Sarah Saraspe, Founder Five Star Fish Processing and Head of Operations at Saraspe Seafoods
Sarah Saraspe is one of the driving forces behind Saraspe Seafoods. She founded and ran Five Star Fish Processing for 15 years. She also happens to be Andy’s wife and the mother of Tanner, Charlie, and Molly. We thought her profile would make the perfect post for Mother’s Day.
Tell us about yourself.
I am the wife of a commercial fisherman and mother of three. The thing I dislike about being the mom and wife of a fisherman is all the politics. Over the years I have learned the value of patience. A fisherman’s time is his own. They wake, fish and arrive home when they are done. But seriously, I’ve clocked some long hours holding a pregnant belly waiting for my husband at the top of the docks. Do all fishermen have the gift of gab? Volume of my voice? It’s really not me mumbling, I swear. Try to spend 12 hours a day, seven days a week with that engine rumbling in your ears.
My husband has thick skin; like the type you see in the old man in the sea. But on the inside, he would give everything to his friends. Unfortunately when he brought home fish to cook, he never realized the horrendous smell it made to his pregnant wife. Oh, don’t forget about the ice. Fishermen don’t pay attention to time but they sure can spot an open ice chest from a mile away. I’m surprised my husband doesn’t try to save the ice at the bottom of my glass when I finish my iced tea.
I remember when I met Andy there was a huge “save the dolphin” movement. I thought of commercial fishermen as bad people. But when I saw what they actually do in the water and the sea life they respect, and the fish sustainably caught, it helped me to understand what a fisherman really was: resilient, driven, motivated, and specially connected to the sea.
Five Star Fish Processing was incredibly innovative at the time. There was nothing else like it available for the sportfishermen. Can you speak to how you came up with the idea and how it all happened back then?
I didn't. Andy, my husband, had this great idea; he wanted to be involved with processing, but we didn’t have the brain power or enough people to pull through with it. We spoke with some sportfishing captains, and they were looking for someone to process their clients’ catch, and return it to them cleaned that same day. That's kinda how Five Star came about. We started with one boat, and ended up serving over 27 long range boats with 30 people per boat each trip. It averaged out to between 5-10 boats per day. Eventually we ended up serving the whole marina at H&M Landing, Fisherman’s Landing, and Point Loma Sportfishing Landing. We started Five Star when I was 29. I was young and had young kids at the time: Tanner, Charlie, and Molly. When Molly started school I wanted to help with the business. I had no idea I was going to end up running it for the next 15 years. When I first met Andy he was 26, I was 17 and a half, and I would spend almost every minute with him; I would fish with him and pick up bait. I was kinda like his sidekick. The short-range sportfishing guys would come in late at night with a bunch of carcasses of fish they caught on the boats, and Andy and I would go down to the boats at midnight and pick up bait.
What are some of your biggest lessons/takeaways from your experience with Five Star?
Honestly, if I was a smart business person, I wouldn't have felt like I was protecting the customer all the time. I always felt like I wanted a fair and right price for them, but in the long run I ended up killing the business because it wasn't very profitable. I put my relationship with the customer before the profit of the business. This was by default. It is just the type of person I am. That 15 years of my life I never thought I would have met as many wholesome caring, loving people as customers. The fishing industry, maybe it’s the fish brain for some reason, makes us connect on another level; like a family. We understand each other. I feel like fishermen like ourselves have values that are different from any normal person who gets in their car and drives to work daily for a 9-5 job. We work hard and enjoy each and every moment.
How much of it is applicable to your work now in the family business, Saraspe Seafoods?
Tanner wanted to take over Five Star, but I wanted her to stand on her own, not finish something that I started. That is exactly what she did. Now, being a part of Saraspe Seafoods, I almost feel like I have my Five Star family back again. Once we sold Five Star, I lost many of the friendships I had; whether that be customers or friends gained through the years. I also lost the connection with family when we had Five Star because I was such a workaholic. Now I can enjoy the industry and watch my daughter grow. Now I can cherish it. I am appreciating the experiences and the relationships that I lost when I sold the business. After I sold the business, I had a few years of depression and reflection. I think I was missing those people and the industry. It was a separate family for me and I took care of them like my family. Once it was gone, it was tough getting a handle on life. My daughter had this great idea to begin selling the family’s catch and she wanted my help. And I was like, “oh God, am I ready for this”. It kinda came full circle in the time of COVID because all of the clients whom we used to process sport fish for at Five Star, have been unable to fish and fill their freezer with a catch of their own. Now, instead, they are calling us, the commercial fishermen, because they trust us and our products and they know the family.
When did you know you were ready for an exit?
I felt I was ready for an exit once the politics got too hot and heavy. I had a lot of guilt for not being a stay at home mom. I had my family when I was young, and that was my goal. My idea was to be the housewife... the mom. It’s hard work owning a business, you know? When your body starts aching so much after 15 years, I realized it's time for a break. I really just wanted to get back to my family. We started Five Star in 2003. Molly was three and a half. When I started working for Five Star in my twenties I felt like I took a lot away from my kids. I realized I needed to give more to my kids. It was a delicate balance. I had to go back to what was most important, hence why this feels so good right now to be involved in Saraspe Seafoods; picking up fish from my son and Andy, and working alongside my daughters.
Mother’s Day is coming up. How has being a mom informed your approach to business and vice versa?
I think I treated everyone like I was the mom. I felt that if you are a hard worker, you deserve a pat on the back, not just a paycheck. I gave our employees the strength to make decisions on their own. Being a mom is really a similar and a powerful place to be.
What is more challenging? Being a mom or a business owner and why?
Being a business owner. You have more kids to take care of: employees. Raising a family is difficult, but it is very natural. Your instincts kick in as a mother. Being a business owner is a lot of responsibility. I never once had to tell my kids to do their homework, all three of them were so independent, and I always felt like they were doing well. I let them be who they were and experience faults and mess ups, because I had the faith that they were going to come out of it. If not, I knew they would ask. But my kids and I weren't close back then. We are close now. I didn't spend enough time on the emotional bringing up, during the critical age, but for some reason I have the most spectacular children.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own business?
Have a goal in mind. And drive straight for it. Focus on one light, and run for it. Ignore the others. Be happy. If you don't like what you do, you are just doing it for the money, and you're not living. How lucky is it that we get to be outside, next to the ocean, and share our harvest with the community? It's special, just make sure whatever it is, you love it.
What advice would you give a new mom? There are a few new babies in the family this year.
Pause. Take a deep breath. Have patience. And love them in every moment more than anything in the world. Stop and enjoy what is happening right now.