How this family-run seafood business banded together to stay afloat for the next generation

'If you take all of our skill sets and align them and then put them together, we have a power team.'
January 25, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC
A drone shot of the F/V Defiance.
Courtesy of Hooked Up Marketplace

Water is everywhere in Cape May County, and land is borrowed space the loan sharks of the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean periodically reclaim without eviction notice. People who make their livings here—lighthouse historians, funnel cake artists, surf instructors, hotel housekeepers, Coast Guard officers, mackerel processors, marine biologists, barbacks, and shot girls—do so because of and in spite of the water, and the tourism water brings every summer, reliable as the tides that flood and drain the saltwater marshes that stitch together ocean and bay.

Twenty-four-year-old Sara Bright is one of these people. She sells seafood by the seashore, in Wildwood more specifically, a town famous for its rambunctious boardwalk, wide white beaches, and midcentury neon. She lives with her parents in nearby Cape May Courthouse on a seagrass-fringed pond her commercial fisherman father, Bill, dug before she was born. If you told Sara a year ago that she’d be among the 52% of pandemic refugees under 30 that moved back home in 2020, and that she’d be working with her family in the seafood industry, “I would have laughed and said no way, my life is in Colorado.”

Sara and her three siblings—Tess, 26, Sam, 23, and Will, 20—grew up on the Cape’s man-made and moon-made waterways, digging littlenecks, catching crabs, going on fishing trips with Bill, and helping him and their mom, Michelle, run Hooked Up Seafood, the family’s acclaimed dockside food truck. But the mountains and the snow pulled each Bright kid West. After college and a year in New York, Tess moved to Denver for a marketing job with a 48-brand software portfolio. Sara followed her, committed to Colorado but leery of the corporate world. “A lot of my friends were getting jobs but weren’t happy, and I started to panic,” Sara says. “Growing up we were taught to chase adventure, and that life should be anything but boring.”

Hooked Up Marketplace is a family-owned business committed to ensuring that the public has access to the highest-quality seafood.
Courtesy of Hooked Up Marketplace

She explored Colorado for a month, eventually landing in Aspen and taking a bartending gig at the only tavern in town serving food till midnight, making it a favorite with the after-work industry crowd. She’d shred powder all day and stack paper at night, rolling out of her bar with her snowboarding jacket pockets swollen with $800 to $1000 in tips. She’d do double duty as bartender and server, working the room herself, and pick up every extra shift available; outworking everyone else is pretty much the default Bright setting.

“Sara and I, for a really long time, would work six days a week at Hooked Up Seafood, then go cocktail waitress at the Stone Harbor Yacht Club,” Tess says. “We’d bring dinner to the club, get changed, work all night, and go to Hooked Up the next day. We did that summer after summer after summer, and it was a sacrifice, but looking back I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Our work ethic absolutely comes from our upbringing.”

When the pandemic hit, Aspen’s tourism industry evaporated in 48 hours. Sara, a saver, rode it out till August. “I was hiking every day and doing all this amazing stuff, but I didn’t feel fulfilled or like I was using my brain on a daily basis,” outside of handling Hooked Up Seafood’s social media from 2,000 miles away. “I started thinking about how we could make Hooked Up better, how can we improve it,” and Hooked Up Marketplace, the business that would bring her back home, began to take shape.

Quick retrieval from the coldest part of the water column and condensed fishing trips ensures that the freshest fish possible reaches the dock.
Courtesy of Hooked Up Marketplace

When the Bright kids were young, Bill was away at sea often, “probably 150 days a year,” he says. One Sunday he came home from a fishing trip in New England, gathered the family around the table, and floated an idea for a new adventure—a restaurant. Well, not a restaurant-restaurant, but a kitchen trailer parked by the docks on Richardson Channel, with picnic tables where customers could see the freshness of the fish, guts and scales and all, being butchered a few feet away. “The kids were into it right away.”

Bill and Michelle, a Temple-trained journalist and ace home cook, opened Hooked Up Seafood in 2010 and quickly developed a reputation of excellence. Their commitment to fresh and local seafood stood in contrast to many of their neighbors, perhaps surprising given Cape May County is surrounded by water and home to the second largest commercial fishing port on the East Coast. But while Delaware Bay oysters and Cape May scallops make fairly common appearances on menus around town, the fish the summer crowds feast on in the area’s outdoor decks and nautical taverns are typically cheap, frozen, and imported. People noticed the difference, and the Hooked Up grew by word-of-mouth summer after summer. “But it was never about making money,” Bill says. “It was more about spending real, quality time with my kids.”

As high schoolers, Tess, Sara, Sam, and Will may not have viewed manning the steamer, shucking ears of corn, or bussing trays of pulverized crab carcasses on 90-degree days while their friends were at the beach on running jet skis as quality family time, but their parents emphasized, “It’s not about you, it’s about the team,” Bill says. “When you see that wheel in motion on a busy holiday weekend, and everybody knows their spot, that’s what makes our team really good. To stand there and watch my family solve problems and work as a team, it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

Regardless, running Hooked Up is strenuous, and it’s gotten harder as the kids have gone their own ways: Tess and Sara in Colorado; Sam graduating last May with a mechanical engineering degree and moving to Oregon work as an outfitter during elk season; Will, a high school valedictorian and sophomore at Rowan looking for adventure. “When we started leaving and my dad started bringing other [employees] into Hooked Up,” Sara says, “he was like, ‘This isn’t what I want. I wanted to work with my family. I wanted to see everybody every day, so working with other kids just doesn’t do it.’” Add a pandemic to the mix, and Bill and Michelle wondered if 2020 might be Hooked Up’s last summer.

