When I met Bob DePalma, the owner and proprietor of Soft Wave Fish Co., he was actually the second DePalma I met tending the Soft Wave stand at the Lake Bluff Farmers Market. The first was his grandson. I was so impressed with the young man’s professionalism and ability to talk to anyone and everyone (as well as sell) at a young age that I wanted to tell Bob about it the next week.
Funny thing was Bob, too, can sell. He gave me a taste of his housemade smoked salmon and that was really all he had to do. I was sold. I got two pounds of the smoked salmon as well as several pounds of shrimp and scallops. My whole family loved the fish and we proceeded to make the seafood the focal point of the next three meals.
After tasting how fresh and delicious Bob’s fish was, I wondered how he managed to get the fish to the middle of the country and sell it at a farmer's market as fast as he did so that it still tasted that fresh! Bob agreed to sit down and chat once the busy season ended and he could catch his breath.
Once I caught up with Bob, the first thing I realized is he is a born entrepreneur. He and his father owned a wine shop for over 15 years, and sourcing wine had him traveling around the country talking to winemakers (and learning the ropes on how to go out and find the best wines that no one else was selling - a skill that would serve him well with fish). He has also owned a fromagerie.
Once Bob and his dad sold the wine shop, he took a break. As anyone who knows an entrepreneur knows, that didn’t last long. Bob started to sell cheese at a farmer’s market as a side gig. About the same time, he decided to change his diet up and start eating more fish because it was healthier. Only problem was, he was having trouble finding fish as fresh and delicious as what he had on the West Coast when buying wine for the shop. And then, as they say, the light bulb went on, and the idea of Soft Wave Fish Co. was born!
From there Bob started traveling again. He started going to where the fish was (Idaho for trout, Florida for snapper, both coasts for salmon, and Lake Superior for walleye) and meeting people who would sell and ship to him the day after the fish was carried off the boat or sooner.
Already having been in business had taught Bob a few things. (1) Start small: when Soft Wave started out he was at two farmer's markets in Crystal Lake. (2) Find innovative ways to stay in touch with your customers. Bob does this by weekly texts. He lets his loyal customers know what came in this week as well as also allowing ordering via text. You can either tell him which market you would like to pick the order up at or pay a small fee and he will deliver to your front door.
I also love the way Bob markets. He tries anything he can think of and sees what works. At his wine shop he would send out a newsletter (written in the third person) where he would interview himself for the benefit of his customers. I also think the idea to text your weekly menu to your customers works on so many levels! I would love to see how much that increases sales. I’d be willing to bet it more than doubles it for people on the list. Not only does it remind you to buy from Soft Wave (as gently as humanly possible!), it is also the simplest possible way to get the freshest fish around. Bob couldn’t have made it easier for the customer. Simply brilliant!
One other note: Bob is just a great guy. After reading on his blog the story of Italian Christmas Eve and the seven fishes (my Irish/German father would tell me about his best friend’s Italian Christmas Eve party and it was the same exact thing—it really hit home for me), I asked him for another story like that one. He said when he travels out to Maine he stays in Kennebunkport and wakes up when the lobster boats come in between four and five in the morning. He gets some awesome lobster tails and has them for breakfast with his eggs and coffee. One time when he was doing this, he bought his lobster and went over to the coffee shop in town to get a cup of coffee. As he walked in an older gentleman who looked kind of familiar greeted him with “how you doing, son.” Bob got his coffee and sat down. About five minutes later a bunch of guys came running into the coffee shop and the man says, “grab a seat boys, we are having coffee." It was George H.W. Bush, who had slipped his security detail early in the morning and took his Chris Craft to town for a cup of coffee by himself!
Bob’s got lots more stories like this; if you run into Bob ask him what he would get up to in the early morning hours when in San Francisco.