Companies may have stopped taking on new vendors, and sales to restaurants might have declined substantially, but for Billy Smith, owner of Bearcats Fish House in Algoma and Green Bay, everything is going fine.

"Obviously, there have been daily challenges with having to change the way the business is operated as far as masking and sanitation, but as the business goes, we have been lucky enough to make it through and thrive," Smith said. "A lot of people in the community want to help small businesses, and we have had overwhelming support." That was especially important as restaurants closed and orders for fish weren't coming in. And because it was summer when it is more difficult to ship, Bearcats Fish House had to rely more on wholesale to grocery stores and other outlets and direct sales at the retail shops.

"There were opportunities there," Smith said. "The Green Bay location has had significant retail growth, and as people become more knowledgeable about fish and try it, they tend to come back for more."

That is especially true in the smoked fish category, considered Smith's niche. At any given time, there are about a dozen smoked fish including a variety of flavors. Salmon is the most popular, and Smith's favorite.

It is a love he developed in his home state of Alaska where his dad operated a commercial fishing business. He spent his younger years working with his dad, and even after going to college where he was a Division I hockey standout, he spent summers in Alaska and the rest of the year in Wisconsin.

He earned a business degree, met his wife, Nicole (she is from the Green Bay area) and took other jobs, but always wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps and own a business. When he heard that the owners of Bearcats in Algoma were looking to retire, he got in touch.

"My dad's operation is completely different; he is in commercial large markets and this was a retail business, secondhand user, where we receive products and create other products and sell them," he explained. "But I had knowledge and understanding of the seafood market and saw that there was a lot of opportunity in the seafood industry and it was something I could grow."

He said that the negotiation process went smoothly, a price was agreed upon, and with financial projections in hand, he was able to easily obtain a loan. His first-year plan was to learn the business, and convert all parts of the operations to computers.

"Initially, growing the business wasn't my primary thought," Smith said. "There was obviously opportunity there in ecommerce and wholesale, and more product lines that could be brought in, but my priority was to find my role and carry on what had been built. The computerization was a focus, and it was quite a process."

That was 2012, and the business grew. In April 2019, Smith took another leap when he purchased Seaway Foods in Green Bay.

"The company was primarily wholesale and it allowed us to get more into that and also gave us more space so we could say yes to customers who wanted to carry our products. It also alleviated the strain and helped give us a more consistent process," he said.

The additional space has also meant retail growth that has helped sustain them during the pandemic. The smoked fish, especially, continues to grow in popularity. There is also growth due to restaurant restrictions that have led more people to purchase fish to make at home.

According to grocery statistics, that trend is nationwide. Seafood was the fastest growing supermarket category during the last week of May and sales have continued to surge. Smith says that fish has become more popular as the health benefits (high protein, healthy fats) are emphasized.

But for Bearcats, it is likely the taste that has customers coming back. Most of the business is drawn by word-of-mouth, although the marketing plan also includes media advertising, billboards and social media.

"The more we deliver quality products and service, the more that people talk," Smith added.

And for Smith, it is easy to promote something that he loves. His hours are long, and challenges, as with any business, are ongoing. As he works to find balance, the father of three said he also needs to find time for his family and not overdo it.

"I could be more focused on areas of expansion. We have been implementing an inventory system across both businesses and I have the ability to learn and adapt, but family is just as important," he said. "Being a business owner comes with personal

sacrifice. People see the glamour and opportunities that come with owning a business, but it also means you may not be able to take a vacation because of that business."

Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.

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Bearcats Fish House Sees Pandemic As Opportunity