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Ski Buddies Work Together to Bring Boston Seafood to Upper Valley

  • Jason Merrill delivers a load of fish to Simon Pearce Restaurant in Quechee on Thursday. Merrill works part time for Wood Mountain Fish Co. to deliver fish to restaurants throughout the Upper Valley.(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Jason Merrill delivers a load of fish to Simon Pearce Restaurant in Quechee on Thursday. Merrill works part time for Wood Mountain Fish Co. to deliver fish to restaurants throughout the Upper Valley.(Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jason Merrill, left, readies the bill for Jerod Rockwell, general manager at Simon Pearce Restaurant, after delivering fresh fish from Wood Mountain Fish on Thursday.  (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Jason Merrill, left, readies the bill for Jerod Rockwell, general manager at Simon Pearce Restaurant, after delivering fresh fish from Wood Mountain Fish on Thursday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jason Merrill unloads an order of fish in the walk-in cooler at Simon Pearce Restaurant in Quechee last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Jason Merrill unloads an order of fish in the walk-in cooler at Simon Pearce Restaurant in Quechee last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jason Merrill delivers a load of fish to Simon Pearce Restaurant in Quechee on Thursday. Merrill works part time for Wood Mountain Fish Co. to deliver fish to restaurants throughout the Upper Valley.(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Jason Merrill, left, readies the bill for Jerod Rockwell, general manager at Simon Pearce Restaurant, after delivering fresh fish from Wood Mountain Fish on Thursday.  (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Jason Merrill unloads an order of fish in the walk-in cooler at Simon Pearce Restaurant in Quechee last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

South Royalton — As the general manager and partner of Worthy Burger, Jason Merrill’s schedule is as confining as many new restaurant owners, 10- to 12-hour days, seven days a week.

So, when he wants to take a break, to get outside, talk with other chefs and get a little human interaction, he delivers fish.

In fact, Merrill, who lives in Barnard, has been delivering fish in the Upper Valley for Wood Mountain Fish Co. the last couple of years since he left his post as executive chef at the Hanover Inn.

“I mostly do it for fun. We’ve built up a good clientele, and it’s fun being a fishmonger,” Merrill said last week.

Merrill first got involved with the Boston-based company in 2004 when he was the chef of the Jackson House Inn and Restaurant in Woodstock. He was having a hard time finding the fresh fish he wanted to serve. That’s when he got to know Ethan Wood, a fish expert and a Boston resident devoted to spending his winter weekends on the ski slopes of Vermont.

“He was one of my first customers,” said Wood, who owns Wood Mountain Fish.

Wood started learning about fish when he was 14 and really got to know business after he graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, working on the docks in Boston and with Legal Sea Foods Co. He developed a love for the industry and built up a cadre of friends who worked on fishing boats and in other parts of the front end of the business. He also became an advocate for sustainable fishing and a follower of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which keeps an eye on the world’s fisheries and makes recommendations to businesses and consumers for the most sustainable choices.

But it was his “very expensive skiing habit” that first took him to Vermont and its ski resorts. There, he became friends with chefs and eventually got into the business of buying fish on the Boston docks at 4:30 in the morning thee days a week and then driving to an exit off Interstate 89 outside of Lebanon.

“I was driving an old van with a ski rack on top, bringing up a cooler of fresh fish to a handful of friends, chefs I’d gotten to know. I was pretty happy if I made $50 to pay for my gas and coffee,” Wood said. “I just wanted to get up there to ski.

“One of the first things that struck me was how much the chefs in Vermont really care about their ingredients. They want local, grass-fed beef, vegetables locally grown in season, and the freshest, high-quality fish.”

One of the chefs he got to know while skiing was Merrill, who Wood describes as a ski buddy, counselor and member of his board of directors.

“When Jason gave me that first order, I didn’t know what to do. I knew how to get the fish he wanted, but it really put me into the business” of getting fish fresh from the day boats and to Vermont and New Hampshire chefs on the same day, Wood said. “It wasn’t just for gas money anymore.”

From the beginning he decided that he would provide customers only with fish and shellfish caught or raised in a sustainable manner and that he would guarantee top-quality products, he said.

As a result, Wood has developed a loyal customer base including such Upper Valley eateries as Simon Pearce Restaurant in Quechee, Prince and the Pauper in Woodstock, Twin Farms in Barnard, Canoe Club and Murphy’s in Hanover and others. Most of his customers, however, are in the Burlington area and near Sugarbush and other ski resorts.

“People don’t think of the Upper Valley and Hanover as an area where you can get terrific fish, but (Wood) has an integrity and has developed a level of trust that we know whatever we get from him is going to be great products,” Canoe Club Owner John Chapin said Friday.

“Plus there’s something comforting about knowing his level of expertise and that he’s the guy lugging the coolers full of fish in the back door. There’s sort of a mom-and-pop aspect about his business,” Chapin said.

“He has great relationships with his suppliers, the people on the docks and the boats, and that really makes a difference in the quality of the fish he sells,” said Jerod Rockwell, the general manager and executive chef at Simon Pearce. “His passion to bring you the best quality it can be is unparalleled,” Rockwell said last week.

The key to his business, Wood said, is paying for the fish and other seafood products when he picks them up.

“I deal with people up the East Coast from Long Island, N.Y., up to Portland, Maine. Many of them are friends and family, but I always pay for what I get. That way I don’t have to worry about it, and they appreciate it. And I get to cherry pick what I want, the best stuff,” Wood said.

The 33-year-old Wood now has three vehicles for the business, two in Vermont and the main truck he drives up from Boston on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He’s the only full-time employee — Merrill and his cousin Elana Dryer work on commission and deliver in the other two vehicles. As a joke, he’s set a goal of gross sales of over $3 million so he can get into a Harvard MBA program for small businesses. He doesn’t want to talk about his exact sales figures, but says he’s closing in on the goal.

The $3 million goal is “sort of a carrot on a stick, and I’m the donkey. It’s really a thing I say to make my mom happy. Every mother wants more for her son, but I’m a fishmonger, and I’m happy with my life,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s really all about skiing.”

And he says he’s unsuccessfully encouraged Merrill to give up the fish business. “He’s working really long days at a very successful restaurant, but that’s what he wants to do.

“Some days, I have to wake him up. I find him sleeping in the van waiting for me to arrive with the fish. But I call his wife and assure her he’s getting a lot of sleep. So, I guess it’s OK,” Wood joked.

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnew.com or at 603-727-3216.