When Disaster Strikes
Late into the night of May 30, Bostonians were celebrating as their beloved Celtics, who had earlier beat the Detroit Pistons to return to the NBA Finals for the first time in 21 years. Unfortunately, another iconic Beantown institution had little to celebrate that night. Around 3 a.m., a seven-alarm fire destroyed James Hook & Co., a $12 million family-owned waterfront seafood company on the Fort Point Channel.
For every business owner, it's the ultimate nightmare. It took more than 130 firefighters, a scuba team, and a Massachusetts Port Authority Fireboat to put out the blaze, which officials now believe was caused by a mechanical or electrical malfunction. Damage estimates were in the $5 million range, including the loss of 60,000 pounds of fresh lobster. Founded in 1925 by James Hook, the company had a thriving wholesale business to restaurant chains like Morton's, large hotel companies, midsize distributors, a few North End spots, the walk-in retail customers, and lobster roll devotees. Today the owners are grandsons Eddie, Al, and Jimmy Hook and granddaughter Nancy Doto. Eddie worked there as a kid, took a "four-year college vacation," and returned to spend the last 35 years keeping New Englanders boiled and buttered in lobster. He recently took time away from getting James Hook back up and running to speak with Inc.com about the only job he's ever known.
Tell us about when you heard about the fire.
I was in bed, of course, but it isn't that unusual to get calls at night from the alarm company. The alarm calls rotate between my brothers and I. Jim took the call and then my wife took his call. He said there was a fire and, "It's gone. It's all gone." I'm thinking my brother must be exaggerating. It can't be all gone…. But when I drove over the Zakim Bridge from the North Shore, I could see the smoke. I took a deep breath because I knew, this is going to be bad.
Can you describe what the scene was like?
The entire building was encompassed in fire, shooting flames out everywhere. There were seven ladder trucks surrounding the building and watering it from every angle. It's certainly the biggest fire I've ever seen.
How long did you stay there?
We stayed there until the fire was completely put out. I think I was there about 36 hours straight through.
Was there a mourning period?
No, there wasn't time. We knew we wanted to stay in business.
When did you first discuss what the next move was for Hook Lobster?
By 6 a.m., when our early customers would normally show up, my brothers and I started slapping it together on the fly. Right away, we called the phone company and had numbers transferred to a cell and to my brother's home. We got help from two local seafood companies. John Nagle gave us office space and P.J. Lobster rented us some spare holding tanks. We didn't lose any wholesale customers because we hit the ground running.
So your competitors helped out?
It's a small industry with family businesses that go from generation-to-generation, so we all know each other. We're competing, but we all supply lobsters to each other if somebody is low in product. It's a back-and-forth thing in this business. Customers come and go, but we're all here, so there's no fisticuffs or guys trying to blow up someone's car. [Laughs]
What have you done differently since the fire?
We went from having 110 holding tanks with a capacity of 250,000 pounds of live lobsters to probably 15,000 to 20,000 pounds, which might only be a couple of days worth depending on how busy it gets. We've had to become much more vigorous in our buying and selling, ordering smaller lots, but much more frequently. We're working on short notice and have to be able to replace inventory by tomorrow.
Who do you buy your seafood from?
We buy from co-ops in Maine, the same ones my grandfather and father used. The co-ops deal with the individual fishermen. Once they have a stockpile of lobsters they bring them to us. On the day of the fire, we called a truck driver from D.L. Young Seafood to apprise him of the situation. He still came down and delivered them to our makeshift spot.
How is the lobster industry overall?
It's pretty healthy, the stocks are more than adequate. There's more people using lobster all over the world and the market is expanding into Europe and the Far East. It's not bad at all. I haven't even had to pay an extra fuel surcharge of $.50 to $1.00 on a pound.
What about the retail side of the business?
We had to shut the website down for a little while, and now our products are limited, which is too bad, because sales have been growing. The walk-in retail and lunch crowd is on hold, but the demolition is basically done and we're hoping to get a temporary module system set up in the next two weeks. We didn't hire the college kids for the summer retail, but we kept all our full-time employees. Hook Lobster has maintained the status quo, so it's been good that way.
What are the prospects for rebuilding?
We've started talking to designers and contractors and we're speculating it will take six months to a year.
Will the new building allow Hook Lobster to do anything different?
This isn't an industry that changes a lot. Once you set it up, you don't fiddle with it. It'll pretty much be like it was 50 years ago. We'll probably blow out the retail space, possibly put in a full eatery where people can sit down on the waterfront and have a nice fresh lobster.
Did you lose a lot of family mementos?
Tons of stuff. Too much to even remember, family pictures, photos with athletes and celebrities who came in, just little stuff that people would send us. I forget and then I remember what's missing. There are a lot of mementos going back to my father's generation…. It's all gone.
Can you express your feelings on what's it like to have a building that's been in the Hook family going back to the 1920's being destroyed in a fire?
The building has a lot of sad memories too…. My father died in an accident at the business in 1959. We used to make saltwater ice and he suffocated in the ice room on a Sunday morning. I was three.
It seems like the Hook Lobster fire was a huge story in Boston…
The Celtics took away our front-page headlines! [Laughs.] Actually, I couldn't stand looking at all the pictures, but I'm glad the media keeps following up, letting people know that we're still in business. The local community has been great as well. People in the neighborhood would bring food and drinks, offer to let us crash on the couch if we needed to rest. The morning of the fire people were out there hugging and crying right alongside us. I can't tell you how many people told me, "We'll find you one way or another." The customers have been amazing.
Are you optimistic about Hook Lobster's future?
I am. Once I got over the initial shock… honestly, I'm energized. Sometimes you get complacent doing the same thing, the same way for a long period of time. I'm 52 and getting the business going again has definitely charged the battery.