Fresh at 75
Quality Seafood Market celebrates a milestone
Quality Seafood Market
5621 Airport Blvd., 454-5827 (wholesale: 452-3820)
Mon.-Sat., market: 8am-8pm, restaurant: 10:30am-9pm
On Jan. 27, 1938, a flashy ad in the Austin American newspaper announced the opening of Quality Seafood, "Austin's Newest and Modern Sea Food Market." A photo of Manager Garnett Lenz, a serious young man in a stiff collar, asserts that "deliveries made to our store daily insure you the maximum in freshness."
On Jan. 27, 2013 – 75 years later to the day – Quality Seafood Market will hold a fish-cutting ceremony (who needs a ribbon?) to celebrate the grand opening of its newly remodeled and expanded facility on Airport Boulevard. Since 1938, there have been a succession of owners and a lot of water – and fish – under the bridge. But some things haven't changed: Deliveries of fresh seafood still arrive each day. "It's such an honor to be a part of this Austin tradition," says owner Carol Huntsberger.
The original Quality Seafood was Lenz' little fish counter installed within John Starr's Fruit and Vegetable Market at 11th & Congress, just across from the state Capitol. As the enterprise prospered, Lenz moved it to Third & Brazos, then 18th & San Jacinto, and in 1950, to 409 E. 19th (now MLK). By then, he'd formed a partnership with J.D. Spence, O.T. McCullough, and Jimmy Boutilier.
Chester Husted bought the business in 1958; as the University of Texas continued to acquire property east of I-35, he was forced to move it twice more. But loyal customers followed, and Quality Seafood landed at its present location on Airport in 1970, in a rented space that once housed a bowling alley. There was plenty of room for what had become a three-faceted business: the original retail market, a fry kitchen serving to-go orders, and a burgeoning wholesale operation that supplied restaurants around the city. O.T. McCullough designed the interior, as well as the epic neon lobster sign that still graces the parking lot.
When Chester Husted died in 1982, his children Harris and Jamie took over; they installed the first informal dining room. Sam Eaves bought the business in 1990 and altered the name to Eaves Bros. Quality Seafood. A veteran of the Alaska seafood business, he expanded the wholesale operation and added salmon, halibut, and sea bass to the market, alongside the traditional Gulf Coast varieties like drum, snapper, shrimp, crab, oysters, and catfish. (See my profile of Eaves and Quality Seafood, "Fish Tales," March 22, 2002.)
In 2003, Eaves sold the business to his college friends Paul and Carol Huntsberger. Without prior experience in fish or retail, they hit the ground running – revising the name to Quality Seafood Market, expanding the menu and implementing additional restaurant service and hours, and adding a liquor license, an oyster bar, and a catering operation. They introduced popular daily features like Fish Taco Tuesdays and Lobsterfest Saturdays.
By 2006, Paul Huntsberger had returned to his financial services career; Carol Huntsberger has headed the company ever since, becoming the sole proprietor in 2010. Formerly a sales director for Mary Kay, she says, "I owe everything to the people who work here. I know what they must have thought: 'Our boss is a blond cosmetics lady?' But they've taught me the fish business ... and there's been very little turnover."
That's an understatement. Retail manager Lee Chandler has expertly worked the fish counter for 22 years. Wholesale manager John Martinez has been on the job for 35 years. But the most remarkable employee story is that of Tom Cantu (Martinez' brother-in-law, and father of Louis Cantu, also in wholesale), who first came to work at Quality Seafood in 1960. That's right, he began as a delivery driver 53 years ago at the old MLK location, but soon advanced to fish cutter, and then to seafood buyer and general manager. He ostensibly retired in 1997, but still comes in several days a week to work the phones and computer, buying seafood and taking the wholesale orders. And if a good customer puts in a late order, he says, "I'll deliver it myself on my way home."
Quality Seafood got its first 15 minutes of television fame in September 2012 when it was featured on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations show on the Travel Channel. In the clip (available on YouTube), Bourdain shares fish tacos, hot sauce, and quips with the Austin heavy metal band the Sword. His comment on Quality Seafood? "Good Gulf oysters on the half shell ... and a sure hand with all manner of fryolated arts."
Combining her sales/accounting background and vision with her staff's experience and expertise, Huntsberger's Quality Seafood Market has moved steadily forward, growing from 12 to 43 employees and undertaking a major expansion. Huntsberger has purchased the entire building and doubled the business' space to 16,000 square feet. Contractor Jeff Denton (by now an adjunct member of the Quality Seafood family) knocked down walls to open up the dining room, added new bathrooms and a private party room, and built a second seafood bar. There's a 1,700-square-foot cooler for fresh fish and a spacious new cutting room. The kitchen is moving into a new space, with an eight-foot grill to charbroil oysters and two enormous boiling pots to accommodate the weekly lobsterfests and seasonal crawfish boils.
Chef Rich Taylor, who joined the operation five years ago, is thrilled about the new kitchen's culinary possibilities. "I'm looking forward to expanding the scope of the restaurant food with the same freshness we have now. We'll still have fried seafood, but now we have a two-person grill and a serious stove, so we can do pastas, sautés, à la minute dishes. The daily specials will continue, driven by what's good in our market. I'm looking to do more Asian-influenced seafood, as well as some East Coast favorites, like lobster rolls. There'll also be more prepared food for the retail market."
Lest you think that the funky old Quality Seafood is gone forever, Huntsberger assures that the quirky decor elements (the giant grinning shark that hung over the fish counter, the fish motif stained glass window, the sea creature wall mural) have all been carefully stored away and will be reinstated when construction is complete.
We have to wonder what Garnett Lenz would think about the latest developments of the little seafood business he started so many years ago in a corner of a Congress Avenue vegetable market. He might be surprised by its growth and lasting popularity, but he'd certainly recognize the legacy values of fresh fish, customer service, and a loyal clientele. Carol Huntsberger knows what she thinks. "If anyone came in and respected the foundation that the previous owners built, they would succeed." And in the what-goes-around-comes-around department: She's got plans to put in a fresh produce stand.
Happy 75th, Quality Seafood Market.