Harlem’s Famous Fish Market Thrives Despite COVID-19 and Loan Rejections

by Alexandra Moyen

WINDSOR TERRACE — Eric Strickland wasn’t sure he was ever going to be able to open his Famous Fish Market’s doors again because of the pandemic. Yet, when opening their doors each morning, they were greeted with a line of customers eager to eat their famous fish and chips. 

“Honestly, I’m like, ‘We are going to do bad going into this,’ ” explained the market’s manager, and Eric’s son, Michael Howie, but “we have never shut down. The most we shut down was a day.”

Once the pandemic hit and people were ordered to stay home, many restaurants, salons, and other small businesses had to close — some temporarily, some permanently. 

The businesses hit hardest were black-owned according to an analysis of April 2020 government data by Robert Farlie of the University of California. While 41 percent of black business owners reported they weren’t working, only 17 percent of white small business owners reported the same. The number of black business owners plummeted from 1.1 million in February 2020 to 640,000 in April, according to Farlie. 

Many of these black-owned businesses are suffering because they haven’t been able to receive loans from their banks, can’t move their businesses online, or have received less from federal stimulus programs. They also are typically retail stores or restaurants that have fewer workers compared to other small businesses.

“I have seen other businesses fall through this, even my favorite restaurants. It’s tough, it’s tough,” Howie said.

Famous Fish Market was started in 1974 by Eric Strickland’s aunt, Eloise Cherry. He took over in 1998 and now runs the market along with his wife, Viola, and two children, Michael and Erica. The restaurant has survived a lot, including the gentrification of their Harlem neighborhood. However, when the pandemic reached its spike in April, the family thought they would have to close their doors permanently after 46 years of business. 

Eric said they struggled to get a loan and were turned down twice before receiving it. They also had to change the restaurant’s system to conform to CDC rules such as taking customers temperatures before they entered, enforcing one patron at the cash register at a time, their hours, the way they take orders, and how they serve condiments. 

“Things are starting to open up for us,” Eric explained. “We did a lot of things to deal with the coronavirus. We had to change our whole system.” 

Now, the restaurant has defied all odds and continues to thrive, which Erica says is because of their Christian faith. 

“There’s a higher power, our blessings come from there,” she said. “As long as we do right, put out the right energy. Good things come back in return.”

The family says that faith is mixed with a secret recipe batter which Michael says is their own version of the “Krabby Patty formula.” 

“Once you taste it, it’s like no other taste like it, and that’s what keeps people coming back,” Viola told Currents News.