“Right here’s my pride and joy,” Mike tells me. He points to a sleek red boat docked in New Haven Harbor. Its name is etched in white cursive on the port side: Rock & Roll. Mike’s other two boats are named Christopher and Michael, for his twin sons. “My daughter Ashley Marie’s pretty mad at me right now because I had to sell the boat I named after her,” he chuckles. “Took it sorta personally. But hey, times are hard.”
He pauses for a moment and admires Rock & Roll, the ropes and metal hangings illuminated in the early morning haze of Fair Haven. Then we’re off to tour the shop where the fish he catches get counted and bagged — lots more to see, Mike assures me.
Mike Fraenza is a farmer, of sorts. His family established Fair Haven Lobster 54 years ago, and he started working lobster boats when he was 14. Mike took over the business in 1984, and he’s barely taken a day off since. “I think I maybe took off Thanksgiving 2002,” he muses. And the work certainly isn’t easy. He takes the boats out at 4:30 each morning, closes up shop around 8 in the evening. His son sometimes calls him from California begging him to retire, he says with a laugh.
Upstairs in his office, he shows me a painting gifted by his father. In blue-green oils it depicts 7-year-old Mike on the edge of a dock, watching the boats coming toward shore. Back then, he tells me, he never thought he’d one day own a fleet. The walls behind his desk are lined with dusty photographs. Pictures of clams and crimson sunsets over the Quinnipiac River. A photo of Mike and his business partner, who has since passed away, opening a bottle of champagne the day they expanded their fleet in 1985. The photos, he tells me, capture the business as it used to be, back when the industry was booming.
In the 1990s, Fair Haven Lobster employed close to 50 people. Now they’re down to six. They used to fish up to 1,000 pounds of lobster daily, but because of the pesticides in the river they now get 20 pounds on a good day. Business has dropped precipitously over the years, and Mike has been forced to sell some of the boats and lay off many workers.
In six months, Mike may have to close up shop. It’s getting impossible to make a living in the industry. So what’s next? I ask. He shrugs. “Can’t even really get myself to think about it.”
It’s corny, but I can’t either. It’s hard to imagine the wood-paneled shacks of Fair Haven Lobster torn down, Rock & Roll dismantled into pieces and sold. Maybe some ShopRite erected in its place.
But this isn’t a eulogy for the business, it’s more of an asking why.
Mike’s story is hardly unique. Small business owners across New Haven are struggling, failed by flawed policies and communities. But their stories bring to light all sorts of possible interventions.
When Mike first started out in the industry, his customers were primarily locals. Families across New Haven would hear of the store, and they’d make the trek out to North Front Street to buy heaps of shellfish. Mike’s office is filled with greeting cards from his old customers, yellowing newspaper clips about the free products he would distribute on Veterans Day. Now people get their lobsters from Stop & Shop. Mike mostly ships his products internationally.
“Supporting small business” is rhetoric that gets tossed around a lot, but the significance sets in when you meet people like Mike. It’s easy to see why customers elect for the convenience of mass-produced foods sold cheaply at chain stores. But there’s something lost when we give up on the people waking up at four in the morning, people with hands calloused from building their shops from the ground up.
In addition to loyal communities, business owners like Mike need support from policymakers. Mike laments the state’s mounting regulations and tells me that “the state is not small-business friendly.” This spring the Connecticut General Assembly will vote on several bills that could help small business owners. But all too often voices like Mike’s aren’t heard in Hartford.
Mike’s bookshelf houses a small wooden sign that reads: “To fish or not to fish. Not to fish, yeah like that’s even an option.” The phrase catches in my head as I’m leaving. And when I turn around I see Mike heading toward the river, his workmen already readying the boats for another day of fishing. Sometimes for paychecks and sometimes for stories and sometimes just for lobster.
Emma Goldberg is a junior in Saybrook College and a former opinion editor for the News. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.