Photo courtesy of Fresh Catch Poke Co
Mike Tobin is the owner of Fresh Catch Poke Co, Fresh Catch & The Galley Lounge, and Shuck Shack in Buffalo, NY
Before he entered the restaurant business, Mike worked in California as the head of marketing for a video game company. He spent a lot of time on the road, eventually stumbled upon a poke bowl restaurant 2 blocks from the Santa Monica beach.
“I still have the picture on my phone and look at it from time to time, it has everything I wanted out of a healthy lunch on the go, and it really hit me how bad I wanted to bring healthy, affordable, AND just really good tasting food to Buffalo. We have incredible restaurants here, but quick serve/on the go options were lacking, so once I landed back in Buffalo I started telling my friends that I was going to open a poke bowl restaurant. Most didn’t even know what poke was, but they knew when I said it, I was serious.”
Mike opened the first Fresh Catch Poke Co in Williamsville in January of 2018, and their first day was a literal blizzard.
“We didn’t even have bowls to serve our food in, they were stuck on a UPS truck in Hamburg. I drove down and met the truck on the side of the road and got back just in time. We also had delays with our tables and had to rent tables from a local rental place, and put table clothes and flowers on them to make it look like they belonged there!”
Mike had no choice but to open.
“We had gone over the construction budget, rent was due, and I was out of money. So we opened, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way”.
Since then Mike has seen a lot of growth, opening a second location downtown – Fresh Catch & The Galley Lounge, a seasonal oyster shack on the water – Shuck Shack, and a fresh seafood market inside our Williamsville store – The Market At Fresh Catch. This growth has also created more jobs in Buffalo. According to Mike, Fresh Catch “started with 9 employees, most are still with us, and now have 25 with the businesses.”
When asked about his favorite business milestone, Mike reflects on the journey of Fresh Catch.
“Just opening Fresh Catch and the response we have received has honestly been more than I could have ever dreamt of. Our community is like no other, and we have been so lucky to have a following that speaks so passionately about what we do.”
At the time of publication, Fresh Catch was celebrating its 3 year anniversary. After opening a 2nd store last year, Mike decided to get out from a strict poke-bowl-and-lobster-roll umbrella and open an oyster shack on the water on Ohio Street.
“I would say opening Shuck Shack in the middle of the pandemic, being able to bring in my 2 managers as business partners, and have most of our staff along with new team members all be apart of something so unique and exciting was my favorite milestone so far. We served over 50,000 oysters in 10 weeks out a small trailer, all while ensuring everyone was following social distance guidelines, and we gave them great service with a smile, was a major feat. It really felt like that is what Buffalo needed at the time. We had just went through the first Covid wave and I think people needed just a small piece of normalcy. We met SO many people who had been going to Cape Cod (hi Peter and Carole) and we were able to bring that here, give them a feeling of what they had been doing for so many years and now Covid took it from them. Seeing how the community trusts what we do, whether its at Fresh Catch, out of a trailer on the Buffalo river, or picking up fresh seafood for their dinner at our seafood market, it feels good!”
Business Tips from Mike Tobin
1) What advice would you give a local business that is just starting out? Or is there something you wish you knew along your journey?
“Choose something that you can do every minute of the day, and still wake up and enjoy it. I’ve been told by customers that our staff is so helpful or so passionate about what we offer, and thats because I am passionate about what we do and they feed of that. I feel so strongly that I can talk about it to thousands of strangers and never get sick of it. Also make sure that you have a solid business plan, Buffalo State offers a great program, and it helps you take an objective look at your idea and see if its possibly viable. It asks you some tough questions, and prepares you for what it takes to run your own business. Once that wheel starts moving, you have to be prepared to work at it every single day. Buffalo is an incredibly loyal community, and they will support you with everything they have, but you better bring it! Have faith, try and enjoy the ride, and make sure to try and give back to the community that gives you their hard earned dollars.”
2) Give us a business tip-any tip!
“Make friends with your vendors, and don’t always look for the lowest price whether its insurance, supplies, goods for your business, whatever. Your vendors are your support team, you need them and they are going to be the ones that you cry to, bail you out when you’re in a jam, and are going to help your business succeed. I visit my fishermen every few months, and they have become friends all while being alongside us as we grow. Having great partnerships is invaluable and will really make the difference when times are tough.
I would also point out that make sure you take care of your employees. Pay them what your business can afford, be aware of what they have going on in their lives (its not just working for you!), and be present. Being there and being present goes a long way with the staff, they learn your mannerisms, what you are looking for out of them, and are more likely to thrive if you are there. Try and be a positive influence in their lives and you will be handsomely rewarded :)”
3) What’s your marketing motto?
“Be authentic, speak passionately and truthfully about what you are doing, and for me, let the product and your staff shine. I like being more behind the scenes the best I can, and letting people get hooked by Fresh Catch from interacting with our awesome staff, trying our different menu items, and letting our brand do the work vs myself being front and center all the time.”
4) What advice do you have for hiring people?
“Have your current staff be apart of the hiring process. They are the ones who are going to have to work alongside a new hire daily, so let them ask questions, maybe have the first interview from one of your staff members and if they think they are a good fit culturally, then bring the person back for a 2nd interview or compare notes after. I tell all of our interviewees, we are looking for a person who is a great fit for FC, but also we are a great fit for them. We want them to love working with us!”
5) What is the most beneficial form of advertising?
“Word of mouth and partnering with advocates and supporters. We don’t spend much on social media ads or other forms of advertising, I would rather invest our money into our customers by maintaining the lowest prices we can, while not sacrificing on quality. Not having to spend big amounts on advertising allows us to rewards our loyal customers with little thank yous, slipping a cookie to a customers child, tossing a sparkling wine in a customers bag on a Friday after a long week, little things like that that we can afford to do. And I like to work with community partners like Independent Health, they approved our whole menu and their members can use their flex spending cards at our stores.”