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'It’s a real treasure': Tom Robinson's Seafood's new management continues legacy


Salvador Bonilla is the current owner of Tom Robinson's Seafood, which was passed down to him by Kay Hamrick, Tom Robinson's girlfriend of 17 years, after Robinson's death in 2010. He is pictured standing at the seafood counter on Saturday, April 1, 2023.

Tom Robinson’s Seafood has been a Carrboro institution for decades.

The namesake and founder of the shop, Tom Robinson, began the seafood market in the 1970s after being inspired by his grandfather, who sold seafood from the coast to other UNC students in 1914.

However, when Robinson died in 2010, there was a void left at the market. Robinson's longtime girlfriend, Kay Hamrick, took over the restaurant. But 10 years later, she handed the business to Salvador Bonilla in 2020.

Bonilla, who quit his second job after Robinson's death to dedicate his full time to the market, said Robinson taught him "everything."

Bonilla brings oysters to a customer on Saturday, April 1, 2023.

A photo of Tom Robinson, the previous owner and namesake of the fish market, hangs on the wall of Tom Robinson's Seafood on Saturday, April 1, 2023.

A photo of Robinson still hangs on a wall in the market — which is located at 207 Roberson St.   

Bonilla, originally from Ecuador, grew up fishing on the Amazon River. After coming to the U.S., he moved to Chapel Hill from New York. 

“In Ecuador, we border Brazil and Peru with the Amazon River, and every week I’d go fishing in the river,” he said. 

He came to Chapel Hill to work at Vespa Ristorante, an Italian restaurant in Chapel Hill that has since closed, and remained here because of his passion for the market. 

On Wednesdays, Bonilla and Robinson would take trips to the North Carolina coast to pick up fresh seafood together. Bonilla said that these visits reminded him of fishing in Ecuador during his childhood. He also noted that these trips made the transition to owner easier. 

“(Robinson) and I went several times to the coast to pick up fish,” Bonilla said. “That’s why, after he passed away, I know the vendors down there. They know me also because I went several times.”

John Mark Peretin smiles at a customer on Saturday, April 1, 2023. He doesn't have a grand reason for his work at Tom's, “I just generally enjoy my time here… I have an active fondness for it,” Peretin said.

John Mark Peretin is one of the two staff members at the market.

Peretin said working at Tom Robinson’s Seafood is a family affair, with his brother having also worked at the market.

Similar to Bonilla, he said he grew up doing hands-on work. He said that working with fish wasn’t a hard transition from his experience working on a farm, and he enjoys working at the market.

He said while local shops like Tom Robinson's Seafood might not last in the future, he hopes they do. 

"When we grow older, these shops probably just won’t exist, so it’s important to understand what they mean to the community," Peretin.

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Salvador Bonilla cleans a salmon on Saturday April 1, 2023. Fish are cleaned and fileted in-house by one of the three staff members at Tom Robinson's.

Despite uncertainties, Tom Robinson's Seafood remains one of the few local seafood markets in Carrboro.

It is open Thursday and Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and on Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. 

Aeon Schmoock said he visits Tom Robinson’s Seafood every other month. Schmoock said the food is fantastic and that his daughter even painted a portrait of it for school.  

“It’s a real treasure," Schmook said. 

With a quaint feel and saltly smell, Tom Robinson's Seafood has been in Carrboro since the 1970s.

@DTHCityState | 

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