By Avital Aboody
If you have ever been to any of the big farmers markets in San Diego (Little Italy, Ocean Beach, Hillcrest) then you have seen Poppa’s Fresh Fish Company. Maybe you have tasted their signature live sea urchin, shared a good laugh with owner Mark Lane, and joined the growing fan club of rare seafood lovers.
If so, you will be pleased to know that after nearly five years selling in farmers markets, Poppa’s Fresh Fish is opening its first storefront location in Logan Heights! The business owner, Mark Lane, is hard at work getting the space ready for their big grand opening, but he took some time out of his hectic schedule to tell me the story of his business and why he is excited to move into the neighborhood.
Mark is a San Diego native and a true border crosser, spending years living in different parts of Mexico including Tijuana, Cuernavaca and Durango. He is a charismatic guy who prides himself on top-notch customer service.
Comparing himself to Sam the Butcher from “The Brady Bunch”, Mark is the kind of business owner who really gets to know all of his customers personally. Mark first started thinking about opening his own business when he was in junior high. He still has the plans he drafted back then for the sports bar of his dreams: “Babe’s Place”. Although that particular dream didn’t become a reality, Mark never abandoned his passion for the business and the food industry.
Poppa’s Fresh Fish Company is the result of a 20 year career managing food production facilities, including Bruegger’s Bagels, Oasis Naturals, Henry’s Markets, and Chesapeake Fish Company. While working as the operations manager at Chesapeake Fish Company, Mark realized that it was time for his childhood aspirations to take center stage and launch his own small business.
Building upon all his connections in the food industry, he started experimenting with recipes at home and selling in farmers markets. From there, Poppa’s Fresh Fish Company took off running. For the first year and a half, Mark balanced a full-time day job with the tireless work of building up a new business. Eventually, he was able to leave his job and focus all his energy on satisfying a rapidly growing customer base, spread across 14 farmers’ markets.
And now Mark is ready to take the next step: a brick and mortar business. Mark came across the space on the corner of Ocean View Boulevard and Bancroft in Logan Heights when the business next door contacted him for some advice about writing food safety plans. He noticed the vacancy and the big parking lot and started to fantasize about the possibilities, both for the expansion of his business and for the opportunity to provide a unique service to this neighborhood.
This particular stretch of Ocean View Boulevard in Logan Heights is home to many people from Mark’s wife’s hometown, Hacienda de Cabañas, a pueblo outside of Acapulco, Mexico. In fact, there are so many people from this pueblo living there that the residents with roots in Hacienda de Cabañas affectionately refer to this part of Logan Heights as Little Hacienda.
Mark is no stranger to the neighborhood. He speaks fluent Spanish and his family is known in the community. But this neighborhood hasn’t yet seen a business quite like Poppa’s Fresh Fish Company. The variety of natural and healthy products, including his use of all organic vegetables from the farmers market, is still unfamiliar and sometimes un-affordable for many of the local residents. So Mark is adjusting his pricing accordingly and making sure to offer the type of fish that locals typically consume, such as mojarra, tilapia, and pan-fried fish.
Recalling his fond memories of living in Mexico and picking up fresh fish from the local market, Mark hopes that Poppa’s can provide that same quality, small town service to Logan Heights residents. Furthermore, Mark has already started hiring some people from the neighborhood, including veterans and a woman who will make fresh tortillas. As the business continues to grow, he will be reaching out to the local high school students and artists to contribute their talent by painting tables and murals that reflect the culture of the neighborhood.
This local flare will certainly add to the appeal of the business, but at the end of day, Poppa’s will still probably still be best known for their famous live uni (sea urchin) and scallipops (scallop lollipops) which have people from all over the world lining up at the farmers markets.
Mark has been featured on TV in Japan four times and every Saturday at the Little Italy farmers market you can see a Japanese tour bus pull up to his booth to unload a group of eager customers, sometimes selling up to 400 sea urchins per week!
You may have also seen Poppa’s Fresh Fish Company featured on local news shows, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, and an episode of Mexican Made Easy on the food network, with local celebrity chef, Marcella Valladolid.
At the new storefront business, Mark plans to offer a few new dishes including seafood pho and a more experimental uni-based menu, using sea urchins obtained by local divers. It will feature uni flan, uni bisque, uni popsicles, uni dips, and many more concoctions that have yet to be imagined!
Poppa’s will also team up with Prailine Patisserie, a nearby caramel shop, to build up the scallop dessert menu. And while he’s at it, Mark plans to make good use of the sausage machine and rotisserie that was left behind by the previous business owners. Rotisserie tuna, shark, sword fish…why not! Regardless of his lack of formal cooking training, Mark’s expansive imagination and passion for experimenting with food seems to always keep people coming back for more. That, and 15% discounts for active military and first responders.
As for that parking lot, Mark has some big plans. In the near future, look out for pop-up events featuring other local chefs, art shows with youth and professional artists, and hopefully a small farmers’ market on site! If you are still not sure Poppa’s Fresh Fish Company is for you, consider this endorsement from a farmers’ market customer who initially expressed great skepticism and disapproval of the concept of a scallop lollipop. When Mark ultimately convinced him to give it a try, the man’s face lit up as he declared “You sir, have contributed to the world!”
The Grand Opening will be on Saturday March 15th from 10:00am-7:00pm. Get ready for a traditional New England Clam Bake, complete with a low rider and Harley show, UFC fighters Brandon Vera and Chris Leben signing autographs, and Lucha Libre from Tijuana.
Councilmember David Alvarez will do the ribbon cutting at 10:00am. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Special Delivery, an organization that delivers food to home based AIDS and cancer patients throughout San Diego. Poppa’s will also be collecting donations for the Special Delivery food pantry, so bring your non-perishables and you will be entered in a raffle to win prizes such as a lobster dinner for two or tickets to MMA.
Come to Poppa’s Fresh Fish Company at 3227 Ocean View Blvd (Suite 5) and let yourself be amazed!
All images by Mark Lane