FLOYD — Joe Brown remembers the first time he set foot in a North Carolina fish house.
“There’s piles of ice three times taller than me everywhere and guys in big rubber boots shoveling it. I thought, ‘Oh man, this is wild!’” Brown said. “That’s one of my first memories, and I think about that sometimes walking in there now.”
He was 6 years old when he went with his aunts, Teresa Nester and Susan Handy, to buy fresh seafood along North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. Nester and Handy had just founded Floyd-based Indigo Farms Seafood, and they would truck the catch back to the mountains for sale to eager customers.
It was the early days of the much-beloved New River Valley business, which Nester and Handy started in 1993 with an old Toyota 4Runner and a few coolers. Today Indigo Farms has a refrigerated box truck, an email list of more than 4,000 retail customers and more than a dozen restaurant clients stretching from Floyd to Giles counties.
During their weekly runs to the coast, Handy and Nester stayed with the Browns, who grew up on the Outer Banks. Joe’s sister, Julee, who was about 3 at the time, recalled the 4Runner’s red vinyl bench seat.
“I can remember Joe and I riding between them for outings,” she said.
This week the siblings headed out in a much newer, much larger Indigo rig. And for the first time, it was just the two of them. The trip was the culmination of more than two years of planning and apprenticeship as Nester and Handy have slowly handed over daily operations.
The founders said goodbye recently to their customers in one of their weekly fish list emails.
“Keeping this business in our family has made this an easier decision for us,” they wrote. “We are so very grateful and blessed for your support and friendship for the last 27 years.”
Nester said it was fitting that her niece and nephew take over the business because “they’ve been there since the very beginning.”
Customers have been lavishing Nester and Handy with gifts and thank-you cards. But they’ve also been quick to put in their next fish orders.
“The founding mothers will be sorely missed!” longtime customer Kay Kay Goette wrote in an email. “Life and meals go on though, so please, a lb. of andouille and two trout fillets. Thank you!”
From the ocean to the mountains
Named for a beloved Dalmatian with one blue eye that Nester and Handy called “Indigo Iris,” Indigo Farms was built out of necessity.
It was 1993. Handy had left a job as Floyd County’s recreation director and was looking for a business opportunity when Nester, a technical writer at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, got laid off.
“They totally did away with my department,” Nester said. “So new things had to happen.”
Handy had been studying the fresh food options in the area and got an idea.
“Susan found this little niche that there was no fresh seafood anywhere,” Nester said. “So it was like, ‘Let’s go get shrimp!’”
So they did, bringing it fresh from the North Carolina coast and setting up in a shopping center parking lot on North Franklin Street in Christiansburg. It didn’t go so well.
“First thing we did was get fresh shrimp with the head on,” Handy said. “It took just a few times to know that shrimp with the head on was not going to fly. Nobody wanted that.”
So, they started to de-head the shrimp, and business grew. Pretty soon, customers were requesting fresh flounder and tuna and grouper and more. Today Indigo Farms sells a range of fresh and frozen seafood, as well as specialty meats like magret duck breast, andouille sausage, ribeye steaks, chicken and turkey. They even sell their own smoked salmon.
In those days, Nester said, it was truly a seven-day-a-week job with a lot of physical labor. A box of fish and ice can weigh 75 pounds. And communication could be a headache. This was long before the magic cell phone would allow them to call suppliers and customers from the cab of the truck. Instead, they had to find payphones along their routes to take and fill orders — and good luck finding a chef actually sitting at his desk by his landline.
They persisted, and it grew to a retail operation making weekly retail sales stops in Blacksburg, Riner, Floyd, Giles and Radford and serving wholesale restaurant customers along the way.
Filling a need
Michael Gucciardo, owner of Mickey G’s in Floyd, was Indigo Farms’ first commercial account. Back then, he was chef at Floyd’s Pine Tavern Restaurant.
“I love seafood, and you couldn’t get anything here,” he said. “I didn’t like anything off the other trucks.” So when Indigo Farms showed up at the restaurant offering fresh fish, he became a regular customer and remains so today.
Their seafood “is far superior,” he said. “Competitive prices, great product and great service — you can’t beat that.”
Retail customers tell a similar story. Having Indigo Farms in Blacksburg “has just been so great because you live in Southwest Virginia, and one thing you always fear you’ll never get much of is fresh fish. And it totally fulfilled that need,” longtime customer Kathryn Graham said.
More than just a quality product, Indigo Farms focuses on customer service. Arctic char is available for a limited time each year, and it sells out fast. It’s one of Graham’s favorites.
“Even if I get there a little bit late, they’ve set some aside for me,” she said.
On a recent Thursday, Handy and Nester visited Joe and Julee at the truck. Handy could name nearly every person standing in line. Bags of fresh fish in hand, customers came over to offer hugs and well wishes.
“That really is one of the more rewarding parts of this for me — we just love some of these people,” Nester said. “And they come every week, and they tell us what they did, or their kid graduated, or the kid just became a teenager. It’s cool. It’s kind of like being a bartender. People come and say things to you, personal things.”
Handy and Nester’s retirement is the end of an era, Graham said, “but there is something really nice knowing this is the niece and nephew, that they are ready to keep the flag flying down there.”
A native of the New England coast, retired attorney Piper Durrell said she was among Indigo Farms’ first retail customers. She’s happy that Nester and Handy no longer have to do the weekly 10-hour round-trip to Wilmington.
“They need to start to have fun,” Durrell said. “I talked to Julee, and she’s very personable, too, and very good and very responsible. She doesn’t know people yet, but, yeah, she seems wonderful.”
Julee, 29, said she has been working on and off in the business for the past two years. She moved to Floyd from Morehead City, North Carolina, in October to start full-time. Joe, 33, followed in January.
Both said they have experience in restaurants and hospitality. They plan to work hard to expand the wholesale business, according to Joe.
“But we do love being on the truck,” Julee said. “The interaction with the customers every week, like, that’s what really makes the week fun. We don’t want to do all wholesale.”
Nester said the customers have already dubbed the siblings “the Fish Kids,” a derivation of the “Fish Ladies” moniker Nester, 59, and Handy, 57, have carried for years. That’s just one of a handful of nicknames the founders are known by, including “the Indigo Girls,” after the famous folk rock duo from Georgia.
Nester and Handy said they have stepped into a support role and will stay involved for the next year or so. For now, they plan to take time to rest and to do more of the things they enjoy — including entering BBQ competitions.
Handy — who is well known for her “Susan’s Seafood Salad” sold at the truck — said she plans to get back into her garden and teach herself to bake pizza in a wood-fired oven.