By Steve Novotney
He still blushes when his customers offer him the usual rave reviews. His face literally turns red with appreciation, and he can utter only four words in return – “Thank you very much.”
Joe Coleman’s grandfather, John, started the business 100 years ago, and Coleman’s Fish Market has been operating in Centre Market since 1946. Joe’s father, Ray, followed his father, but Joe had other ideas.
While he worked at the fish market as a child so he could make spending money because Ray wasn’t a father who handed out his hard-earned dollars for nothing in exchange, Joe dreamed of becoming an engineer or a contractor. He wanted to design, and he wanted to build. Following his graduation from Wheeling Central Catholic High School, Joe joined the United States Navy. His plan called for six years of service and then college to learn his chosen craft.
He and his father had a brief conversation while Joe continued serving the country, and the father and son agreed that Joe would work one year for the family business before heading off to college. However, four months before Joe’s overseas duty was to end, his father fell ill.
“I was in the nuclear Navy for almost six years after high school, but my dad had a heart attack four months before I was scheduled to get out of the Navy,” he explained. “So one Friday night my wife and I were living in Italy, living what we considered to be the good life, and on the next Monday morning I found myself in the fish business. Talk about a change of life over a single weekend.
“I came home after being granted a hardship discharge because of the situation. I had five younger sisters who were all teenagers at the time, so they weren’t old enough to run the business,” Coleman explained. “So home I came to run the business, and here I am today.”
Joe Coleman now has been in the fish business for more than 40 years. He continues to work an average of 6o hours per week manning the fryer line in the retail operation and tending to the bottom line in his office or from home, and his children, too, are employed by the fish market.
“I love doing it because it’s relaxing. I love the ocean. I always have, so there’s something about standing in front of that bubbling oil making the fish that is therapeutic for me,” Coleman revealed. “There are other people who know how to do it like I do, of course, but when I am here during the daily rush, it’s what I like to do the most.”
He has no regrets, he insisted, and yes, there are good days and bad days just as most experience in their professional and personal lives, but today there exists no blueprint pertaining to his retirement.
“I love it. I really do, and since I am now approaching 67 years old, people ask me a lot these days when I am going to retire. But that’s not in my plans at all as long as my health is good,” Coleman said. “I really don’t see the point in it right now. Maybe I’ll cut down on the hours I work in the future, but I don’t know.”
Coleman’s Fish Market kicked off in June its celebration of the business’ 100th year of operation, and it’s been a humbling experience for Coleman and his family because they did not expect the received reaction from the Wheeling-area community.
“It’s been interesting; that’s for sure,” Coleman said. “Not too many families have actually made it that far. From what I understand, there are only a few restaurants that have made it 100 years while being owned by the same family.
“I don’t think anyone really knows the exact number that have been in operation that long, but we do know that it’s not that many these days,” he said. “I just consider our family very lucky.”
The Fish Biz.
On an average day, Coleman’s Fish Market produces more than 1,000 fish sandwiches. On an average Friday, the production jumps to 2,500.
During the Lenten season?
“Those numbers increase by two and one-half times our normal Friday production during the first week of Lent,” Coleman explained. “And then it’s usually double the average production for the remainder of the Lenten season.
“Every day it’s organized chaos; it really is,” he said. “We have a plan, and things are always flying, but everyone knows what they have to do. It’s like a football game – everyone does what they need to do to make it work.
“During Lent, our employees work longer hours to get everything done. We start earlier in the morning, and we get finished a little later because of the amount of people who choose a Coleman’s fish sandwich on those days,” Coleman explained. “And I have a lot of employees who have been here for a lot of years. I have grown older with a lot of the people who work for us.”
Coleman’s employs 40 local residents and the staff turnover has been minimal under Coleman’s ownership.
“Of the 40 employees, probably 50 percent of them have been with us for more than 20 years. When we all started working together, we were all getting married and having kids,” he said. “And now we’re all grandparents. Over the years I have probably spent more times with the ladies than their husbands have.”
Coleman’s job, though, includes far more than frying fish. He has learned over the past four decades how to ensure the highest quality at the best price for his customer base, and he’s even put himself in the position to know where and how those products originate.
“Keeping track of the industry is a challenge, yes, but it’s also a lot of fun for me, too,” he said. “And I’m still a ‘phone guy’ because reality is that you can place orders online, but when I am ordering, I want to know basically what boats caught what fish, how long they have been out at sea, what methods were used, and I want to know how clean the fish is, how fresh the fish is, what size the fish is, and you can’t get those types of details from a website.
