Teacher-entrepreneur serves up fish in Uphams Corner
On a given afternoon at Dudley’s Seafood Market in Dorchester, owner Cassandra Morgan can be found working the cash register, helping to cook and serve up seafood combo plates with sides of cole slaw, fries and plantains, advising customers on fresh fish selection and keeping the shop clean.
On the Web
Dudley’s Seafood Market: http://dudleyseafood.com
“We pride ourselves on being very clean. It doesn’t smell like a seafood market,” she says of the bright, narrow shop, painted white and lined with display cases of live lobsters and crabs and whole fish ready to be cleaned and cut to order. The kitchen is in the back, behind a light blue accent wall.
The compact space at 744 Dudley St. has a few bright red chairs and two wood tables that fold out from the wall for inside seating when needed, but most customers come in for meals-to-go or fresh seafood to cook at home. A typical day’s selection is likely to contain whole grouper, porgy, red snapper, jackfish and tilapia and filets of whiting and salmon. A chalkboard lists many other fish types she can stock on request.
A teacher and a learner
Morgan did not grow up planning to be a seafood expert. In fact, she has degrees in sociology and educational technology and has worked for 15 years as a Boston Public Schools math and special education teacher, currently at Dorchester’s McCormack Middle School.
But even while pursuing her professional career, the business ownership urge persisted. The idea for a seafood market came early last year when she drove past a shuttered fast-food restaurant site on Blue Hill Avenue. It sparked a question: Was there room for a healthier food business in the area?
“I decided to start looking into it,” she says. “I’d been doing research on eating healthy, and I feel seafood is adding something healthy to the community.”
With a full-time job and her three children grown and mostly on their own, Morgan felt she had some freedom to take on the financial risk and labor of starting a brick-and-mortar business. She began soaking up information from the fishmongers at Boston Fish Pier, who helped educate her on which types of fish to carry, and from her own staff members who knew how to clean and cut seafood.
“I had to learn everything,” she says. “But I like to do different things, so it’s natural for me to take this on.”
During the school year she worked a double shift, heading to the fish market after a day of teaching. Behind the scenes and often from home, she handled purchasing, keeping the books and starting to build the market’s social media presence.
Building a space, serving a community
Before opening the market last September, Morgan and her team spent the summer transforming the former retail store into a food establishment. They saved money at every possible step by scouring Craigslist and eBay for equipment, even traveling to Georgia to pick up some large items found on eBay.
“We had to get a walk-in cooler and display cases,” she says. “A lobster tank. A cash register system. We had to put a floor in, get a hand-wash sink in and a mop closet — we basically built the whole space out. But we were frugal and got some really good deals.”
Uphams Corner is home to Cape Verdean, West Indian and African American populations as well as a growing white presence. To cater to various cuisines, the market offers favorites such as strawberry grouper, porgy, kingfish, catfish and salmon. One of her team members who is Puerto Rican added seafood-stuffed pastelitos to the menu. Morgan herself has Southern family roots, and fish and grits will be part of a new breakfast menu.
Her entrepreneurial and teaching lives are not totally separated. Many of her McCormack students live in the neighborhood, and they’ll pop in to say hello or come in with their families to buy fish, she says. At school, she sees an opportunity be a role model, showing students that business ownership is achievable and can be combined with other careers.
If she had it to over again, she says she might seek a space that’s food business-ready instead of having to build it out from scratch, though she was able to survive the time lag of getting the shop set up.
Her main advice to would-be entrepreneurs is to not underestimate startup costs.
“Everything seems cheaper on paper,” she says. “When people tell you you won’t always anticipate the true costs, they’re right. You have to add about 30 percent more to what you think it will cost.”
Dudley’s Seafood Market seems to be filling a need in the neighborhood. The business racked up 630 customer transactions in a recent month, more than needed to break even. Now, Morgan would like to triple that number.
With school out, Morgan will have some time over the summer to catch her breath and push forward on a few plans. She hopes to acquire a stove necessary for offering steamed seafood, a lighter alternative to fried. Other ideas include creating recipe cards, organizing a sushi night and partnering with Amazon Fresh to offer delivery.
“Our visibility has to increase, and we have to continue to offer what our customers want,” she says. “We want to be knowledgeable about what we offer, and we want to be clean and fresh and offer phenomenal customer service. Hopefully, we’ll become a name and a logo people recognize.”