CZ: Why don’t you talk to me about your career path. What were your initial career aspirations and hopes? What fascinates you about the marine ecosystem and the food industry? When did you realize that you would be able to merge them into a single career?
BP: I started studying fish when I was 16, and I had always planned on studying oceanology and pursuing it to an academic path. When I was in my PhD program, I decided that I hated academia and I didn’t want to be in it anymore. I quit and I moved home to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I picked up a job at a restaurant. I had taken a year off between my undergraduate and graduate degrees and had worked at this restaurant before. They had told me that if I ever wanted to come back, I could, so I did! I figured I would work there until I figured out what to do about my PhD. I was asking myself whether it hadn’t been the right program, if something else would be a better fit, but in the end, I decided that I did not want to pursue my PhD. For a number of reasons. So I ended up working in restaurants for 17 years, because I loved it! I met my husband, who is trained as a chef. So when the time came to open our own business, which was something we had thought about for a long time because we work well together, we decided that the world didn’t need another restaurant. We had something a little bit different to offer and that’s where the idea for Mermaid’s Garden began to ensue as a combination of our true skill sets.
CZ: When you say that it was a combination of your true skill sets, what do you mean by that? What were yours and what were his in particular?
BP: I had a long experience with fish and knew a lot about fish and was very interested in working with fish. Mark’s training as a chef means that he’s really good at the business side of things. Most chefs at high levels don’t cook, they crunch numbers and do somewhat unexciting but very important things. And we both had connections to fishermen through our careers. So Mark brought a lot of the culinary and financial and accounting acumen, which I think is really important because a lot of people starting businesses don’t have these skills, which is a problem. I brought the service knowledge from working in the front of the house of restaurants and the knowledge of fish to the table.
CZ: The idea for making Mermaid's Garden came from the two of you combining your skill sets. What else inspired the idea for the business?
BP: Also part of the inspiration for Mermaid’s Garden came from the fact that there are not a lot of good fish shops where we live, so we thought this was a niche we could fill. We could’ve opened a fantastic restaurant, but lots of people can do that and actually do that, but we wanted something different. We also considered that we would probably have a much nicer lifestyle with the fish shop than with a restaurant, which was also appealing.
CZ: How long did it take you and Mark to take the project from being an idea into a reality?
BP: We started tossing the idea around 2008(ish) and we launched the CSF (Community Supported Fish), we call it fish share now in 2012, so it took us about four years.
CZ: What were the biggest obstacles that you faced in taking the business from an idea to a reality?
BP: The biggest obstacle at first was real estate. We launched the fish share business because we didn’t have a physical location, but we had friends who were willing to let us work out of their businesses, which got us started. Once we started thinking about building out a brick and mortar space, which was our long-term goal, then real estate became an obstacle for us. Financing and capital were also big obstacles later on. Financing a new business and building out a new space, especially in NYC, is extraordinarily expensive. After the recession, there is not one lending institution that is willing to lend you one cent as a startup, which made things challenging. This is why companies like Kickstarter have thrived, because they provide an alternative way for raising money to launch businesses when the traditional outlets are not really an option. They won’t want to talk to you unless you have at least three years in business.
CZ: Did you utilize Kickstarter at all?
BP: We did! It was not our primary source of funding, but it was definitely a part and we were very grateful for it.
CZ: What would you tell someone thinking about opening up their own business?
BP: You need to have a big tolerance for risk and uncertainty to run your own business. There are many compelling rewards, but even when you feel secure and fairly successful, there’s still a lot of risk – you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen next. This is completely anecdotal, but after the election last year for example, the holidays season sales were so much less impressive than they had been previously. I think this is because people felt guilty celebrating and did not want to, and sales were way more subdued. And you can try to do everything that you can, but, in the end, there are things that are out of your control that might affect your business, like Hurricane Sandy, and you have to just roll with it.
CZ: What do you wish you had known before setting out to create the business?
