When you enter Just Fish Cafe in Downtown Newark, you immediately notice all the delicious smells of food coming from the busy kitchen: well-seasoned flounder, catfish, red snapper, shrimp, scallops, lobster tails, jumbo crab legs and more. The establishment, located at 272 Washington Street, is widely known for its fried seafood. The casual restaurant also has an extensive menu that goes beyond seafood such as heaping platters of oxtail, meatloaf, steak, fried chicken and beef ribs – just to name a few.
Gary Simpson is the owner of the restaurant, which has been in existence since 1994. The restaurant has had three locations during its history: first at 357 South Orange Avenue for 13 years, 57 William Street for 11 years, and now at 272 Washington Street since October 2019. Just Fish is a relatively new tenant of the Hanini Group.
Despite the disruptions from the move and the pandemic, Just Fish has been just as busy with people picking up orders – many of them longtime customers. Some of them are celebrities like rapper Fetty Wap and hometown hero Shakur Stevenson, Olympiad and professional boxer.
We sat down with Simpson for a short interview about his business, what keeps his customers coming back, and the impact of the pandemic.
How did you start your business?
I was working for IBM in New York City as a sales representative. While I was working at IBM, I would do a lot of street festivals and sell crab legs, crabs and beer. Running a restaurant was in my blood, and I knew I wanted to open up a restaurant. At IBM, they were offering buy out packages and I took one. It was just a matter of time until I would be running a business for myself.
I had a mentor too who offered me a building. And my good break was that I didn’t have to pay rent for two years which allowed me to keep going. And the business was a success. From the time we opened up, we were always busy, always popular. I was just doing what I love to do.
Has the menu always been the same?
No, when we first opened up, we just sold fish, shrimp and fries. But as you start to grow, we added more to the menu like crab legs, lobster, shrimp, turkey wings, fried chicken, and soul food staples – collard greens, mac and cheese, yams, etc. I combined seafood with soul food items and that’s Just Fish Cafe.
What's your favorite dish on the menu?
Crab legs, lobster and shrimp.
What was the impact of the pandemic on your business?
Well, we've been lucky because we moved to our new location before the pandemic hit. In November, we do fried turkeys which we are known for. It’s one of our signatures. Our fried turkeys are a big deal. We do that until November and December. When that’s over, there is usually a lull in December and January but then the pandemic hit. Everybody closed but us, so we were the only ones open for food. So instead of going into a deep dive, we were very very busy during the pandemic. People still wanted to eat and bring something home. We were one of the fortunate ones to be open.
What's the secret to your success or to your longevity?
Good food. Consistently good food. Great service. That’s what has kept us alive for like 20 something years. We're a brand. Everybody knows us now.
What do you feel about the fact you have longtime customers who are loyal and love your food?
It’s great. And another thing, the people I had hired on South Orange Avenue, now I’m hiring their kids. That’s another good thing. That makes me feel proud that I have been able to stay in business for that long and hire their family members.
JUST FISH CAFE
272 Washington Street