and Sarah’s rendition of Hooked Up Marketplace came into play. The business provides the community with the high-quality seafood they have been enjoying all summer long, so you never have to rely on your supermarket’s frozen food aisle.
The daily catch comes straight out of the water into the ice tanks of the F/V Defiance and directly into your hands. You can order raw fish online, as well as quarts of the family’s famous chowder, which is a Hooked Up Marketplace specialty. The sisters love keeping the family business afloat while building a marketplace around fish most people are unfamiliar with, like tilefish and John Dory.
“The thought of there not being a Hooked Up Seafood was so sad,” Tess says. “We have people that come every summer as a big part of their vacation, and then we have people that come every week and bring their own silverware and wine and sit on a shitty picnic table behind a food trailer.”
Now, Hooked Up Seafood will have seafood available all summer long. Eventually the duo hopes to extend their pop-up sales to Pennsylvania, and soon the restaurant will partner with local breweries and wineries, to highlight special pairings and themed dinners
“My whole family loves to hunt and loves to cook, and loves to fish. We have a lot of farmers in our family so we’re all about using local, seasonal ingredients to cook at home,” Tess says. “The fun side of Hooked Up Marketplace is getting to show our customers the ‘behind the scenes’ side of off-shore fishing. It’s about telling the story of our family.”
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