Thirty years ago, Birmingham fishmonger Lee Cary took a picture of his sole 12-foot delivery truck backed up against six tractor trailers at a seafood supplier in Bon Secour, Ala. Even though he’d been in the business for more than a dozen years, he was just getting his start as an independent businessman, having worked all that time for his father-in-law. But Cary knew he was going to be a success, and that photograph marked the beginning of the timeline that now sees him selling approximately $3 million in Alabama Gulf Seafood each year.
Cary, known to his trusted customers as “Mr. Fish,” is the proprietor of Le Fish, a distribution company that sees the 57-year-old delivering as much as 15,000 pounds of fresh seafood a week to 14 customers that include grocery stores and some of the finest restaurants in the Montgomery and Birmingham area.
“He’s somebody I like and respect, and those are the kind of people you want to do business with,” said restaurateur Chef Frank Stitt, who owns three Birmingham eateries: Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega and Chez Fonfon. Mr. Fish supplies each of them. “It could be sheepshead, gig flounder, cobia, grouper, snapper, king mackerel, or Spanish mackerel,” he said. And Cary will deliver. “That’s part of my job, to figure out what the best-quality ingredients are.” And when it comes to seafood, those ingredients come from places Cary knows well in south Alabama: Bayou La Batre, Coden and the aforementioned Bon Secour, home to some of the best oysters in the world. “We have oysters that rival Apalachicola (Fla.),” Cary said. “The Mobile Delta is a treasure, it’s awesome.”
Cary learned about the bounty of Gulf seafood at a young age, when he would accompany his uncles fishing. One of them owned a restaurant in Gardendale, outside Birmingham, and would travel south to catch what his customers wanted to eat. That started a lifelong love affair with the area, which led to his success as a fishmonger.
“Gulf Coast seafood is the best tasting in the world,” Cary said, though it’s the relationships he has developed that keep him in the game and happy. “We’re all like family. I have the best customers and the best suppliers,” he said. “The best shrimpers in the United States are Alabama shrimpers, “They have a competitiveness to them; they’re the best.”
His customers seem to think likewise. Chef Stitt said he loves Cary’s stories and personality as much as the superior product he delivers every Wednesday morning, without fail. “The main thing it comes down to is trust, integrity and honor,” Stitt said. And he should know, he’s been using Le Fish since Highlands Bar & Grill opened in 1982. “He has the best line on Gulf crabmeat, shrimp, oysters and a variety of fish,” he said.
How else would a professional earn the name “Mr. Fish?”
By Michael Dumas for ASMC