James Basson cleans a catfish while processing an order at James Fish and Seafood in Columbus on Friday. Basson has owned the business, located on Military Road, since 1999. Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff
June 9, 2014 9:40:17 AM
In the world of modern business, you often hear about the importance of networking and you see the evidence of it everywhere -- from corporate tents at big events to country club memberships to sky boxes at football stadiums. Networking has become an accepted means of building relationships with valued and potential customers and suppliers alike.
Columbus businessman James Basson has his own version of networking, albeit unorthodox.
For 15 years now, Basson, 44, has been operating James Fish & Seafood at 1302 Military Road. Before that, he was a welder and maintenance man, mostly at chicken or meat processing plants.
Chances are, he would never had opened his own business or met the suppliers who have made his business thrive if it weren't for coon hunting.
It has been a favorite pastime for Basson since childhood, first in his native Oklahoma and later here in Mississippi, where he scoured the bottom lands and fields of farmers all around Macon and Brooksville.
Coon hunting is also how he met Kevin Poss, who had opened a fish market on Military Road in 1986.
"I don't guess I would have ever thought about doing this if I hadn't met Kevin," says Basson. "We coon hunted together for a lot of years. I worked for him, then he decided he wanted to open a barbecue place and I took over the fish business."
Basson's business is a small operation -- James, his wife, Melanie, and their one employee, Sammy Williams. Williams, 56, has been with the Bassons for four years, moving into the job after the death of his cousin, who had been Basson's right-hand man. This summer, the Bassons's 11-year-old daughter, Savanah, is also helping out. Mom and daughter handle the cash register and take orders.
"I can clean fish if I have to, but I'm not real fast," Melanie says. Savanah wrinkles her nose disapprovingly at the idea of cleaning fish.
Those duties are left to James and Sammy.
James Fish & Seafood sells a variety of fish, along with shrimp and crawfish, when available.
But mostly they sell catfish: live catfish, killed and cleaned while the customer waits -- which isn't long.
"In an average week, we'll sell anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 pounds of catfish," James says.
"Holidays are our busiest times," Melanie notes. "People want them for their fish fries -- Fourth of July, Labor Day, family reunions, those sorts of things."
The success of the business has relied heavily on the network of friends Basson has developed while out coon hunting over the years.
"I probably have 100 to 150 farmers down there that sell me catfish," James says. "I've known a lot of them for years and years, mainly from hunting their land. I got to be pretty good friends with a lot of them. That's where I get all my catfish."
James makes a couple of trips to Macon each week to pick up live catfish, sometimes more often than that, depending on supply and demand.
Those relationships have helped him create a huge advantage where its matters most to customers -- fresh catfish at prices that run generally $2 to $3 a pound cheaper than what you will find in your average grocery store, Melanie says.
"Right now, we're selling whole catfish for $4.39 a pound or $2.69 a pound cleaned and ready to cook," Melanie says."It works out about the same, either way."
There is also the advantage of freshness.
"There are a lot of places around that sell catfish, I guess, but just about all of them sell processed catfish," James says. "Our catfish are live. You try it one time and you know the difference. You won't want any more processed catfish after that."
There is one other thing that separates James Fish & Seafood from the other stores.
The mere act of buying catfish at James' store is something that approaches performance art.
When a customer orders catfish, Sammy drags a net through the large metal tank, scooping up a flopping fury of catfish. Grabbing a fish, he slaps it on the metal table nearby and with one firm smack from a two-foot section of iron pipe on the fish's flat head, the fish is dead and Sammy slides the fish along the table to James. After a couple of deft cuts, James hangs the fish on a metal hook, rips the scales off with a pair of wire pliers, and flops the fish back on the table. Two swift passes of his fillet knife and two fresh fillets are slapped onto the butcher's paper.
The whole process takes 15 seconds, maybe, and that's when they aren't in any particular hurry, James says.
"Years ago, me and Kevin got an order for 100 pounds of catfish. We cleaned 'em all in 15 minutes," James says, smiling at the memory.
How fast can James clean a catfish?
"We had a guy who came in and said that the Alabama record was 8.3 seconds," James said. "I had never really thought about it before, so I gave it a try, you know, just to see."
"He had it cleaned and on the (butcher's) paper in 7.5 seconds," Melanie said. "I don't see how you could do it any faster than that."
Basson says he has found his niche. He likes his work, his customers and his suppliers.
Is it a good living?
James smiles. "I guess it depends on what you call a good living," he says. "We like it."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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