What: Precious Cargo Seafood Co.

Pictured: Dawn Mitchell, owner

Where: 63356 Nels Anderson Road, Suite 4, Bend

Employees: One

Phone: 541-420-9369

Website: www.preciouscargoseafood.com

Dawn Mitchell grew up in Bend eating frozen fish sticks, so she didn’t know much about seafood until she decided to buy a fishmonger business.

Fortunately, the two previous owners of Mitchell’s company, Precious Cargo Seafood Co., were close at hand, telling her how and what to order for customers who want items such as east coast haddock and crawdads. No matter what fish they have in mind, people find their way to Precious Cargo’s small storefront on Nels Anderson Road because they want wild-caught fish from a sustainable source, Mitchell said. “Where it’s fished is so important,” she said. “How it’s fished is so important.”

Precious Cargo was started by Duncan Laing, who made deliveries and sold the flash-frozen seafood out of his garage and truck. The next owners, Doug and Melissa Robbins, expanded the customer base by setting up at NorthWest Crossing Farmer’s Market and Central Oregon Locavore. Mitchell is hoping to make the storefront her primary sales outlet. Despite the number of specialty and discount grocers in Bend, Robbins thinks Precious Cargo fills a viable niche with quality, affordable seafood. “They’re more of a wholesale house, and they can get the price down a little bit,” he said.

Mitchell, 54, decided to become a business owner about a year ago, after leaving a company where she’d worked as the office manager for 15 years. Initially, she thought she could land a similar job, but she said she wasn’t even getting interviews. Seeing how she’d helped other people run their businesses for the past few decades, her boyfriend, Ken Dority, encouraged her to work for herself.

“I’m not a dog groomer, or a mechanic, so I couldn’t think of anything to do,” Mitchell said. Then her boyfriend, a longtime construction contractor, came across an ad on Craigslist for a “turn-key” small business. They checked it out together, Mitchell said, and he loaned her the money to get started.

While Mitchell received start-up advice from Laing and Robbins, she had to learn to deal with suppliers on her own. She said they took advantage of her ignorance by sending sub-standard products, items that didn’t match her order, or not honoring a volume discount. Mitchell said she no longer hesitates to send products back or find new suppliers. “I had to learn to be aggressive about it,” she said.

The store is part of an industrial-office complex and would be easy to overlook if not for the colorful fish windsocks out front. Most of what Mitchell sells is flash frozen, but she takes orders for fresh fish, crabs and oysters, which are delivered for same-day pickup.

Mitchell said she had big plans for Precious Cargo when she bought it last March from Robbins, who decided to focus on his main business in heavy-haul trucking. “I was so excited,” she said. “I had all these dreams of stuff I was going to do.”

Soon after closing the deal, however, she fell ill with a kidney infection and shingles. After being hospitalized and then recuperating at home for eight weeks, it was all she could do to open the store on June 1. On Saturdays Dority helped her set up at the farmer’s market. Mitchell said she’s still struggling with fatigue. “If I hadn’t gotten sick, I would be open six days a week,” she said.

Despite Precious Cargo’s limited hours — 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday through Friday — Mitchell said the business is growing. Her goal is to reach the break-even point, and then sell the business to someone who can help it reach its full potential. Mitchell bought a TV ad, started social media accounts and got Precious Cargo listed on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app, which lists sustainable seafood restaurants and retailers.

Mitchell thinks Precious Cargo could do more business with vacationers, who tend to find the store when they’re looking to make a special dinner in their rental house. One man paid her $50 to deliver two dozen oysters to an annual gathering in Sunriver.

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, kmclaughlin@bendbulletin.com

Q: Where do you see the business in five years?

A: Hopefully doing really well for someone (else).

Q: What advice do you have for first-time business owners?

A: Get your name out there, and let people know you’re here because people are really wonderful. If they know about you, they’ll come and support you.

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