As early as the 1940’s, you will find photographs, stories, and sales tickets depicting a thriving commercial fishing industry from the quaint little fishing village of Hampstead, NC. However, long before Atlantic Seafood Company came to be, the cornerstone for success was laid by Mr. William Ramp Smith Sr. also known as, “The General”. The General’s passion for commercial fishing and seafood sales would quickly transpire into all nine of his sons; however three of them, William Ramp Smith Jr. (Nig), Joseph Johnson Smith (Hoodley), and Thomas Lorenzo Smith (Tink), would use their father’s knowledge of the ocean to start a business that has been running without failure for over 50 years. For years the family would spend their days battling the multitude of harsh weather conditions each season had to offer while operating a haul sein net on the beaches of Southeastern North Carolina. Catches would include: red drum, speckled trout, flounder, spot, pompano, and mullet. With the help of a spotter plane piloted by Hoodley, the family would stand at the shoreline and anxiously wait for the dip of a wing which signaled the school of fish was below. The spotter plane gave an advantage to the Smith family providing them with unimaginable volumes of fish which helped catapult them in to the big league of fish dealers, and the work didn’t stop there.
1960 would not only introduce a new decade but also a new business plan for “The Boys”. As if catching and packing your own fish wasn’t hard enough, Nig, Tommy, and Hoodley started running their own delivery routes in North and South Carolina. The brothers would collect the area’s freshest seafood then set out on road from the Wilmington based fish house owned by Paul Avery Sr. Two years later, the Smith Brothers decided to venture out on their own and launch a new seafood dealership in their hometown of Hampstead, NC. Nig, Hoodley, and Tommy, knew what had to be done and immediately took on roles of their own. Tommy arranged for the purchase of the land while Hoodley designed the blue prints for the new facility. In the meantime, Nig went out on the road in search of fish. On one particular trip Nig recalls standing on the dock of a pet food cannery in Biloxi, Mississippi noticing boatloads of croaker being brought in to be processed in to pet food. He knew he had made a terrific find, and the weekly trip to the gulf to pick up trawl boat croakers had began. It was 1968, the new building was complete and the company had already doubled in size, Atlantic Seafood Co. was here to stay.
It was from that humble beginning that the company began to prosper and grow. A key player in the business’s success was the addition of a 52,000 cu. ft. freezer in 1983. The freezer proved to be a blessing in its self, giving the Company the ability to package their own fish with the Atlantic Seafood label, a label that would guarantee customers a quality product year round. As Atlantic Seafood focused on expanding their routes in the Carolinas and Virginia, other wholesalers such as Jesse Lea Sr., of Jesse Lea Seafood Co. took to the road and created a strong presence in Florida. Major suppliers such as J.H. Lea and Sons were also feeling the boom, and by the early 70’s there were more fish houses (3) than stop lights in Hampstead village. As the years passed, Atlantic Seafood and J.H. Lea continued to grow and passively compete with each other as friendly rivals. In 1986 Jesse Lea Sr. decided that it was time to hang up his hat and retire, trusting that his two sons and other employees would be in good hands, he sold his business to Atlantic Seafood. This move would open the door for expansion and provide more territory for the rapidly growing Atlantic Seafood Co.
As time waits for no man, the passing of Nig and Hoodley was felt hard in the seafood industry, leaving the reigns of the company in the hands of the remaining sibling, Tommy, and Hoodley’s son Joseph J. Smith Jr. For the next two decades Tommy and Joseph Smith Jr. (Joe), would run the business and share responsibility of buying fish fresh off of the dock for their salesmen to offer to customers across the Southeast. It was during this time that Joe Jr. introduced his sons to the seafood business. Joseph J. Smith III and Jeffery S. Smith began their careers in the seafood business at an early age just as their father did. The brothers spent their spare time freezing fish in the fall, loading trucks, shoveling ice, and cleaning up the dock after load days. However, the early 2000’s would mark a big change in the lives of the two young brothers. With the bad health and eventual passing of Tommy, combined with an accident that would force Joe Jr. take a different role in day to day operations, Jeffery and Joseph knew it was time to step up and help run the family business. Jeffery started fulltime at Atlantic Seafood in 1999 after receiving a college degree from the School of Communication Arts in Raleigh, NC, while Joseph would join the family in 2001 after obtaining a Finance degree from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Without hesitation the brothers took over the Company with youth and vigor, anxious to grow the business and make their father proud. Joseph would solely concentrated on buying fresh products and developing strong ties to the packing houses and fishermen, which would give Atlantic Seafood the buying power to control the market in the Deep South. Meanwhile, Jeffery concentrated on building a frozen department and creating an inventory that would provide the sales force with a full line of frozen products that could be depended on weekly, regardless of bad weather or regulation. Over the past 14 years Atlantic Seafood’s frozen program has grown from a mere 10 items available to over 200 different items to choose from, giving the company diversity it has never before seen.
In November of 2008, Joe, Joseph, and Jeffery made the announcement that they would be buying out the neighboring fish house, J.H. Lea and Sons. Although employees from both companies were skeptical of the merger, The Family reassured everyone that no jobs would be lost and that everyone would benefit from this power move. Coming from a small town, most of the salesmen from opposing companies were friends, neighbors, or relatives and embraced the change together and have pushed forward working as a team.
It has been five years since the Atlantic Seafood / J.H. Lea merger and you will still find the same group of men and women along with new employees working hard six days a week to provide seafood to the Carolinas and surrounding states.
History of Atlantic Seafood as told by: Burns Smith