Tucked away on East Palmetto Street is Mister Fish, a “hole-in-the-wall” eatery that is at once inconspicuous yet famous. Well known for its mainstay of fish and chips (not to mention its hush puppies, clam strips, and freshly squeezed lemonade), this fresh fast-food joint has remained a local favorite for over 50 years. Owner Michele Christman tells us how they do it.
The Lakelander: How did Mister Fish first come to be?
Michele Christman: My parents, David and Geneva Martin, moved from Illinois in the 1960s and planned to open up an ice cream shop. But my dad started tinkering with some fish recipes and the ice cream shop idea became a fish restaurant! As soon as I was old enough I began to work at Mister Fish, and I grew up in the business. If I wasn’t in school, I was in the restaurant. Our home [where Mister Fish now stands] on Palmetto Street, which used to be a gas station, isn’t the original location. That was just off of Memorial Boulevard; then it moved to Kathleen Road and finally to Palmetto Street in the early 1970s. At one time there was even a Mister Fish on Highway 17 in Bartow. All the restaurants had the same small mystique and delicious food as the existing location.
TL: What’s your secret sauce of success? How does one small restaurant stand the test of time?
MC: Well, everyone knows the little hole-in-the wall places have the best food! But it’s really the loyalty of our customers — it’s wonderful. They just keep coming back, and not only that, they are bringing their children and their grandchildren. We treat everyone like family. Of course, it’s important to have a tasty product to go out in the first place, and we have that.
TL: Have you noticed any change in people’s tastes over the years that you had to adapt to?
MC: Yes, we have. So, over the last few years we’ve added menu items on the lighter side such as grilled tilapia, grilled chicken, steamed and grilled vegetables. But we still sell so many Philly cheesesteaks — people say they are really good! We have a chicken Philly, as well. We also have boneless fried chicken that’s delicious. And corn fritters, hush puppies, okra, homemade tuna fish salad and chicken salad, too . . . I can go on and on! You can eat here every day of the week and have something different. We get nothing but the best ingredients.
EVERYONE KNOWS THE LITTLE HOLE-IN THE-WALL PLACES HAVE THE BEST FOOD! — MICHELE CHRISTMAN
TL: What’s the best thing about running a small business in Lakeland?
MC: Hands down, the loyalty of our customers. There are a lot of great people in our city. I think our customers like to see that this is family-owned and run. We love our customers. We don’t treat them like customers or strangers. We probably serve an average of 100 customers a day. Some people even come for lunch and dinner the same day. We’ve got some outside seating to enjoy the nice weather.
TL: What’s the most challenging part?
MC: In the restaurant business, changing tastes can be a challenge, and that’s why we introduced those lighter side-menu options which have worked well. Sometimes people give up certain things for a season, such as meat or soda, and we notice that. But again, their loyalty keeps them coming back after the season ends.
TL: Have you considered more locations, or is your current one part of the Mister Fish mystique?
MC: I’d like to, but keeping a consistent, high-quality product is key. Sometimes when you put your work in another person’s hands, the customer doesn’t have the same experience. We’re fortunate to have a wonderful staff at Mister Fish, so it’s certainly possible to expand if we find the same caliber staff for another location. But then again, there is something about having this one, small location that lends to the mystique of the restaurant. It’s probably less than 200 square feet. In that small space we have two fryers, a big hood, a grill, and several refrigerators and freezers.
TL: What’s your favorite item on the menu?
MC: I don’t think you can beat our fish! You can have it any way you want: dressed up, grilled, fried, with onions, tartar sauce, cheese, hot sauce.
TL: What’s the secret that makes it so delicious?
MC: The love we put in it! [laughs] It’s all made with love.
715 East Palmetto Street Lakeland, FL 863.688.4280 misterfish.org Monday – Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Sunday