Unique seafood store is Carrboro’s best-kept secret

 By Shweta Mishra
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

Tom Robinson’s Seafood is a concrete flat roof building on 207 Roberson Street, just behind Armadillo Grill in Carrboro. Perhaps Robinson’s inspiration for the market was his grandfather, who put himself through school at UNC-Chapel Hill by bringing in coastal fish on a train to sell every week.

A sample of the standard fare, from left to right: strawberry grouper, green wrasse, red wrasse, triggerfish and red snapper. (Photo courtesy of Alice Dodds)

When Robinson died in 2009 from complications of the H1N1 virus, his partner, Kay Hamrick, couldn’t abandon the store, she says. It had been a community icon since Robinson opened it in 1984. So she took over with the help of Robinson’s long-time friend and assistant, Salvador Bonilla, who emmigrated from Ecuador in 1989 in search of job opportunities. Nowadays, while Hamrick assumes administrative oversight, Bonilla oversees daily operations from his perch at the fish butchering counter in the far back corner.

The shop clings doggedly to a bygone world.  Still taped to a soap dispenser above the sink is a note Robinson wrote long ago: “Shopping list: new sponge.” Bonilla’s mantras, sure to peal every week for no particular reason, reflect his and Robinson’s old-fashioned values: “Don’t waste ice! We don’t need to be fancy! I don’t want to be famous!”

To delete fanciness from the equation, they decided the store office should be the surface of an old freezer that lets out random, plaintive beeps. Following suit, the fishmongers declare that the restroom, whose shelf houses a broken coffee pot, is therefore the kitchen.

Tom Robinson’s presence had an iconic quality to it even when he was alive. Decades-old regulars still come in asking to see him. “Where is he?” says Idrissa Kamera, a customer from Sierra Leone. The news shocks him. “He was a nice man,” he says. “He loved his clients.”

“Whenever he came in, it was a different mood,” says Mesa Pivirotto, who started working at Tom Robinson’s when she was 16.

“He would have really long, interesting conversations with some customers. Or he would have really short, rude conversations with others he didn’t like because they constantly touched the fish or something. When he was in a good mood, it was good. When he was in a bad mood, you were miserable. He talked a lot about France, triathlons and the sailboat he was building.”

Tom Robinson, Norwegian himself, created a local melting pot. “He had friends from all over the world,” Hamrick says.

Within a span of five hours last Friday and Saturday, the store was visited by old friends and new clients from over 12 nations, including Chile, Japan, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Mexico, China, South Korea, Italy, Germany, and Spain.

Culture influences what customers buy. Sashimi-grade salmon, flounder and scallops are popular among the Japanese, Hamrick says. The Chinese, Mexican and African customers often ask for large fish heads for broths. Native Chapel Hillians tend to avoid them. Hamrick says that Southerners who have come regularly to the shop for three decades almost always ask for frying fish like croakers, porgies and spots.

But people the world over can only eat so much fish. Every Saturday leaves a few boxes of fish for wholesale. Tom Robinson’s sells these to prominent gourmet restaurants in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, including Lantern, Elaine’s, Tarantini, and Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe.

Storeowners say they appreciate the freshness, local sourcing and affordability. “I come to Tom’s because it is a local, small, family-owned seafood place,” says Vimala Rajendran, owner of Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe. “There’s a lot of variety, which surprises me in a good way, but at the same time they have standard industry back-up like jars of oysters. It’s a community partnership for me.”

Every Wednesday at 8 a.m., Bonilla drives out to the Atlantic Ocean himself to handpick his fish from fishermen by the docks. By 8:30 p.m., he’s back home with a bounty for the weekend’s customers.

The variety available in the summer and fall include bluefish, butterfish, catfish, clams (littleneck and other), cobia, conch, crabs (live soft-shell, live hard-shell; containers of jumbo lump, lump, backfin, claw; frozen crab cake), croaker, flounder, grouper (strawberry and other), mackerel (king, Spanish), mahi-mahi, oyster (fresh in winter; in jar otherwise), porgie, red mouth, sand tile, scallops (sashimi), shark, sheepshead, shrimp, snapper (pink, vermilion, hognose), spot, star fish, striped bass, swordfish, tile, trigger and tuna.

“My favorite fish is butterfish,” says Rajendran. “But I love the recommendations of the staff. If they recommend spades, I’ll buy all the spade fish in the house.”

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