‘It’s the end of an era’

After 130 years in Port Washington, family makes bittersweet decision to close Ewig Bros. Fish Co., the last vestige of city’s once-thriving commercial fishing industry

JEFF EWIG held a rack of salmon smoked at Ewig Bros. Fish Co. in Port Washington in 2015. Ewig and his son Matt announced this week that they will close their business, which has had a presence in Port for 130 years, on April 30. Press file photo
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

PORT WASHINGTON - Ewig Bros. Fish Co., a stalwart in Port Washington for 130 years and the last vestige of the city’s once-thriving commercial fishing industry, will close its doors at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 30.

The company has weathered the decades by reinventing itself, going from a commercial fishing operation to a smokehouse.

Its staff has included six generations of the Ewig family, with at least 20 members of the family that have “manned our smokehouses, helmed our boats and shared stories with customers,” owner Jeff Ewig and his son Matt said in announcing the closing.

“It’s the end of an era,” Jeff said Tuesday.

The decision, he said, is bittersweet, but it’s the right one for the family.

“It’s kind of sad, but at the same time it’s an opportunity to move on and do something else,” Matt said. “It’s just time.”

Closing a family business isn’t easy, but what’s equally difficult, the men said, is leaving the customers they’ve come to know and cherish.

Generations of families have shopped at Ewig Bros., they said, with parents introducing their children to the Ewig market and years later those now-grown children bringing their families.

“It’s all about relationships,” Matt said. “The joy it brings to people is very rewarding. You put smiles on people’s faces. You’re part of their traditions. They (the customers) are like friends.”

“Our best stories are the people who came in the door,” Jeff said. “The amazing conversations you have.”

He recalled a man who walked in “looking like Indiana Jones.” The man was from Kentucky and casually told Jeff he worked as a photographer for National Geographic.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’” Jeff, himself a photographer, said. “The questions couldn’t come out of my mouth fast enough.”

Then there’s the man who makes custom seats for racing cars and stops in whenever he’s headed to Road America in Elkhart Lake.

“He buys 20, 30 salmon fillets at a time,” Jeff said, bringing them to the racetrack to feed the crews. “He said the first thing they say when he goes to the track is, ’Where’s the salmon?’

“We gained a rapport, and now we’re friends. That’s what’s important — it’s selling fish, but it’s about relationships.”

Ewig Bros. actually began in the Jones Island area of Milwaukee when Herman Ewig immigrated to the United States and joined his brother August in the fishing business around 1882. In 1894, they moved to Port Washington.

Their sons  joined the business, which soon purchased the steam tug Herbert and changed its name to H. Ewig.

The business moved to Sheboygan in 1935, when harbor improvements in Port created unsafe conditions in the west slip, where the family’s boats, Ewig I and Ewig II, were moored.

But the family continued to have a presence in Port, operating a smokehouse on the west slip.

In the 1970s, the smokehouse burned down. “It went up pretty quickly,” Jeff said. “All the fish grease in there.”

The family hastily put together plans for a new smokehouse at what is today the Ewig Bros. building on South Wisconsin Street, but until it was built they smoked fish in Saukville, Jeff said.

A decline in the fishing industry prompted the family to sell its fishing boats in the late 1960s, but Ewig Bros. continued to operate, changing along with the times.

They ran a delicatessen at the west end of the west slip for years, selling a variety of fish and cooked meals.

“We had a fish counter, a salad counter. We sold bread and bakery. We sold a lot of perch sandwiches out of there at 49 cents each,” Jeff said. “The Smith Bros. guys would come in for lunch in their boots.

“On Friday nights, we’d fry perch like it was going out of style, hundreds of pounds.

“I still wish today we had the delicatessen,” he added, noting he worked there while in high school for $1.15 an hour.

“I thought that was great,” he said. “They got me in the kitchen and taught me to fry fish. I did the dishes, cleaned the floors.

“My dad always said, ‘If you can’t find something to do, pick up a broom.’”

There were a lot of high schoolers who worked at the deli, he said.

The delicatessen closed after McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants moved to the area, taking a large share of business with it, Jeff said.

Both Jeff and Matt were born into the business, starting their careers in high school and joining the company full-time after graduation.

Jeff worked for the company delivering fish initially, then moved to the smokehouse. But after about 20 years, he left and went to work for Leeson in Grafton for about 15 years, giving him time to spend with his children when they were young.

He then returned to Ewig Bros., helping his father Gene run the operation.

“I got the business ramped up pretty good,” Jeff said, noting they brought in more than $1 million in sales one year. It was the year the company came out with its salmon seasonings.

“We were the first to do that,” Jeff said. “Now everyone’s got a seasoning blend.”
The Ewigs have been witness to the changing lake and its impact on Port.

“It’s changed dramatically,” Jeff said, noting that while the lake once teemed with a wide variety of species, today “all they really (commercially) fish for now is whitefish in Door County,” he said. “But lake trout, perch — they haven’t been able to commercially fish perch in 30 years. There’s no food out there for them. Today, the lake’s managed for the sport fishermen.”

Sport fishing has been a boon to Port Washington is many ways, he said, bringing in tourists who spend their money on charter excursions, food and lodging in the city.

And Ewig’s responded, smoking the fish these fishermen caught.

Through it all, the company has continued to smoke and sell fish from the unassuming block building on South Wisconsin Street.

Today, Jeff said, the business is about evenly split between retail sales and the wholesale business. Ewig Bros. sells fish to mostly grocery stores throughout the area, the Midwest and the country, he said.

“In January and February, the wholesale keeps us alive,” Matt said. “In summer, we have strong retail sales.”

But it’s a tough business, and now it’s time to say goodbye, Jeff said.

“I’m ready to walk out of here in a month,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it for years, every day. I decided I do not want to miss another summer. When you’re 69, how many do you have left?

“People used to tell me when it’s time, you’ll know. They’re right.”

Matt concurred, noting that at 41 he can start a new career, whether it’s in the fishing industry or another business — maybe driving truck, which he enjoys.

And now, Jeff said, he will have time to go fishing, something he enjoys but hasn’t had time to do for years.

“I get asked to go fishing a lot, but I always had to say no,” he said. “Now I’m going to say yes.”

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