“I prefer the one-on-one conversations with the people doing it. They see it. They tell you what they got for the day, and they offer me options,” Coleman continued. “And from there I get together my plan for the order.
“And in 1980 I boarded a North Atlantic troller as a crew member, and I stood all the watches, and I helped gut the fish and with icing them down,” Coleman recalled. “That week we ended up catching 42,000 pounds of fish.”
Coleman didn’t stop there.
“When we got back on shore, I rode on the semi between Boston and Pittsburgh so I could experience an overnight run hauling fish,” he said. “Then I went to the fish auction on that Monday morning, and by Wednesday morning a lot of the fish I had just caught were being served here.
“So now when I watch, ‘Deadliest Catch’ on TV, it’s fun because sometimes I can say, ‘Yeah, I’ve done that,’ and I know what it’s like to be out there,” Coleman said. “That experience also allows me to identify in movies like ‘The Perfect Storm’ what is real and what is make-believe.”
Those arriving at Coleman’s Fish Market encounter the line to the right and the line to the left. The aisle on the right zigzags its way to the cashier, but no special orders can be made. That’s where the left side of the long Coleman’s counter comes into play.
“That’s where our customers who want something a little different than what’s on the regular menu need to go to place their orders,” Coleman explained. “The wait time always depends on what they are asking for, of course, but the staff always does a great job for anyone and everyone who comes inside.
“The left line is also where you need to go if you want the Canadian White instead of the North Atlantic Pollack for the fish on the regular sandwich,” he said. “The difference is one is Pollack and the other is cod, but back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, cod liver oil was something they would give you when you were sick to make you healthy again. But cod liver oil tasted pretty bad. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, and back then, people didn’t want to eat cod because of the reputation of cod liver oil. No one could imagine it being any good.
“My father realized he needed another way to look at it, so what he did was start referring to it as ‘Canadian White’ because it is a white fish, and it’s caught near or in Canada. Plus, it has a nice ring to it.”
Even in those days, it was always about marketing.
“There isn’t a real, true ‘Canadian White,’ but after the name change sales took off because people weren’t thinking about cod liver oil anymore,” Coleman continued. “And the one we’ve always had is good, fresh cod that really tastes very good.”
Most of Coleman’s customers likely believe the Centre Market fish market is as far as the business operates, but just up Lane 19 from the shop rest the company’s processing and wholesale operations. This is another portion of the Coleman operation in which longtime employees report for five-days-a-week duty to cut, trim, and ready the products for both local and regional customers.
“We do a good business here at Centre Market, but there’s a lot we do behind the scenes for all of the other restaurants that have our sandwich on their menus too,” Coleman explained. “We’re going in a lot of different directions all of the time.
“This retail location represents only half of the business that we do. The other half is all about our wholesale business,” Coleman explained. “Besides what is on the menu, we also sell a lot of fresh fish and seafood here, and we sell a lot of fresh products to a lot of other locations around the region.”
It’s much more than just the high stack of fried fish served on two pieces of fluffy Nickle’s white bread that’s offered up wrapped in wax paper inside the renovated, more-than-a-century-old market house. While Coleman’s fish sandwich is a bona fide “Taste of Wheeling,” the fish market offers a large menu with options like shrimp and egg rolls, friend shrimp, fish fingers, deviled crabs, soft-shell crabs, shrimp salads, friend clams, and a bevy of tasty side dishes. Customers can also have anything offered in the shop’s fresh case, steamed, broiled, or fried.
“We have pretty much anything you can get out of the sea on the menu,” Coleman said. “Everyone seems to like what they like on our menu. It all moves even though the fish sandwiches get the majority of the attention.
“For years, I have always liked the fish fingers the most,” Coleman admitted. “I don’t eat a huge amount of fish, but I normally make my fish day the Tuesdays of each week because that’s when I spend most of the day doing paperwork. But yeah, I’m nibbling a lot of the times, but it is different when you are surrounded by it all day.”
It was his grandfather who made the key decision just before the end of World War II to begin slicing the fish in order to sell sandwiches instead of whole fish, and the breading is an old family recipe that keeps the customers coming back. And yes, it is a secret. Coleman admits, though, that he has tinkered with his grandfather’s original mixtures over the past couple of decades.
“We have tweaked the recipe a little to find ways to make it healthier,” he said. “We have played with the different seasonings we use, and we got rid of the MSG and have concentrated more on quality control. It’s really the same flavor, but we have tweaked it.
