The technique of flinging fish from the display cases of the nearly 90-year-old Pike Place Fish Market to the scales hasn't changed for Anders Miller, Samuel Samson, Jaison Scott and Ryan Reese — who together have worked at the Seattle landmark for decades — but now they're the owners and not just the hired hands.
Jaison Scott has an old photograph of himself as a 7-year-old with his mother’s former boss, John Yokoyama, who took him down to the Seattle waterfront regularly and taught him how to pick out the freshest fish, how to spit and how to curse.
“He treated all of us like sons,” said Scott, 45, who spent years working for Yokoyama, 78, at Pike Place Fish Market. The open-air shop is famous for its team of mongers tossing customers’ selections from the ice-packed displays at the front to the scales in the back.
The market, along with the Space Needle, has become one of Seattle’s most well-known landmarks, drawing thousands of visitors a day during peak summer months and serving as the backdrop to countless selfies. Although the technique Scott and his fellow fishmongers use to fling the fish hasn’t changed, he’s doing the tossing now not as an employee, but as an owner.
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Earlier this month, he and three other longtime employees — Samuel Samson, 52; Ryan Reese, 40; and Anders Miller, 42 — bought the store from Yokoyama, becoming equal partners in the nearly 90-year-old business.
“It’s surreal,” said Samson, who managed the store for three decades. “I guess it will seem real when we get the first bills on the loan and the lease.”
The foursome did not disclose what they paid for the shop, but Yokoyama, who bought the business from its founder for $3,500 in 1965, said he worked with “the kids” to make the purchase possible.
“He could have sold it to just about anyone, but he went out of his way to sell it to us,” said Reese, who grew up in Ballard. “The city is changing so fast, it’s an honor to be part of a small, 1,000-square-foot legacy that makes this city special.”
“This place is one of their first stops in Seattle for a lot of people from all over the world and we love being ambassadors for the city,” Reese added.
The famed flying-fish ritual began, according to Yokoyama, when he started counting the number of steps it took for him to pick up a customer’s selection, walk around to the backdoor, hustle over to the scales where the merchandise is weighed, cut and packaged, and then walk back around to the front with the wrapped package.
“It took me 100 steps,” said Yokoyama. “So one day I just said, ‘Here kid, catch!’ and threw the fish. He caught it and I said, ‘Man, I just saved 100 steps.'”
The shop will occasionally let visitors in on the fun, allowing a bystander or customer to throw or catch a fish. But, there’s an art to the fling, said Reese.
“The fish is heavy toward the head and lighter toward the tail, and it wants to flip over,” he said. “The secret is to cradle it like a baby and throw it without letting it spiral or spin.”
The company was not always a success. In fact, the shop was unknown outside of Seattle and came perilously close to bankruptcy when Yokoyama met with a consultant in 1986 to brainstorm ways to save the business. Someone suggested that they try to become “world famous,” and, according to Yokoyama, that’s when he and all the employees committed themselves to the cause.
“It’s amazing what happened next,” he said. The effort to save the business translated in real time to a more “loving philosophy.”
“I was a grumpy, stupid young buck,” said the Mercer Island resident, who had grown up working at his parents’ produce stand right next to the fish shop. “I had to transition myself from a yelling, screaming dictator tyrant who my employees didn’t like very much into someone who cares about people and is committed to being in a loving partnership with my employees, our customers and the world.”
The success of the fish market is such that there’s not too much the new owners plan to alter right away, though Miller said Yokoyama has been “a great teacher who’s given us the tools to take this to the next level.”
Yokoyama, on the other hand, welcomes change. He wants to do the things he never had a chance to do while working the 12-hour shifts required by his business.
His list includes traveling, golfing and yes, fishing.