BP: You know, I don’t feel like there is too much on that. We don’t regret anything about the way the business has turned out. Both Mark and I have a pretty big willingness to let things work themselves out organically. So if something wasn’t working, we would simply try something different! There aren’t any things that I say to myself “That thing, we should’ve done that differently.” I think we did a lot of meeting with counselors. The library has a program where you can meet with retired business people, and that’s pretty helpful. The one thing was that we spent a lot of time talking to banks, and no one really tells you that they are not going to give you money. I feel like that time that we spent talking to them we could’ve used to do pretty much anything else that needed to get done. You can talk to fifteen or twenty banks and credit unions, but they are all going to tell you the same thing. In hindsight, I do wish people had been a little bit more forthright. You don’t want to dash people’s hopes, but you do want them to know what’s going on. You could have perfect credit, but there are many other factors that affect their decision that may be outside of your control. I feel like if you do your due diligence, you’ll be alright. I don’t regret having those conversations, but maybe I wouldn’t have as many as we did. Overall, I’m happy with the ways things have turned out and I don’t feel like we messed up so badly in any particular direction.
CZ: What do you hope to achieve with Mermaid's Garden?
BP: The answer these days from everyone is that they want to get bigger and better, and world domination, naturally! But I actually do not harbor any plans in that direction. I want to continue to work and live in my neighborhood, which is what I do now. I like to serve and live among my neighbors. I would like to continue to create a livelihood for us, which is the bottom line. But I don’t necessarily want a Mermaid’s Garden to be in all five boroughs or on every corner. I just want to continue to improve what we’ve got now. I think there are always ways to improve our physical space, our offerings, the training we give our staff. And all of that depends on us being here interacting with our staff and our customers. We want to continue to grow, to reach more people, but I don’t necessarily want it to become so diffused that I don’t feel connected to what’s happening to the business. I enjoy being here and the work that I do.
CZ: What role do you think food, and fish in particular, plays in changing our environmental, economic, and political landscapes? What does Mermaid's Garden hope to change in the food industry?
BP: In a gigantic, big picture viewpoint: we live on a water-based planet, we are water-based beings, literally. I think fish has everything to do with everybody, because it’s part of a very complex food web of which we are a part, of which fish are a part of, and they’re supporting the ecosystem we live in. No healthy ocean, no healthy environment, no us. Maintaining those ecosystems and those healthy populations means everything. Making sure we are preserving native food ways for people around the world, like in Greenland and Canada where people do rely on seals and whales, which also rely on healthy fisheries. That’s a broad picture perspective.
On a smaller scale, I think it’s Anthony Bourdain that says that food is inherently political because everybody eats. It resonates with me because everybody eats and everybody is invested to a greater or lesser degree in the food system. We all have an impact on the food system. I think our perspective is it’s changing in that there is way more awareness about certainly organic and local produce. This was the first wave and it’s now established, and I think a lot of people who subscribe to that way of thinking and eating. I think meat was the next wave, and not everyone is eating pasture-raised meats nor can they afford to do so, but that’s an entirely different issue. No less important of an issue, but a very complex part of it and related to this whole conversation. I personally don’t think you can have a conversation about sustainability without talking about social justice. I think if you try to divorce those two things, the conversation becomes a little disingenuous, but not everyone agrees with that.
I think that back in 2008, people’s awareness of some of the issues in our fisheries was not what it is today. To be fair, the fisheries in the U.S. are quite well regulated, but globally, fisheries are a big issue. This does affect us domestically, though, considering that 98% of the fish that we eat in the U.S. is imported when we have these really wonderful, well-managed fisheries that we’ve worked really hard to protect and, in some cases, rebuild. When you talk to people, though, they don’t know about our fisheries. I think that awareness is shifting, even though it’s not shifting super fast. It is nowhere near the level of the produce or meat awareness, but I am hopeful that can change. The role of Mermaid’s Garden is to shine a light on this aspect of food sustainability. We don’t plan to achieve that by browbeating our customers about lessons they need to be learning, but by doing the things that we do, leading by example is important. Existing fish markets are not changing, and there is a lot of resistance to change, which I understand. It’s very difficult to change the way you’ve been doing operating and to change the prices of the the products that you’ve been offering for a long time. It’s hard to say “well, maybe that wasn’t the best course of action.” People generally don’t like to admit when they’re wrong, and they don’t like to change into things that they’re unfamiliar with. This also presents a risk in their minds: why would I change the way that I’ve been doing things, if people are happy with the way I’m doing things? We never made made any of those compromises at Mermaid’s Garden, so we never had to change our way of being. We’ve stayed true to ourselves from the beginning.
CZ: What does a "typical workday" look like? What do you find most rewarding about your work?
