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Jon Haag loves fish--and it shows. From the moment you walk into Haag & Sons Seafood, a long-time Oak Island seafood store, you know you’ve entered a world of a finicky fishmonger.

The first sign of something different is the dazzling display of fresh whole fish. Prepared by Haag each morning, the 10-foot-long colorful cornucopia of sea creatures is just a sampling of what he currently has available to sell cut-to-order. The dozen or so different fish arranged in the display on any given day might include local varieties like grouper, hogfish, and triggerfish, or species from farther afield, like tuna, salmon, and mahimahi.

“I started preparing the daily displays from the first day we opened at this location back in 1995,” says Haag, who loves dealing with his customers almost as much as his product. “I wanted to set myself apart from what other seafood shops were doing, and I also wanted to show the beauty of fish as animals.”

It typically takes Haag 45 minutes to an hour to prepare the display each morning and another hour or more to break it down each evening. He is incredibly gentle with the fish because bending them can damage muscle tissue and make the cooked result inferior. “I spend a ton of time in our walk-in cooler and the rest of the shop babysitting my fish,” Haag says with a laugh. “Handling fresh fish is like carrying your grandmother to bed--you should do it very gently.”

Haag also believes in cutting the fish to order and hates to see fish cut in advance and wrapped in cellophane. “Pardon the pun, " he says as he wraps two grouper filets for a long-time customer, "but we were on the cutting edge when we started cutting our fish to order back in 1995.”

Haag typically has a half-dozen or so sharpened knives at the ready and obviously takes pride in the way the fish looks once he’s cleaned and cut it. “From the display to the cut fish, I really try to make it look good for the customer,” Haag says as he heads back to the cooler, which may hold up to 6,000 pounds of seafood during the busy summer season. He also keeps the entire store at a cool temperature, with most staff members wearing long-sleeved shirts and rubber boots even during mid-summer. (As a top layer, many of the staff sport colorful T-shirts with the Haag & Sons Seafood logo on the back and statements on the front that reflect the fun they have at work -- declarations like "This Job Stinks" and "Naturally Wild".) 

Although Haag cuts most of the fish ordered, he has also trained Michael Kirby and Trent Savidge to cut orders to his exacting specifications. Kirby has worked with Haag since 1998, saying, “Although I thought I knew how to cut fish, he used to say that I hacked it. Jon was an excellent teacher and really knows how to cut fish for customers.”

Once the fish is cut, it’s placed in a plastic bag and wrapped in brown paper--more like an old-world butcher than a modern fishmonger. The personal service doesn’t stop there, however--the veteran staff at Haag & Sons know their merchandise and won’t hesitate to make recommendations to customers once they learn their preferences. Many shoppers take a recipe home along with their filets or steaks.

Haag also sees the display and his interaction with customers as a means of education. Because the fish is displayed whole, customers can see the beauty and variety of each species. From small black sea bass sold whole to huge grouper, Haag & Sons customers learn to know (and love) different types of seafood.

Testing the Waters

Although originally from the south shore of Long Island, New York, Haag was always fascinated with the variety of seafood found off the coast of the Carolinas. After earning his degree in Environmental Science at Vanderbilt University in 1976, he spent time working on various boats in the mid-Atlantic before spending several years with Hieronymus Brothers Seafood in Wrightsville Beach.

“That’s where I got my first real retail experience,” recalls Haag. “Before then, I had always been more interested in the fish than in the end user.”

After this exposure to the sales side of seafood, he and a partner opened a seafood business in Southport called 40 Fathoms. They catered mostly to North Carolina restaurants, and Haag developed a reputation for delivering fresh and well-prepared seafood.

After splitting off from his business partner in 1991, Haag opened the first rendition of what would become Haag & Sons. “I basically leased a cooler and a closet from the old Southport Fish Company and continued selling mostly wholesale to my restaurant clients,” he recalls. “I then moved the business to Barb’s Seafood, which is halfway between Southport and Oak Island, before finding my own spot right on the island in 1994 and opening for business in the current location on Easter weekend in 1995.

“I called it Haag & Sons because many of my wholesale customers were also family-run businesses who liked the concept of working with other families,” Haag continues. “My sons, Ben and Taylor, were seven and three at the time. They’ve helped me out over the years, and the traditional family-oriented name stuck.”

