A Seafood Institution Is for Sale

The Sassos are looking for a buyer who will keep Stuart’s tradition going
“Our customers are like family to us,” said Charlotte Sasso, pictured at Stuart’s Seafood Market with her husband, Bruce Sasso. After owning the business for 21 years, the Sassos are ready to sell. Durell Godfrey

Stuart’s Seafood Market in Amagansett has changed hands only a few times since Stuart Vorpahl Sr. established a fish packing business on the Oak Lane property in the first half of the 20th century, but soon, it will change hands again. 

Word went out last week that Bruce and Charlotte Sasso, its owners since 1997, are selling the popular market. “The business has gotten so big and so busy that it’s become all-consuming,” Ms. Sasso said on Monday. 

When they first opened on Jan. 2, 1997, the Sassos had two employees. Twenty-two years later they have 25 and have expanded from selling fish and basic pantry items to offering cheeses, olive oils, vinegars, gourmet condiments, produce, and prepared foods like lobster cakes, clam pies, cedar plank-grilled salmon, and even flounder roe, monkfish liver, and salmon “candy.” 

“We’re not going anywhere,” Ms. Sasso said. “We’re not cutting back . . . we’re all in, 110 percent.”

“We want to make sure we sell it to the right person,” she added, “someone with our standards, and that could take time, so we thought we’d get the process going.”

Stuart’s is the longest continuously run fish market in East Hampton Town. Started as a packing station for the fish Mr. Vorpahl and his sons had caught and were sending to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City, by 1951 it had become Stuart’s Market, with a retail operation and a packing house. 

“The fish market was nothing, it was the packing house that was the big deal,” said Doug Kuntz, who fished in the 1970s with Ben Havens’s haulseine crew. “It was a bustling place from April until the end of October, especially when there were a lot of fish running.” Half a dozen haulseine crews “packed hundreds of thousands of fish there in a week, and it all went to New York by truck,” he recalled. In one day in the early 1970s, he remembered, the crew he worked with packed out 671 65-pound cartons of weakfish at Stuart’s.

Haulseiners, trap fishermen, and even sportfishermen took their fish there to pack out and ship to the city. That changed after 1986. “Haulseining became illegal and the volume [of fish] dropped down dramatically,” Mr. Kuntz said. 

When the Sassos met in Montauk, she was working summer jobs while attending New York University and he was wholesaling fish. In 1993, they married, and Mr. Sasso eventually rented the back of the Stuart’s building for his wholesale business. A couple of years later he was asked if he wanted to buy the whole thing.

Stuart Vorpahl Jr. was so pleased when the Sassos bought the business that his father had started that he gave them the anchor in the front and an oar from a haulseining boat that is on the wall inside.

The compound “is extremely unique for this town,” Mr. Sasso said this week. “It is pre-existing, nonconforming, all grandfathered in” on a residential road. Under today’s zoning codes, the business could never be built there. The 1.13-acre property is in the shape of an L, with a three-bedroom house in front built in 1900 that the Vorpahl family added to, a two-bedroom house built in 1970 behind that, and the market itself, an 8,500-square-foot, two-story building with a 500-square-foot outer building used as an office and storeroom.

The property is on the market for nearly $7 million.

These days, the shop no longer offers full-service catering, but still provides takeout of prepared foods and caters high-end raw bar events, clambakes, and lobster bakes. “We only buy and sell the best,” Mr. Sasso said, “and hope that someone like us buys the place and continues the tradition.”

“It’s been a great joy building this business. Our customers are like family to us,” Ms. Sasso said, adding that running the business is all about the relationships with their customers. “We share stories about our pets, our children. Our son, Dante, grew up in the store, and his photo was in all our ads . . . and people come here just to visit the dogs, Niko and Nitro,” two large German shepherds who get upset if they don’t come to work.

Stuart Vorpahl Sr., right, and Scotty Eames, holding two massive lobsters, outside the market in 1965, in a photograph from the Sassos’ collection.
Readying a catch for market in the fish-packing area of Stuart's; photo undatedEast Hampton Star Archives
Weighing fish at Stuart's in 1983East Hampton Star Archives
Members of Havens and Lester haul-seining crews weighing and packing a good haul of striped bass at Stuart's in 1968. When the catch was particularly good, the fishermen's wives would lend a hand too.Courtesy Doug Kuntz