Carrying on the Bearcats Tradition
If you’re a seafood lover, plan on breaking into a great big smile when you enter Bearcats Fish House. Inside the plainlooking brown building in downtown Algoma is one of the lushest displays of fish and seafood in the Midwest. Multiple cooler cases and freezers hold a fit-for-a-king selection: There’s fresh Lake Michigan whitefish, rainbow trout and yellow perch. There’s smoked bluefins, chubs and salmon, plus frozen choices literally from A (Alaskan walleye pollack) to Z (zander). You’ll find lobster tails and battered cod. Crab cakes and conch. Red snapper and mussels … Oh heck! There’s no way I can list it all. You just gotta see this place to believe it.
First owned and operated for more than a quarter-century by Jerry (“Bearcat”) and Linda Berkovitz, the market has belonged to Billy Smith and his wife Nicole since 2012. Billy hails from a commercial salmon fishing family in Sterling, Alaska. A talented hockey competitor, he came to Wisconsin to play for the Green Bay Gamblers and met his future wife, a Suamico native, while living with a housing family and attending Ashwaubenon High School. Today, Billy and Nicole, who is in her eighth year as an elementary teacher, have “two beautiful, funny and sweet little girls,” as Nicole describes them. “They eat enough smoked fish of their own to keep us in business,” she adds.
Billy handles both retail and wholesale operations at Bearcats with a “family” of processing and retail employees, most of whom come from close by.
“We’re fortunate to have great employees who take as much pride in Bearcats as we do,” he said. “Being a small business, our employees become much more than just employees.”
Read on for more about Billy Smith and Bearcats Fish House.
Terese: With commercial fishing in your background, you seem a natural for running a seafood market. Did you know Bearcat before you bought his store? And have you changed it much since then?
Billy: We met Bearcat and Linda after we began discussing purchasing the business. They were excited to retire and spend more time doing the things they love. They had such a wonderful business established that we tried our best to keep the quality and the products the same. In fact, we still employ several workers they hired and trained.
Terese: Are Bearcat and Linda still involved in the business at all?
Billy: They’ve been our biggest supporters since we bought the business. We couldn’t have been more blessed when it came to the previous owners. They have always wanted to see us succeed and often stop in to visit, split wood, bring wood, cut trout or lend a hand wherever needed. Bearcat is quite the jokester, too.
Terese: How so? Give us an example.
Billy: Recently, he called the store, did not identify himself and spoke with one of our newer employees. He tried placing an order for a pre-cooked seaburger fish sandwich for pickup. Our employee politely explained that we were not a restaurant, but a seafood store. Bearcat was insistent that when he was in the store the last time, the guy with the bandana made him one. (This was the employee Bearcat knew he was talking to!) Bearcat wouldn’t let it drop [so our] employee handed the phone to me. When I asked the customer how I could help, all I could hear was Bearcat laughing on the other end.
Terese: What are your favorite products at the store, and why?
Billy: Our smoked products are what we take a lot of pride in. You can pick up a piece of cod almost anywhere nowadays but not so much specialty items like our smoked fish. There is a lot of time and effort that goes into the creation of our smoked fish. All of it is brined and smoked on location.
Terese: Besides fish, what are some of the Door County or Wisconsin foods you sell?
Billy: You can find Renard’s Cheese, Wienke’s canned goods, Cherry De- Lites, Marchant’s brats, Konops beef sticks, Maplewood Meats products, Slack’s jams, Seaquist Orchards cherries and more. We try to keep as much of our business as local as we can.
Terese: Who shops at Bearcats? Is there a typical kind of customer?
Billy: We literally get to meet customers from around the country—even world—who share such interesting stories about why they’re in Algoma. We also have the most loyal customers who live right in town. They stop in to give me the latest fishing report and often bring in goodies.
Terese: There’s lots of fishing and hunting families in this region. Tell us about the services you offer for people who “catch their own.”
Billy: We do fish cleaning, filleting, vacuum-packing, smoking and freezing. We will hold product for upcoming dates as well. We custom-pack based on the customer’s wants and needs. We also offer free Styrofoam coolers and ice to customers.
Terese: Where do you get the wood for your smoking?
Billy: We use hardwoods that are supplied by local loggers, and typically receive a few shipments a year. With help from family, from Bearcat and Linda and our employees, we have “wood cutting/splitting” gatherings a few times a year.
Terese: That sounds like fun. What else is fun about owning a seafood store?
Billy: You get to see what people are catching each day on the water, and hear lots of fishing stories. You find out the weekend’s hot spots and always know what the fish are biting on. For an avid fisherman, there is no better part of a job than this.
Terese: What do you do on your days off? I bet you’re going to tell me you go fishing.
Billy: I go fishing, ice fishing or deer hunting—both gun and bow. And we love spending time with our girls and bringing them fishing as well. My mom often jokes that my dad could catch fish out of a puddle and Nicole says that applies to me as well.
Terese: Well then, you must have a good fish story or two. What’s one of your best catches ever?
Billy: After owning the store for almost three years, we were finally able to go back to Alaska and visit all of my family in August 2015. I caught an 80-pound halibut during our visit.