Ewig Bros. thrives as the last survivor of Port’s first industry
Tourists buying smoked fish at Ewig Bros. market for lunch on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan has been a Port Washington tradition for decades.
In fact, many of today’s customers at the fish market across the street from the west slip of the harbor discovered Ewig’s as children traveling with their parents and keep coming back.
Owner Jeff Ewig, 60, said his customers “come from all over.”
The business started in the late 1800s when Ewig’s great-grandfather Herman came to Wisconsin from Germany.
He opened a fish market with his brother August, supplying it with whitefish, trout and chubs they caught in Lake Michigan using a steam-driven tug.
The business was eventually passed on to Herman’s son Elmer, then to Jeff’s father Eugene, 84, who retired about five years ago.
Now on its fifth generation, Ewig Bros. is the last of its kind in what was probably Port Washington’s first industry.
Ewig Bros., which hasn’t operated its own fishing tugs since the 1960s, buys fish from sources around the western hemisphere.
While much of the commercial fishing on Lake Michigan has dried up, Jeff and his son Matt, 34, still get some whitefish from Door County.
Farm-raised Chilean salmon have been a huge hit as smoked fish in recent years, essentially taking the place of chubs, which flamed out more than a decade ago.
“I get dozens of calls every day asking about chubs,” Ewig said. “We just don’t have them anymore. Nobody really does.”
The company started smoking herring which, while not as juicy as a chub, is still a tasty substitute.
The father-son duo gets shipments of perch and walleye from Lake Erie, herring from Lake Superior and lake trout from Canada.
The firm also sells shrimp, lobster and other seafood not found in the Great Lakes.
For smoking, the fish are soaked in a salt brine for at least 18 hours. They are then hung on racks and sent into one of three smokehouses fed by hickory, maple, oak and cherry wood for two or three hours.
After that, the fish are cooled for about an hour, put on ice and boxed, ready for delivery throughout the Midwest.
NewPort Shores restaurant in Port Washington serves Ewig’s smoked salmon as an appetizer, while Daily Baking Co. and Smith Bros. Coffee House use it for salmon spread.
Other fish are picked up by grocers like Pick ’n’ Save, Piggly Wiggly and Sendik’s.
Ewig estimates he sells about 100,000 pounds of salmon each year, by far the company’s best seller.
An important part of the business is shipping smoked fish during the holidays, a lucrative, if tiring, part of the job.
The company’s three employees typically work 12 hours days, seven days a week, for three weeks at the end of December to make sure shipments get out.
Ewig said spending more than half of his life at the company has yielded plenty of memories.
One of his favorites was working in the kitchen of the carry-out restaurant his father ran across the street in the 1970s.
“We would fry up hundreds of perch plates every Friday night,” Ewig said. “Working with the high school kids back then was a lot of fun.”
The restaurant eventually closed, losing out to fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King.
While there have been some challenges — like the recession a few years ago and the disappearance of chubs — the company hasn’t changed much over its history.
“Smoking fish has really been about the same as long as I’ve been here,” Ewig said. “The biggest adjustment was the chubs, but we knew that would be a huge impact.”
Working in a family business sometimes means work is brought home, he said.
“We’ll talk about our days at the dinner table at night,” Ewig said. “The only real difference about having a family business is the work follows you home.”
Longtime businesses all have their regulars, but Ewig believes that’s what has helped his shop survive when the others went out of business.
“I’ve only been working here for 18 years, but seeing the regulars, knowing their names, that’s the aspect I enjoy the most,” Matt Ewig said. “The products we have will continue to go on, even if the fishing isn’t great in Lake Michigan anymore.”
Jeff Ewig agreed, saying people will always have a craving for smoked fish.
“I’ve been here a long time, but this place has always weathered whatever the economy could throw at the rest of the country,” he said. “People have always had money for smoked fish.”
A TRAY OF HERRING was held by owner Jeff Ewig of Ewig Bros. at the Port Washington fish market last week. Joining Ewig were (from left) son Matt, father Eugene and brother Mike. The company has been selling smoked fish out of its market for more than 100 years.
Photo by Sam Arendt