Don Rhodes, owner of Ahi Seafood Market in Fairhope, is more than a purveyor of fresh seafood. He is a seller of all things his customers want. Literally. That drives his business, making sure his customers get exactly what they desire, not just seafood. “I’ve been slowly building a specialty market based on my customer’s request. It’s also an education of sorts,” he says.
Don grew up in Bayou La Batre, a fishing village in South Mobile County and a primary source of fresh seafood .“The town is one big family, and everyone works in the seafood industry in some capacity.” Don’s mother is a bookkeeper for several seafood businesses. “I’ve worked in every aspect of the shrimp, crab, and oyster business at one time or another,” he says.
At 12 years old, Don worked on his first shrimp boat, going out for a week in the summer. At 14, he worked his first steel hull shrimp boat venturing the waters between Bayou La Batre and Brownsville, Texas. It was a three-month summer job until the captain gave him a $100 bill and bought him two bus tickets home to start football practice at Alba High School. “My brother and I each shucked a gallon of oysters every morning before school to earn $5.00. He is left-handed and I’m right-handed, so we shared a pair of gloves each week.”
During college summers, Don was hired by an east coast long-line fishing boat that caught Big Eyed Tuna and Swordfish. With forty miles of trot line to manage, “It was hard work, and I saw a lot of waste along the way,” he says. I learned celestial navigation; it taught you how to survive.” After attending South Alabama, Don worked and owned a commercial HVAC/Plumbing contracting company which he ran for over 25 years. “It was a long run, but I decided to get out of the construction business.”
Two years ago, his best friend from home, Patrick Kraver, encouraged him to open a seafood market. Don says, “I left the Bayou, but the Bayou didn’t leave me.” With his knowledge of the industry, he began looking for a building to purchase. He saw a little handmade “For Sale” sign on South Section Street that was a storage building for the artist, Nall. They worked out an agreement and Ahi Seafood Market was created.
“The name “Ahi” is not a specific species of tuna as many people think,” he says. “It’s a high grade assigned to the quality of any seafood.” Don’s focus on quality is paramount. “Knowing your source is most important.” Every morning he arrives at 7:00 AM to prepare for the day. “Seafood is fragile,” he says. I inspect everything that comes in the door and if it doesn’t meet my standard, I send it back.”
Don knows his brokers well and they have come to understand that he does not cut corners. “There are lots of things other people use that will make seafood last longer, but it hurts the taste.” Most of Ahi Seafood Market’s fish is wild-caught, not farm-raised, except for such items as USDA Certified catfish. The Scottish Salmon is flown in from Scotland. He knows that fresh stone crabs are “sinkers, not floaters” and his oysters are not packed with extra fluids or “puffed up” in a jacuzzi-like tub.
Every day, he purchases fish to ensure freshness. “The small number of fish that arrive flash frozen is limited, but if you let it thaw slowly overnight it will still be very good. I want my customers to know that we are selling the freshest product available and that they are getting exactly what I say it is.” Don has many customers who request special orders of fish from places where they grew up and are familiar with, like Halibut, Cod, and Octopus.
As Ahi Seafood Market has grown, Don has developed a special relationship with his customers. “We’ve started carrying special cuts of never-frozen beef and pork. We will order special wines that people will purchase by the case.” You can see that Don’s selection of specialty items is customer driven and growing. “I try to get what the customer requests,” he says. “I want them to visit several times a week, get what they need for the evening, just like big city specialty markets.”
In addition to fresh meats, seafood, and vegetable offerings, Ahi Seafood Market carries ready-to-eat specialty pies, casseroles, and stuffed chicken from the frozen food section. Spices, Charleston Bloody Mary mix, and other items will create a perfect meal for family and friends.
Don also cooks seasonal items like crawfish in the spring and will steam shrimp anytime. “Custom orders don’t upset us,” he says. “We are figuring it out as we go.” And what’s it like getting back to your roots? I ask. “It’s toughened me up again.”
It’s been fun to watch Ahi Seafood Market evolve. Don’s a straight shooter and knows what he’s doing. Stop by and say hello. Tell him what you would like to purchase, and he’ll try his best to make it happen. Get the T-shirt. I did.