“His grandfather had put himself through college by going down to the coast on the weekends and picking up fish and coming up here and selling it,” said Kay Hamrick, who was Robinson’s girlfriend for 17 years. “And so he was sort of paying homage to his grandfather, I’m sure, when he first started. When he first started, he was selling it out of his truck.”
Robinson then moved to an open-air shop on Rosemary Street before finally moving the store behind Armadillo Grill in 1981. When Robinson passed away five years ago, Hamrick inherited it.
Before Hamrick inherited Tom Robinson’s Seafood, she worked as a certified public accountant.
“I was a chief financial officer for a company, and I thought I would stay there until retirement,” she said. “I left that job thinking I was taking a break from my career temporarily, but when Tom passed away, it just sort of fell into my lap.”
Hamrick comes in for a few hours when the store is open and has six other employees who work with her. Salvador Bonilla has worked there the longest, at 10 years. The store has always run on the same schedule, Bonilla said.
“I go every week to the coast to pick up seafood, every Wednesday,” he said. “And then we’re open Thursday, Friday, Saturday. That’s what Tom had been doing for 35 years, too.”
Old habits die hard in this seafood store, and that’s part of its charm. Every Wednesday, when Bonilla drives to pick up the seafood, he also picks up hundreds of pounds of ice.
“We don’t have an ice machine,” he said. “It’s too much money.”
The cliche “if something isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” has never applied anywhere else as well as it does to Tom Robinson’s. There might only be one display case inside of the small cement block building, but it’s a display case full of fresh, local seafood that has kept a loyal customer base.
“I come in the fall and winter, usually once a month — every three weeks. It’s good stuff,” said Noriyoshi Inoue, longtime customer.
Tom Robinson’s Seafood employees Sam Sockwell, a UNC senior, and Nathan Vail, a UNC graduate, both said their favorite part of the job is the customers.
They have diverse customers, and some come from as far as Winston-Salem for their sashimi-grade seafood.
“It was a good change — it was not something I expected,” Hamrick said. “I never in 100 years guessed this is what I would be doing.”