Ask Mike Alfiero about his business, and the first thing he’ll talk about is the family that built it. Mike’s perspective on Harbor Fish Market—the company first incorporated by his father, Ben, 47 years ago—is one framed by lessons he learned along with his siblings. Their education began in the 70’s, working as teens in their father’s dockside seafood store at a time when Portland’s trendy Old Port was still old.
After Ben retired in the 1990’s, Mike took over the business with his two brothers Ben, Jr., and Nick. Ben, Jr.’s untimely passing last year left Mike and Nick to carry on the values all three brothers first learned at their father’s side. “My dad held three jobs to support our family,” shares Mike. “We learned firsthand from working with him just how much energy it takes to run a business.”
That shared commitment did much more than simply keep Harbor afloat. It turned a local fish market into one of the key regional icons that have helped make Portland one of the highest ranked “lifestyle” cities in the nation. The secret to that success rests in the balance between personal and corporate interests that lie in harmony in the best-run family businesses. Finding it, Mike notes, can sometimes be a challenge.
“Siblings are always going to have issues,” he says. “When we were younger, it was easier to let those rivalries distract us. If you’re lucky, you get a bit wiser with age, and the one thing my brothers and I learned was that we each have unique talents. Recognizing them was a huge advantage to not only our relationships, but to our business as well. And in a business like this,” he concludes, “you need every edge you can get.”
Seafood, Alfiero points out, is “immediately perishable,” making it perhaps the most volatile of all fresh food products. Prices can swing widely, even within the course of a single day. Variable harvests, weather conditions, seasonal tastes, competitive pricing, and more, all make for the kind of high-stakes trading pressure found more often on Wall Street than Main Street. Couple that with the high standards Harbor sets for the quality of its catch. That includes lobsters, clams, mussels, oysters, crabs, and row upon row of fresh fish spread across 50 feet of display case shelving. Mike has schooled his 45-member staff to follow the simple rule for his seafood that he sets for himself. “I won’t sell anything to a customer that I wouldn’t take home and serve to my family,” he says, “and you can ask any of them—I’m very fussy about what I put on my table.”
When Mike talks about the community that supports Harbor Fish, it’s clear that his regard for the people in his home extends to those in his town as well. “We’ve been around a long time,” he says. “We have so many regular customers, the restaurant chefs who’ve helped turn Portland into a foodie destination, our other wholesale clients, and of course the retail customers who stream in and out of our doors every day. We know these people, and while they might not be blood relations, we do our very best to treat them that way.”
That care certainly extends to Harbor Fish’s staff as well. Like any family, it’s a mix of young and old, men and women, a diverse group that, Mike states, keeps an eye out for one another to step in regularly to help when any one of them is in need. And like the head of any family, both Mike and brother Nick do their best to provide the direction and counsel that serve to stimulate that spirit.
The blur between the personal and professional life is an attitude that continues to distinguish Harbor Fish as a fitting symbol for the town it calls home. Portland’s identity as a place that retains its respect for its history and a passion for vibrant growth is nowhere more apparent than within the doors of the bright red building on Custom House Wharf.
Doing business in a town where people share so much more than their goods and services makes Mike and the rest of his family appreciate what so many Mainers know: just how fortunate we are to live and work in Maine.