BP: My typical day is totally different from Mark’s, but both need to happen in the way that they do for the business to succeed. I generally wake up and do a little work from home in terms of email correspondence, while mark receives the fish. We text back and forth on what came in and Mark gives me a sort of “state of the nation” report. Once that’s done, I come in and work service for the day. We open at noon and we close at eight, so it’s mostly service in terms of helping customers, but also butchering fish, cleaning shrimp, and getting stuff done around the shop. Then I go home! I do a little bit of paperwork, but most Mark does the accounting. Mark does all of the ordering and receiving of the fish. He is in and out of the shop all the day running errands, but we do get to spend some days working all day together in service.
When we first opened we were open six days a week, and we were both working six days a week. We were exhausted at the time, but we were so in it that we didn’t realize how exhausted we were. Once we hired enough people that we were able to open seven days a week and take two days off, I couldn’t believe how much we had been working! It was incredible, although ideally, I wouldn’t want to return to that at this point. I do think that when you’re first getting started, though, full immersion is a good thing. You’re in it and you do it and it’s fine. I like being my own boss. I don’t think I would thrive in an office environment, I don’t like to sit very much and I don’t like to sit still for very long; I get itchy. It’s a very physical job, which I like. There’s really something about working for yourself. You definitely go the extra mile for yourself, and you’re happy to be doing anything and everything for yourself.
Having worked in the restaurant business for many, many years, I had to do a lot of unpleasant stuff for other people that were not me, and I wasn’t really faced by any of it. I just did it, but it feels better to do it for myself.
CZ: I was going to ask you about the challenges you face at work, but it seems like you have a really positive attitude and face everything as it comes.
BP: In the moment, dealing with something unpleasant will be unpleasant, but you get over it and just do it!
CZ: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges we face as human beings? How do you think we can solve them. What role does food play in solving these challenges?
BP: If you had asked me before last year’s election, I would’ve probably given you a different answer. Now I think our problems are so much bigger. From my personal perspective, as far as being in the food business, I think climate change is by far the greatest challenge, which comes down to food and the potential of food scarcity due to climate change. The fact that we now have an administration that is not getting much done in terms of big ticket items, but is getting an awful lot done in terms of dismantling protection for the environment, denying climate change, removing terminology about climate change from official platforms, and pulling out of the Paris Agreement. This is all very scary, and it’s not gonna do anybody any favors, whether it’s people who are living in areas that could be affected by food scarcity, whether it’s people who could be exposed to greater contaminants in their food and water supplies, whether it’s someone who is a conventional farmer totally reliant on NAFTA to send their products to Canada and Mexico. All the administration workings on trade and commerce and protection are very scary to me, and it’s unclear what role food will play. I don’t know where the path leads to, though.
I think the people who are trying to be leaders of positive change, and I would include myself in that group, are trying to keep the faith and really just keep working. We are certainly doing our part not to contribute to the more destructive aspects of our business and our profession. Certainly the fish industry has a lot of problems, including social justice problems like slavery and labor issues in Southeast Asia. So we do our best not to get involved with companies that are involved in those types of issues, and we remove ourselves from any situation that may have placed us in contact with a company engaged in that kind of business.
CZ: If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
BP: I wish that we had a more educated and informed citizenry – if our citizenry was more informed and engaged, we would be making different decisions and setting different priorities, which could affect the world in all sorts of different ways. But I think that when we’re not well-educated, we can fall prey to fake news, conspiracy theories, or to greenwashing. You need to be an analytical thinker to review and analyze the information that is thrown in front of you. We can’t get really trust products for their face-value. When you go buy a car, you don’t take the salesman word for every claim on the car, you do a little digging on your own and consult consumer reports, etc. We don’t do that with food, especially with fish.
I realize that I am very privileged to have the time, space, and financial security to try to be better informed, and I understand that people living under difficult circumstance will have different priorities. I am referring to people who have similar backgrounds, same education level, and the same financial security, who are basically on the same boat to make an effort to become better informed and more aware.
Bianca Piccillo and Mark Usewicz founded Mermaid's Garden in 2012. Mermaid's Garden is a sustainable fish shop in Brooklyn, NY. I found out about Mermaid's Garden through one of our local coffee shops, and scheduled a call with Bianca, who graciously answered my questions.
Mark Usewicz and Bianca Piccillo. Photo Credit: Aaron Weiss and GoodEggs. Photo provided by Bianca.