“Sara and I had always talked about how our family has something special, and we didn’t want to let that die,” Tess says. “We knew there was something much bigger than selling crab cake sandwiches and fresh fish platters, that there might be a new business that could make money and have a greater [purpose] in the community.”

Sara banged out the business plan and moved home just after Labor Day. Hooked Up Marketplace would be a retail spin-off with focus on demystifying seafood—both where it comes from and how to cook it. Sara, Tess, and their 34-year-old cousin, Matt Daly, a supply-chain specialist outside Philly, would fill the leadership roles. The new company would leverage Hooked Up’s loyal clientele, converting seasonal customers into year-round ones through pop-ups, farmers’ markets, and subscriptions. It would work symbiotically with Bill’s boats but would operate as its own entity.

“My dad’s entire thing was, ‘You guys do whatever you want; I don’t want to be involved,’ which is kind of funny because he wants to be involved,” Tess says. “It’s his way of saying he wants this to be our own project.”

All they needed was a signature product.

Captain Bill Bright (center) has been trolling the waters of the Atlantic Ocean as a successful commercial fisherman for over 35 years. He leaves port from Wildwood, N.J. in search of Swordfish, Tuna, and Tilefish.
Courtesy of Hooked Up Marketplace

Catching a swordfish is never easy, but it’s easier near the sun-warmed surface. Here in the upper water column the seas can be up to 80 degrees in the summertime, which is why a sword pulled from this environment will already be on the wrong side of optimal temperature. Given that large boats are often on multi-day trips, even a fish that is quickly chilled down on board is vulnerable to spoilage.

“The reason people don’t like swordfish is they’ve never had a good swordfish, because the average swordfish is probably at least two weeks old,” Bill says.

While he hunts big-eye tuna, mahi-mahi, and other underwater rock stars, squid has always been Bill’s bread and butter, and he leaned on his 20 years of expertise fishing the ten-legged darts to solve the subprime sword problem. Squid thrive in the cold, dark, sparsely populated waters off the Continental Shelf, where the ocean floor plummets 1800 feet between New York and Cape Hatteras, but every morning, they commute like suburbanites to the busy warmer surface water to feed on sunlight-dependent zooplankton. Predators pursue.

The F/V Defiance utilizes responsible fishing methods that produce the highest quality product with minimal bycatch.
Courtesy of Hooked Up Marketplace

Bill tested a theory: Instead of catching sword at the surface, what if he dropped a longer line—a 1,200- to 1,500-foot line—and sought the spear-nosed marauders at the start of their ascent. After a few successful attempts, “We realized by fishing them down there, not only is there zero bycatch, but when you bring the fish up it has a core temp of 50 degrees. It’s already refrigerated,” and Bill and his crew maintain that cold temperature through every step of the process. It’s the Coors Lite of fish.

Bill realized he didn’t just have superior sword steaks for Michelle to blacken at Hooked Up Seafood. He had a product, one with a sublime texture and flavor and a naturally long shelf life, “and I’m the first person on the East Coast to seek to market it.”He gave it the catchy name, Deep Drop Swordfish, and entrusted Sara, Tess, and Matt to communicate the story and nurture brand recognition through Hooked Up Marketplace.

With her first-hand experience on Defiance, hauling the powerful swords onto the slick wooden deck, Sara is an ideal ambassador. “When I tell people I go out swordfishing they’re like, ‘You go out with him?’ You enjoy that?’” she says. “There aren’t many women in commercial fishing doing the hands-on work.” (Women hold only about 15% of fishing permits in Alaska, the state with the largest fishing industry in the country, and sexual harassment is endemic in the industry.) “Society separates women and men into what they can and can’t do, but my parents [raised us] with no separation between the possibilities for the daughters and the sons.”

Fish goes directly from the deep cold waters, to the ice tanks on the F/V Defiance, directly to the buyer—no middleman.
Courtesy of Hooked Up Marketplace

On September 18, Sara posted the usual seasonal farewell on Hooked Up’s Instagram feed and included an introduction to Hooked Up Marketplace. Five weeks later, she posted a flyer Tess had designed featuring the pearlescent slabs of Deep Drop Swordfish.

“Looking for amazing high-quality seafood you can cook at home? Look no further, we’re having our first official pop-up sale! Captain Bill and the F/V Defiance are on their way in from their latest Atlantic seaboard trip with fresh off-the-boat locally caught Deep Drop Swordfish.”

“I don’t think we were expecting a lot,” Tess says, “but the interest was overwhelming,” with sales growing 100% across each of three pop-ups this fall. With Tess still in Denver for the time being, Sara and Matt called Will in to help.

“Don’t tell mom when I say this,” Will told Sara, “but I don’t know why I’m going to school for engineering, because I know what I want to do—own a business and own it with you.”

Sara wasn’t surprised. “I put everybody’s name on the LLC because I knew that at one point, whether it’s this year, next year, or two years from now, that it’s going to be all of us. If you take all of our skill sets and align them and then put them together, we have a power team.”