In our feature, “Digest,” Isthmus interviews unsung or behind-the-scenes members of the service industry and lets them speak for themselves.
Jim Berke, 51, is the owner of Berke & Benham, a shop specializing in fresh seafood that opened on Monroe Street in June 2021. In 2020, Berke was laid off from his job with a seafood distributor in Chicago as a result of the pandemic, and he and his family relocated to their farm near Mount Horeb. He speaks with a reserved but charming reverence for his role as a small business owner and the products he sells. We talked as he and a part-time employee opened the shop on a Thursday morning.
My parents were the World War II generation. And when my dad got out of the war, he built a business from the ground up, and he did it all himself. And then he hired neighbors, and he hired neighbors’ kids, and he hired friends, and he hired his own children to help his business. So that’s what I feel like — we’re kind of back at these grassroots. I hate that “bootstraps” term, but very grassroots, doing everything yourself. My dad died when I was young, I think I was trying to recreate that a little bit.
I still remember the first time he took me and my brother fishing and we had the little Zebco rods, where you press the button, and then you let go and I couldn’t figure that out. And he was just so patient. Some of my earliest and best memories were fishing with him. I had a younger brother who died in ’04, and he was a hardcore fisherman too. I had always wanted to sell fish. I always was fascinated by people who got to work behind the counter, and cut fish and talk about how to cook fish. I’m fascinated by the different species. I love the ocean and our waterways.
Like any entrepreneur, you’re tied to the business. I spend more time here than I do at home, or with my kids or with my wife. That’s the hardest part about it — being here 10 to 12 hours a day. As much as I love it here, you also want to have a balance in your life. Right before Christmas was our busiest week. We had so many people in the shop that there was a little line out the door. And that to me was the sign that this is something people want in Madison. I had three of our five kids in here helping the week before Christmas, and they were cranking orders out, putting trays together, cleaning up and organizing. They had a system in my cooler to make sure everything was organized. I was really proud of them for that.
I would like people to know how much thought is put into the products that are brought in, where they’re sourced from, and the quality when it reaches here. Customers don’t realize how much product I send back because it’s not up to the standard that I think they now expect. You could do a quick test on a bag of oysters to see if they’re alive or dead. In this bag of 50, if there’s more than three or four dead, you send the whole bag back, [because] the rest of that bag is gonna die like that. I can tell [when a fish comes in] if I should send it back or not. You can tell by the skin, you can tell by the scales, sometimes the fins come in really beat up. Whitefish will come in and you can tell some of the scales are a little off. And that means they’re gill-netted and they’ve been thrashing around at the net. So I always try to order line-caught whitefish — they get beat up less.
I think it’s so important to keep small business food entrepreneurs supported. You might have to spend a little bit more, but you’ll know where your products come from and that the quality is there. You know that it’s going to support their families and employees. I think that if there’s any message it’s…do it more often. I think that’s an important message for consumers to hear. When they support us, we really notice.