This is part of a series on West Chester entrepreneurs. Know someone that’s taking an innovative approach to the mantra, “Follow your dream?” I’d love to share their story. Thank you to Benchmark Federal Credit Union for making this expanded content possible.
For the last six months or so I have been profiling local entrepreneurs, chefs, brewers, authors, storytellers, and artists – all a scary leap to be sure, but none with the upfront costs of say, opening a seafood store. However, earlier this year that’s just what West Chester residents Al Lenenta and his wife Aissata Toure did. When I first caught wind of the new market coming to West Chester I thought it was the work of a regional wholesaler or an established chain but no, it’s the brainchild of a local family with roots in the fishing industry.
Al was raised on the Senegalese coast, a child of fishermen. “The whole day you could be at the beach,” he says remembering days spent helping the adults clean and sell fish. Aissata is from Mopti, Mali. They both remember the community spirit generated around the market once the fish were ready for sale. It was that energy Al and Aissata had long wanted to bring to West Chester.
Yes, but how exactly do you go about opening a fish market?
Some people are born into it
First, you need to do your research. “There is no seafood here in West Chester,” Al says. A sure surprise to someone who grew up among a tribe of fishermen, but here in this land-locked region of southeastern PA, you have to drive to get your fish. Before the Toure-Leneta family opened their shop on Hannum Avenue, Gadaleto’s Seafood Market on Wilmington Pike or Hill’s Quality Seafood Market in Exton would be your closest options.
Easy access to fresh fish is something Al and his wife both had when growing up and something they had long wanted to bring to the Borough. Al says he also misses the individual rapport and sense of community created by the local market.
“You start to get to know the customers,” Al says. “They come in with their stories.” There is joy in that relationship building that brings Al and Alisha back to their childhoods.
“It reminds me of being a child,” Al says. “It is really joyful. Something I really love doing.”
So now that you are sure there is a market for your product and a need, it is time to find a location.
The beauty in a beast of a location
The Toure-Leneta’s found their location at 443 Hannum Avenue right next to the Lukoil Station. A space that is equal parts confusing and brilliant.
On the inside, the shop is bright. The walls behind the fish display are tiled white with a blue Seafood nameplate. The exterior walls are lined with windows in front of which are bins of fresh fruits and vegetables – locally sourced in part from West Chester Grower’s Market vendors (Al is hoping this relationship will grow as more seasonal products become available).
While the inside is exactly what you might imagine a locally-owned fish market would look like, the outside is a bit of a surprise. The lot is dominated by the gas station. Perhaps once a day, Al reports, a Lukoil customer will pop in looking to pay for gas or grab a fountain soda. Despite the dominating nature of its unlikely neighbor, the site is in many ways perfect. It is conveniently located near both downtown West Chester and Downingtown Pike. Plus, there is plenty of parking – a premium in the borough – making it one of those rare locations that are easily accessible on foot, by bike, or by car.
In a town with limited grocery options within walking distance, this is an asset. “There is a lady in town, Gwen, and she doesn’t drive. All she has is her little bicycle or she walks. She comes out at least twice a week,” Al says.
Ok, now you know there’s a need and you’ve found your location, you still need to get the fish.
Early morning drives
Twice a week Al gets up before the sun and drives up to Philadelphia to meet with his wholesaler. While he’s there he will see buyers from the other independent markets. “We’re all doing the same thing,” he says.
While wholesalers, who cater to both the retail and restaurant market, carry nearly a hundred different varieties of fish and seafood from Hudson Valley Trout to New Zealand mussels, Al’s goal is to make sure his store has something for everyone. So, you’ll find tilapia, freshly caught salmon, and halibut, but you’ll also find whole striped bass, red snapper, fresh oysters, and a restaurant favorite, Bronzino. (You can cook it yourself, Al says, “It’s easy – a little bit of garlic, lemon, and ginger…”).
Besides delivering a product you can’t often find elsewhere, Al says his shop distinguishes itself by being small and personal. Not sure how long that fish has been sitting behind the counter? Al is. “I know I’ll get up in the morning and bring you a fresh fish,” he says. Need a specific fish for a celebration or a beloved family tradition? Want to recreate a favorite meal at home but don’t see the fish you were hoping for? At Hannum, you need just ask.
“If a customer asks for it, I’ll do my best to get it for them,” Al says.
That is not to say opening your own seafood market is easy, it’s not. Neither fish nor fresh fruits and vegetables are shelf stable so the product must be turned over regularly. Then there is understanding with precision your market. Fish popular in his youth are not common in a Western market where consumers are often cautious in their fish and seafood choices – preferring familiar salmon, and shrimp or a mild white fish like tilapia. Consumers here can be hesitant to venture past the basics, but this is something Al is hoping to push past in time. Future plans include providing recipe ideas for lesser-known fish and rotating in seasonal favorites like live crabs.
In the meantime, Al is trying to be patient and embrace the learning curve, which, much like the losses, must be absorbed as the business gets its footing. “I’m doing my best to bring things in on a weekly basis at a loss,” says Al who is not deterred. “You’ve got to – it’s a new business.”
If you are interested in trying, Hannum Seafood & Produce for yourself, they’re now open Tuesday – Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Special thank you to Benchmark Federal Credit Union for their continued support of this series. If you are new to Hello, West Chester, subscribe to get more inspiring West Chester stories!
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