ROCKINGHAM — The House of Fish will close its Broad Avenue location on May 23 and move to Aberdeen.
Owner Danny Hayes opened the small seafood restaurant on April 20, 2010 after moving home from New York City. He is quick to say that moving back to Richmond County was the best thing he ever did — but it wasn’t what he’d planned to do.
During his eight years in New York City, Hayes did a little bit of everything. He worked as an accountant for Ed Schlossberg, husband of United States Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, at EDI Design. He even dabbled in hedge funds and fashion.
“Cancer brought me home in 2009,” Hayes said. “My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. When that happened, I didn’t even think about it. I packed my bags that very day and I came home. That first year back was about her, the surgery and chemo at Chapel Hill.”
Seven months later, The House of Fish was born. A cousin had taken him to eat in South Carolina at a little seafood spot. That’s when the light went off for Hayes. He realized the need for a place like this in Richmond County. It was something the area lacked. Hayes made a plan.
“If my mom hadn’t been diagnosed, I wouldn’t be here today.”
It hasn’t all been a joy ride for The House of Fish, though. Getting off the ground was hard.
“I am grateful for Richmond County because I got my start here,” Hayes said. “The people, and I can’t say only the citizens of Richmond County, but the people far and near have embraced me. The one thing I never had was support from my elected officials. Everything I’ve tried to do to grow has failed. Like with the signs. I would put out signs to advertise, the city would take them down, I’d have to pay a fine. So being in this enclosed location without the ability to advertise has put it on me to hand out menus and cards and put signs around elsewhere, at Walmart. All because of some city ordinance from back in the late 1960s.”
Mayor Steve Morris noted that the city’s sign ordinance had not changed any time immediately before Hayes opened up his restaurant. The rules were there and available for everyone to follow. Morris was unapologetic in having city staff enforce the ordinances on the books, which mirror state-mandated laws, because they often address safety and welfare issues.
Hayes said his mother is in Hamlet, his family still lives in Richmond County and he’d love to stay here too, but now that his mother’s health has improved he must be realistic about his restaurant’s future. In Rockingham, its chances for survival are slim.
Location seemed to be an issue for Hayes’ operation. In a 2011 meeting before the Rockingham City Council, Hayes acknowledged the difficulty in his restaurant not being seen by motorists as they pass by. The store doesn’t have roadside frontage as it’s situated on one side of a horseshoe-shaped Broad Street Square. In 2011, Hayes noted the location and lack of visibility was his No. 1 problem.
This week, Hayes said he loved the location but admitted there were problems, including an inability to expand.
“I’ve outgrown this location, and there’s just not enough support,” he said. “I have tried finding a larger location. I tried for the old Shoney’s building but that didn’t work out. None of my elected officials have ever dined with me. Not the mayor, not the city council, the city manager. I feel no support from them. None.”
Hayes does not take this personally. He believes the problem extends to all small businesses in the county.
“Look at Discovery Place,” he said. “Here is this huge corporation, this great museum that comes in here. I have spoken with everyone political involved with Discovery Place that I know of to see about having brochures placed that could funnel some of those visitors they’ve had out into our community, to our shops and restaurants. Nothing has happened. And what about Henry’s (Uptown Cafe)? Right across the street now they’ve taken down the that building and going to put in a restaurant from Pinehurst and send people there to eat? It’s like no one is considering the small businesses we already have. It’s ridiculous. It makes no sense.”
As owner of Helms Jewelers, Morris knows the difficulties of starting and maintaining a business.
“All businesses, small or large, face challenges and difficulties,” he said. “I’ve been here for 40 years, and am still struggling. And these last two years have been hard on everybody.”
He pointed out that many of the successful downtown businesses have had support from the city, which has funds originally seeded by an urban development action grant. The initial grant was paid back to the city with interest, and now makes loans available to assist people in opening a business located in the downtown area. The first requirement of anyone wishing to be considered for a loan is to show that the business will serve a public purpose.
A person with a strong business plan and a downtown building in mind can approach city manager Monty Crump to request one of these economic development loans with much lower interest rates than those available from banks.
“Of course, they need to demonstrate the business is viable, and have some way of paying it back,” Morris said. “Hudson Brothers Deli got started that way. So did Henry’s, and Alonzo’s Restaurant. More recently a loan was made to LMO Paradise Rentals of Rockingham. That’s not located downtown, but its public purpose is that it allows canoeing, so that’s how it qualifies. And that’s money that gets paid back with interest, so it’s available for more businesses in the future.”
The House of Fish may be leaving Rockingham, but it’s not going out of business. The new location on N.C. Route 211 East is roomier. It’s also in Moore County — a place, noted Hayes, where so many people from Richmond County already go to shop, eat and watch movies. Hayes expects business will be better there.
“I just try to do what’s right,” Hayes said. “I don’t care about the title of owning the business. I love what I do. I just want to provide the best food in an immaculate environment. I love what I do. I am in love with what I do.”
Hayes says his customers mean the world to him. Longtime customers Alexander and Diana McLaughlin expressed their sorrow that The House of Fish was moving out of town.
“I want him to do well,” Diana McLaughlin said. “But I want him right here. We’re happy but sad at the same time. We will find it inconvenient to go that far. We’ll go, but it won’t be the same.”
“He goes the extra mile for his customers,” Alexander McLaughlin said.
Despite his hardships, Hayes is thankful to his many supporters.
“I beat the odds but there were a lot of tears,” he said. “And even more prayers. And my mother, man. My team. I couldn’t have done it without manager Bernard Smith and Shirley Smith, they are my left and right hands. I wouldn’t want to do it without them.”