Even the most diehard business leader can’t say they wake up at 1 am to begin their workday—but Rick Ross can. That is when the devoted restaurateur heads to New York City’s Fulton Street Fish Market to pick up that day’s catch. With extensive praise from publications that include the New York Times, his longstanding seafood restaurant and market, Eastchester Fish Gourmet and Fish Market, have become county favorites. Below, Ross dishes on what it takes to remain a big fish in Westchester’s ultra-competitive pond.
How did you get into the restaurant industry?
One of my jobs out of college was working at Windows on The World, as the buyer of fish. I always knew I wanted to open a restaurant and needed to learn from some of the best before I did. I saw that fish was getting more popular even back in the late ’70s as customers realized its health benefits.
What was the genesis of Eastchester Fish Gourmet and Fish Market?
I couldn’t afford to open my own restaurant, so I opened a retail fish store in 1981. In fact, I had two: one in Eastchester and one in Bronxville. The Bronxville store didn’t work out, because I didn’t have the right location, so I put all my energy into the Eastchester store, which was originally located where the restaurant is. We were busy, so I expanded to the adjoining store and created a casual seafood restaurant in 1987. With a lot of hard work, we decided to expand again and created a fine-dining seafood restaurant in 1997 and moved
the fish market four doors down to its current location.
What were some of your hopes and concerns when founding the restaurant?
My goal was to have a restaurant I could be proud of, where my employees would enjoy working and to which my customers would return. Working for myself was also important to me. I worried about paying the bills and keeping my customers satisfied. Running a restaurant, you just never know what’s around the corner, so you need to be flexible, and your staff has to be able to adjust, as well.
What does it take to maintain a successful restaurant in Westchester?
Your staff is most important to your success—from the chef to the busboy to the dishwasher. We all have to work as a team, understanding that our goal is to make our customers happy. I’m fortunate that many of my staff members have been with me for a long time, especially in the kitchen.
How do you keep the restaurant competitive?
I do so by ensuring that my staff provides feedback to the chef, manager, and others as to the good and the bad input from our customers. We also solicit feedback from our diners via comment cards, which I read and respond to personally when needed. We’ve been collecting comment cards for more than 10 years, so I have a very large database of customer emails. I also eat [at a lot of restaurants] in the area and when I travel, in additon to reading a lot of trade publications.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
A car drove through our window earlier this year, and that was probably one of the biggest challenges we had to overcome. The accident happened in June, which is a busy time for us. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but we literally had a car go right through the restaurant, destroying tables, booths, chairs, etc. We worked tirelessly for 48 hours to get the restaurant in shape to reopen.
How have your business practices evolved over the past 30 years?
Marketing has become increasingly important, because you need to keep your name out there. New restaurants open; people move into the area, and they need to know about you. It surprises me that some of my customers don’t realize I have a fish market, as well—mainly those who are not local. I use email to let customers know about new offerings and specials. We use print media, social media, and, of course, the best marketing is word of mouth.
Why go to the Fulton Street Fish Market so often?
When dealing with fish, freshness is most important—but there are also different qualities of fish, similar to Prime and Choice meats. I go to the Fulton Street Fish Market because I will only buy the best fish, and the vendors at the Market know the quality I expect.
What did it mean to be honored by the New York Times in 2013, and do you plan on opening other locations?
Getting an “Excellent” from the Times confirmed that my hard work all these years has been recognized. I thought about expanding several times, but I felt I wanted to be the best at what I was doing and having multiple locations wouldn’t [allow that]. I don’t have any partners in my business, and that works well for me.