Lisa Feinman's career took many routes by land — before ending up by sea when she purchased Old Saybrook's Atlantic Seafood in 2002.
Feinman went to school for psychology, acquired a real estate license, got her cosmetology degree, dabbled in photography. But it didn't occur to her that she could own a successful business—especially the one she now proudly operates.
"Never in my wildest dreams would I have put myself in a fish market," she said, gazing around the compact market jammed to the gills with cases of fresh caught fish and prepared seafood, overflowing displays of sea-themed accoutrements and kitchenware.
"How does that happen for any woman?" she asked, still surprised, eight years later to find herself at the helm of a male-dominated business.
Yet it was Feinman's intuition as a woman, her understanding of what female consumers want and need that transformed Atlantic Seafood into an establishment that that has been recognized by Zagat and The New York Times as not only one of the state's — but the country's — finest seafood markets.
Feinman's first foray into entrepreneurship was 10 years ago at The Big E country fair in Massachusetts where she and her sister launched a business on a 12X12-foot slab of cement selling Halloween costumes for kids that doubled as winter jackets.
"One and a half million people attended [the Big E] in 17 days. It was extreme, but we had a blast," she said.
The business always broke even, but after three years without turning a profit, it was time for Feinman to look for other opportunities.
"I knew it was very difficult to get a new business up and running," she said. "I wanted to find an established business that had potential. I kept myself open. I didn't say it needed to be a [particular] kind of business, and lo and behold, after three years of seriously searching, a fish market presented itself."
Feinman was living in Ellington when she discovered that the owners of the family business, established in 1976, were retiring.
"I could see the potential," she said. "They sold fresh fish, but that was it. I could see as a mother, a working woman, a consumer, that it could be so much more."
At the time, Feinman pointed out, one-stop shopping, Big Box stores, was the trend. She looked at the seafood market from the perspective of who she was and what would make her shop there and realized it was simple: she just wanted a place where she could pick up dinner.
Feinman purchased the business and moved to Old Saybrook eight months later with her two young children. Two years later she had torn down a wall and expanded the small market. She began offering fresh-baked breads, vegetables from a local farmer, and Jerry Doran came aboard—a gourmet seafood chef, who had worked in 5-star restaurants. Doran makes a wide array of bisques and chowders, seafood and non-seafood salads, and prepared entrees ranging from clam and sausage pies to swordfish meatballs to lobster ravioli.
"We try to buy everything as indigenous as possible," Feinman said — lots of fish from Galilee, Rhode Island, and scallops from Stonington — and nothing with any preservatives, growth hormones, color added, or pesticides."
Fisherman have been Feinman's best teachers.
"I learned how to recognize freshness by looking at fish," she said. "I can now look at a piece of swordfish and tell if it has age or not—the halo around the rim needs to look bright red, not black."
Feinman likes to do her part to support the community and local charities. She also sees herself as an employee of Atlantic Seafood, not the boss.
"I don't think of people working for me. I think of us working for Atlantic Seafood. We spend most of the day here with each other. It has to be fun."
Her son and daughter, now teenagers, both work in the store after school and during summers — continuing the Atlantic Seafood family business tradition.
In recent years, women have been coming to Feinman for advice about going into business on their own.
"I know that feeling, the look in their eyes," she said. "I never thought of myself as a woman in business. I'm in business. I tell them to 'just trust yourself, you're doing the right thing.'
"I've been through many jobs in my life, trying to find a direction that would satisfy me," she reflected.
"I don't know if it's age or finding a fish market and giving goodness back to the community, but I walk out of here feeling good because what we put out there is good for our customers."
1400 Boston Post Rd.