A LEGACY TO FISH ON
Walt’s Fish Market
BY RANDI DONAHUE
PHOTOS BY CAT PENNENGA
Wiry-haired, energetic, and often seen fresh off his boat in orange waders and white rubber boots, Brett Wallin is a respected local fisherman, fishmonger extraordinaire, and part owner of Walt’s Fish Market and Restaurant, a long-time Sarasota fixture. He represents the fourth generation of a family steeped rich in Sarasota seafood history, begun by his great-grandfather Claus, who arrived in Sarasota in 1918 as a roustabout with the Ringling Circus. Claus Wallin quickly developed a love of fishing, a passion inherited by Brett’s grandfather Walt, who passed it down to Brett’s father Tom. The passion lives on in Brett.
Spend time on the water with Wallin and you might think of him as something of a pied piper of the fish world. He has deep appreciation for life within the waters around Sarasota. He should; he has been fishing these waters since he was a young boy. Wallin’s memory of life in the market starts at age five, when he accompanied his father to the Siesta docks on Saturday mornings to pick up the day’s fresh fish. His love of fishing came soon thereafter, out on the boats with the salty men his father had fished alongside for years. “I learned so much, but they would never tell you everything,” Wallin quips with a chuckle.
By age seven, Wallin had taken up after-school residence on the family’s Midnight Pass seawall, rod and reel in hand. Recognizing his tenacity, Tom Wallin outfitted his son with a scale from the market to weigh his catch. And when he was old enough to safely handle a knife, his dad taught him how to fillet his bounty. Brett would sell his catch to the neighbors, a clear sign he was already learning the ropes of the family business.
Wallin obtained his first commercial fishing license before he owned his first car. During high school, it was straight to the market every day after Cardinal Mooney football practice; most weekends were spent slinging fish. Buckets of oysters were Wallin’s contribution at high-school parties, and the hours he devoted to the market, along with the seafood-stained clothes of his late teens, earned him the nickname “Fish.” Wallin’s attachment to the market was respected by his childhood friends, many of whom at one time or another were employed at Walt’s.
In 1997, college lured Wallin to North Carolina, far from the fish and the water he knew so well. But in May of 2001 he returned to his roots, business degree in hand, ready to resume market duties beside his father. In 2006, the Walt’s torch was passed to the next generation as Tom Wallin lost a courageous five-year battle with cancer. Wallin grieves, never having had the chance to give his father a proper retirement party, as Tom had done for so many faithful Walt’s team members in years past. But according to Bob Howe, a 33-year Walt’s employee who watched the younger Wallin grow up and eventually take over the market, Tom would be proud of all his son has accomplished in his absence.
In 2009 Wallin joined forces with Chip White, a Fort Myers native with extensive experience in the hospitality industry. White says Wallin’s offer was the “perfect storm” opportunity. White was ready to be a part of a successful business, and was drawn to the family history of Walt’s. Wallin had been looking for a partner with the skills and drive to manage the day-to-day business tasks so he could get back on the water to fish. White and Wallin are young, but with the encouragement of Wallin’s mother Linda, the last three years have brought big-time updates to the market and restaurant, further strengthening its mainstay status. Ultimately White and Wallin envision Walt’s as a Sarasota landmark that connects locals and tourists; a truly sustainable eatery and fish market in an everchanging environment.
The Wallins have no intention of leaving their US 41 location, a building purchased by Linda and Tom in 1977. The nautical relics, historical photos, and trophy fish decorating the walls and rafters illustrate the Walt’s Legacy described on the restaurant’s placemats. Wallin is happy with the spot; it is exactly seven minutes from where he keeps his boat and where he started fishing with his father all those years ago. A recent renovation to the space presented huge upgrades in aesthetics and efficiency. According to Wallin, it will enable them to stick around for at least another 50 years.
Many of the regulars pay little attention to the renovations; they are here for the food and loyal staff, many of whom greet them with hugs, making it feel more like a family kitchen than a restaurant.
“I sold a pompano sandwich today made with a fillet of fish that had been living 13 minutes earlier,” Wallin relates. The customer was a 70-year-old man who insisted on personally thanking Brett for the “best sandwich he had ever had”—no doubt a tribute to the quality and freshness of the product Walt’s serves and sells. The hundred-item menu has seen slight variations and additions over the years, but continues to abide by the motto “the fresher the product, the fewer the ingredients.”
Local knowledge, a strong presence on the water, and good relations with fellow local fishermen allow Wallin to keep close tabs not only on what is in season, but on what is abundant and available. He spends a minimum of four days on the water during season—sometimes market duties do not allow for more. But when time does permit, he is on the water at every opportunity. “You get to bring a variety of species to your own market,” he says proudly. Just yesterday, he caught flounder, pompano, sand perch, mullet, blue crab, and stone crab.
Beyond the market and the restaurant, Walt’s makes an appearance at the Siesta Key Farmer’s Market every Sunday, and offers a catering service to clients eager for Walt’s famous raw bars and fish fries, but Wallin is quick to note that he has no intention of competing with the traditional catering circuit. He claims he is not a ‘bow tie and tuxedo’ kind of guy.
These days, Wallin is concerned that tough regulations and a down economy are deterring the next generation of fishermen. He’d love to give a dying breed reason to keep fishing for another hundred years. With plans to expand into the wholesale market, Wallin wants to educate restaurants on the importance of featuring local fish on their menus, even if it comes at a slightly higher cost. “In dealing with local fishermen, you know exactly when it was caught, who caught it, how they iced it, and how they took care of it,” he explains.
Wallin’s daily activities make for long hours, and sometimes strenuous, often dirty work. Despite that, he says he still gets goose bumps every time he unties his boat from the dock. He starts at six most mornings, and sometimes does not wrap up until nine at night. Wallin has yet to tire of providing fresh seafood to the community. He says he doesn’t see it as work, adding, “It’s nice to have a hobby that you can make a living out of.” A legacy fishes on.