Last spring, George & Sons came full circle.
The Hockessin business started as a seafood market and evolved into an oyster bar and full-service restaurant. When Gov. John Carney declared a state of emergency to slow the coronavirus, George Esterling III and his sons went back to their roots.
“Our retail market was integral in keeping the lights on,” said George Esterling IV, who with younger brother Tyler are the “sons” in the family-owned business. “Thank God we were fishmongers before we got into the restaurant business.”
While the disruption has presented challenges, it’s also brought opportunities for the entrepreneurs, who reopened the restaurant during Phase 2 of the reopening.
It helps that they’re accustomed to swimming against the current.
From Wilmington to Hockessin
George Esterling III was just 23 when he started working for Pathmark under Bernie Kenny, who later became the founder of the Kenny Family Shop Rite stores in New Castle County.
Esterling opened Fresh Catch, a seafood market, in 1998. By 1999, he was selling to Greenville-area patrons from his store on Lancaster Pike near Wawaset Park. Business dropped off, however, when a drug treatment clinic opened in the vicinity.
Fresh Catch moved to the Wilmington Riverfront Market, but customers there gravitated toward prepared foods, not meats and seafood. Esterling closed the shop and worked in wholesale and retail fish sales.
In 2010, Esterling and son George opened George & Son’s on Old Lancaster Pike near the family’s home in Mendenhall Village. At that time, the only stand-alone seafood markets were on Concord Pike and Kirkwood Highway.’
Unfortunately, a neighbor complained about the odor and sued the business and its landlords. In 2013, a Delaware judge ruled in the Esterlings’ favor.
In 2014, the business moved to the nearby iconic red brick building that many still call Hank’s Market due to its former occupant.
A Family Affair
George Esterling IV and Tyler grew up accompanying their father to Philadelphia seafood markets to purchase the freshest products. It was their idea to add a nine-seat oyster bar to the business.
“We were young and into the restaurant life,” Esterling IV said of his interest in the hospitality, “and there was a demand for it from our clientele.”
It did not take long for the restaurant to become a destination. It was a novelty in Hockessin to belly up to the bar and watch the shuckers in action.
The menu expanded, and why not? There is a 20-foot case of gleaming fish just steps from the bar.
The business’s patriarch began stepping behind the scenes to let his sons manage the operation. However, he remains actively involved. Tyler handles the market. His brother, however, has his finger in a lot of pies. Catering and the restaurant are his babies.
Before the pandemic, the older son was growing a complementary business, Delaware Oyster Co., which brought oysters and shuckers to catered events. Orders dwindled as events were canceled.
Meanwhile, mother Mary Ellen has a full-time job but helps out. “She keeps up going,” Esterling IV said.
The men in the family are “very passionate,” he explains. “Sometimes, we need her organizational touch, for sure.”
Navigating the Reopening
Throughout the business’s growth, the retail side of the business has remained the anchor, the younger George said. That was evident during the shutdown last spring when loyal customers came in to purchase seafood.
“We’ve been in often for raw fish,” said Maryann Younger of Hockessin. “They are great folks offering exceptional quality. We’ve purchased tuna, salmon, scallops, branzino and haddock.”
Micah Becker-Klein would agree. “I love their fish selection,” said the Hockessin resident. “It’s always fresh, and they have great customer service.”
During the economic downturn, some of the business’s smaller wholesalers have taken it on the chin. So have local seafood purveyors who sold products abroad or to the restaurant industry.
Consequently, George & Sons has been able to deal directly with many local vendors for the first time.
“I’ve gotten some of the best fish we ever had,” Esterling IV said. “It’s a silver lining.”
That’s not to say the restaurant hasn’t pulled its weight. Takeout sales of crab cakes and lobster rolls alone kept the kitchen staff busy.
Now that the dining room has reopened, customers must make reservations. The Esterlings are looking forward to getting the oyster bar back in full swing.
But, for now, safety is first.
“We’re trying to make sure we can serve the public the best that we can,” Esterling IV said.