“And back in 1996 I got involved in a research project that was an effort to rid our products of all trans-fat. At that time no one really knew about trans-fat and how unhealthy it was,” Coleman explained. “Next year will make the 20th year since we made that decision, so we were way ahead of the curve on that one.”
Coleman’s Fish Market has become a Wheeling tradition. Local residents flock there often, homecoming natives return religiously, and visiting tourists are seldom disappointed. But those positives produce pressure with the serving of each meal.
“It’s a very neat thing, but it also comes with its challenges because once you get this reputation, it raises the bar and expectations,” Coleman explained. “That sometimes leads some people to expect more than it really is. We’re just a business with a simple sandwich while trying to do a good job.
“It’s nothing super fancy or super gourmet. Nothing on the menu is. We’re just trying to do a very good job at doing simple things,” he added. “It’s been very interesting, and we’re very proud when customers come back for more. That lets us know that we’re still doing a very good job.”
Coleman said it. He’s approaching 67, and although he does not intend to slow down any time soon, he realizes that life can change in a moment – just as it did for him when his father suffered the heart attack that did not allow him to return much to the market. He also realizes the next person in charge needs to be far more prepared than he was on that initial Monday morning.
The future of Coleman’s Fish Market will rest with his daughter Jodi, who has worked as office manager for the past five years despite one most interesting fact.
“She is the future of Coleman’s, but a lot of people do not know the rest of story when it concerns my daughter,” Coleman explained. “Jodi is allergic to seafood and also wheat. So you won’t see her in front of fryers like you see me.
“But she handles it well, and she’s a very good leader. She’ll just need to lead from the office where she is safe instead of being on the frontlines like I am most of the time. But she loves it, and you have to love it. It can’t be just a job, and it’s not to her.”
For decades, Coleman’s Fish Market has served as the anchor business of Centre Market, a destination that has featured a pair of market houses and a number of antique stores for many years. But over the past 10 years, a transformation has taken place within the district with the opening of several other eateries and retail businesses.
Now because the area is home to Later Alligator, Market Vines, Casa DaVino, Michael’s Beef House, Valley Cheese, Wheeling Brewery, the Soup Shack, Oliver’s Pies and Centre Market Bakery, food is an easy purchase in and around the pair of market houses.
“I love it the growth that’s taken place down here over the past several years because back 40 years ago when I took over for my dad, he told me that basically this area didn’t exist to a lot of people because they believed Wheeling Creek was the end of the downtown,” he said. “And it’s very interesting how things have worked out all those years later.
“In my 40 years this is the best I have ever seen this area, and it seems to get stronger every year,” Coleman said. “There have been a lot of changes in recent years, and it’s been great to watch. It’s been great to have so many other businesses open down here.”
That does not, however, mean Coleman’s will open earlier or close later any time soon.
“We’re not considering extending our hours here because of that growth because we have one crew, and they are exhausted at the end of every day,” Coleman explained. “And I am always trying to take care of the crew because they have to come back the next day and do it again and again.
“I have always put in a lot of hours, and so do they, but I have also made an effort not to burn them or myself out,” he said. “I realized that you have to pace yourself and I’ve realized that you have your busy seasons like Lent. So extending our hours would place far too much stress on everyone, so we plan to keep it the way it is now. The way I look at it, the evenings are for DiCarlo’s Pizza.”
And, while once-local restaurant businesses such as DiCarlo’s and Pittsburgh’s Primanti Brothers have chosen to expand into other markets or sell franchise rights to owners in other communities, Coleman insisted he has recognized his limitations.
“I have my hands full right now, and with the availability of fish it would make it very difficult to run a couple of places like we operate this one,” Coleman admitted. “What we do is fresh, and to do anymore we would have to get into the frozen stuff, and that’s not something we want to do.
“Running a couple of places also takes a whole different set of management skills and I don’t know how to run multiple places,” he said. “We do enough right now, and we have enough.”
Joe Coleman is happy. His job isn’t his life necessarily. He seldom socializes outside of his work hours, is not a member of the Friendly City’s “in-crowd,” and prefers to travel away from the Upper Ohio Valley with his wife when taking annual vacations. Coleman nearly never contemplates retirement, and that’s because he literally loves his life.
“The people I get to see every day are the best part about it all,” he admitted. “The people are the real reason why I never want to retire. I really, really enjoy the interaction I have with our customers, and there’s always a lot of excitement.
“Sure, everyone has their bad days, but overall the fish business keeps life interesting,” Coleman added. “This may not have been my plan in the very beginning, but I’m sure glad the way it’s all worked out.”
photos by Wallis