Customer Service

From the start, freshness and great service have been the draws to Haag's retail and wholesale customers. He says that restaurants still make up about 50% of his business, with local chefs looking for fresh and unique fish more than ever.

For example, both hogfish and triggerfish used to be considered “trash fish” by commercial fishermen, seafood shop owners, and restaurateurs. Now, both are in high demand and command prices three or four times higher than their “trashy” label once allowed.

Stephen Phipps, the owner and chef of Mr. P’s Bistro in Southport, says Haag has a great reputation with Local restaurants. “He knows what I expect--top quality--and I get it from him,” says Phipps. “I buy from him every day.”

Haag enjoys the daily interaction with local chefs and restaurant owners, but the other half of his business comes from a loyal local following.

“The first time we came into Haag & Sons and saw all the fresh fish, I thought, ‘oh my gosh,’” says Oak Island resident Karen Flaum, who now is a Haag regular. I ordered a pound of tuna and he went into the cooler, brought out an entire tuna, went ‘cut, cut, cut,’ and brought out 1.1 pounds of perfectly cut tuna steak. After that, I was smitten and knew that I‘d found our new seafood shop.”

The most popular item with both retail customers and restaurants is grouper. “It also happens to be my favorite fish overall,” says Haag, who rarely eats red meat or poultry and typically has seafood for lunch and dinner daily. “I love the way fresh grouper flakes out and is so sweet and tender. I prepare it all kinds of ways--except fried.”

Haag and his partner, Kelley Domingue, have even developed a favorite grouper recipe. “Living with a fishmonger, we eat--of course--a lot of fish,” says Kelley, who also handles the accounting for Haag & Sons and occasionally fills in behind the counter when things get really busy in the summer. She adds, “I wanted something that would fit a busy lifestyle and that was easy for our customers to prepare. It also had to fit our taste and our zest for living a healthy lifestyle.”

Although grouper and other fresh fish are all big business at Haag & Sons, it’s actually shrimp that’s the top overall seller in the shop. “Whenever possible, we get our shrimp from North Carolina or South Carolina,” says Haag. He typically likes to have four sizes available at all times, because certain shrimp sizes work well for different uses--small shrimp (which the shop labels “Not So Large” and “Somewhat Large”) are perfect for a stir fry or soup, while there’s nothing better than their “”Large” or “Larger” choices for a simple and fresh shrimp cocktail.

Many islanders come into Haag & Sons having no idea what they’ll be taking home for dinner. Many simply ask Haag or one of the other staff members something like, “What’s fresh?” or “What’s for dinner?” Within minutes--or maybe after a long chat with Haag about preparation--they’ll likely leave with some of the freshest seafood available in North Carolina. And that’s no fish tale.

If you're Going:

Haag & Sons Seafood
7910 East Oak Island Drive
Oak Island, NC 28465
(910) 278-1234
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9am to 6:30pm; Sunday, 11am to 6pm.

Grouper Kapooni
courtesy of Jon Haag and Kelley Domingue

2-3 lbs. fresh grouper (thick fillets)
Asian marinade (recipe below)
1 pkg. grape tomatoes cut in half
1/2 large red onion roughly chopped
1/2 bunch cilantro finely chopped
1 Mango diced
1/2 fresh pineapple chunked (or 1 can chunked pineapple - drained)
1 can mandarin oranges (drained)

Asian Marinade
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tbs. Dark sesame oil
2 Tbs. Rice vinegar
1 Tb. Minced garlic
1 Tb. minced ginger
1 Scallion thinly sliced (yielding about 2 Tbs.)
1/2-1 Teaspoon black pepper

Note: For marinade on the fly, Jon and Kelley use Ken's Ginger Sesame Marinade

Combine cilantro and onion with the marinade.
Pour over fish and the rest of ingredients
Let marinade 2-3 hours
Put fish in glass baking dish and put marinade w/ fruit on and around fish
Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or until fish flakes
Garnish with freshly shredded parmesan and more chopped cilantro
Serves 4-6 people

Lynn Seldon lives on Oak Island and frequents Haag & Sons Seafood as often as possible.