Standing at the fish counter of Palmer’s Direct to You Market in Henrietta a few years ago, I glanced up from the trays of salmon, swordfish, mackerel and cod, and was transported decades back to the early 1960s.
Confronting me in a black-and-white photo was the very familiar face of Bud Palmer, the former president of Palmer’s Fish Market.
Bud, who died in 1997, was the father of Kip Palmer. Together, they grew the Rochester fish market to a multiproduct, multistate and international food-product distributor now called Palmer Food Services.
In the photo, Bud stands in front of Palmer’s old 141 State St. store. His arms outstretched, he is proudly holding a large fish. He is grinning and looks exactly as I remember him. I teared up.
For roughly two years between 1961 and 1963, every weekday afternoon and on Saturday mornings, I took a Monroe Avenue bus from Brighton to the corner of Main Street and Clinton Avenue and then hiked four long blocks to Palmer’s State Street store. There, I counted clams, washed scallops, sliced and breaded wash tubs full of onions into rings and fished lobsters out of wooden barrels to insert wooden pegs in their claws.
It was my first real job and it was a pivotal experience. Decades later, I still fondly recall my days counting clams at Palmer’s.
So does Bob Duffy, whose first job, roughly a decade after mine, was also counting clams at Palmer’s.
“To this day I’ve never forgotten it,” says Duffy, the Rochester native who now is Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, and who previously served as Rochester police chief and mayor. Duffy worked at Palmer’s over the course of a summer when he was a high school senior. “It was a happy place to work.”
Today, Palmer Food Services is orders of magnitude larger than the State Street fish market Duffy and I recall. In addition to seafood, it has expanded into meats and dry-good grocery items like canned and packaged items. Through G&C Food Distributors, a Syracuse company it acquired in 1988, Palmer Food Services distributes products to 22 states and through a Miami office exports items to 24 countries.
When I worked at Palmer’s, the business employed around 30 full- and part-time workers. Palmer Food Services employs 825.
Kip Palmer declines to publicly state the company’s annual revenues. He allows that it is many times more than the roughly $4 million Palmer’s took in when he joined the family firm as a full-time employee in 1975. He is the fifth in his family’s line to run the Palmer enterprise.
A few months ago, Palmer received the Herbert W. Vanden Brul Entrepreneurial Award from Rochester Institute of Technology’s Saunders College of Business, an honor bestowed annually to recognize individuals who have grown a locally based business that has substantially added to the local economy.
He shies from taking credit for the remarkable growth it has enjoyed under his stewardship, however.
“I’m really not responsible for it,” Palmer says.” I’m hard working, I’m persistent and I try to treat others the way that I want to be treated. So many things happened that were unexpected.”
The business started modestly in 1849, with Levi Palmer, a fish monger who plied Rochester streets in a horse-drawn wagon selling fish raised in a Lake Ontario hatchery. In 1850, Levi and a partner, Seth Green, opened a store on Centre Street. Levi’s son Dwight inherited the business in 1861. Dwight Palmer’s three sons took over the firm, moving through several storefront locations as Palmer Bros. fish market. In 1919, it moved to the State Street store where I worked.
Bud Palmer, whose proper name was Dwight as is Kip’s, took over the company after serving in the South Pacific during World War II. He greatly expanded the business, adding frozen fish and other items, to make it the Rochester area’s largest sea food company.
When I worked at Palmer’s, Bud would sometimes give me rides home in his 1956 Plymouth. He’d taken out the back seat so that he could use the sedan as a delivery vehicle.
“When I was in the South Pacific, most guys missed their wives and sweethearts,” he offered to me on one ride. “I missed fish.”
Duffy admiringly recalls Bud Palmer as relentlessly correcting him for calling him Mr. Palmer, insisting that Duffy call him Bud.
“He would go around and greet every employee by name every day,” Duffy marvels.
As a child, Kip Palmer remembers his father taking him through the State Street store on Sunday mornings, when the business was closed, to make sure the freezers and coolers were working.
By the early 1960s, the market had taken over two adjacent State Street stores. In a small kitchen upstairs, a man named George commanded two commercial deep friers, where he worked daily frying up breaded fish filets and onion rings.
A banner that read “Eat fish live longer; Eat oysters love longer” hung in the back room where I worked. I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant. I believe the banner was the work Lawrence Creag, ubiquitously known only by his surname. Creag supervised the backroom operation. He lived in an apartment on the second floor and kept stacks of tabloid newspapers in a hall outside the apartment’s door.
My first assignment on my first day at Palmers was cutting the heads off a barrel full of live softshell crabs. Before I started, Creag held up a crab whose claw was open and told me to put a finger in it. I refused, but he wouldn’t relent, so eventually I did as he asked. The claws closed in a harmless pinch. I shook off the crab. Creag laughed heartily and I went to work with a kitchen shears.
I loved the job.
Joining the family business
Kip Palmer started working part-time in the store at 14 in 1967. At first, he manned the retail counter at the store’s front end. Later, he worked in the back, counting clams and doing many of the same chores I had done a few years earlier. He knew Creag, but told me that Creag’s second-floor apartment had been converted to a freezer to accommodate the larger inventory Palmer’s needed to stock for its growing business.
Kip Palmer worked afternoons and Saturdays, like I did, during the school year and days in the summers. He did not initially plan to go into the family business.
After graduating from West Irondequoit High School, he attended Wittenburg University in Springfield, Ohio, where he earned a bachelor’s degree with a dual major in political science and economics.
“I had originally thought I wanted to be an attorney,” he says. Apparently feeling some of the piscine pull as his father had felt in the South Pacific, he instead asked his dad “if I could come into the business. I was thankful that he was thrilled that I wanted to come in.”
After graduating from Wittenberg in 1975, he started full-time work at Palmer’s. The business still employed roughly 30 people but was growing fast. Adding the second-floor cooler and freezer and punching out expanded office space on the floor had taken its State Street space to its limits.
At that time, says Palmer, “we were still mostly in seafood, but we had purchased stock in a cooperative called Frosty Acre Brands. That was a food service cooperative of other distributors and we had begun expanding our product line. But we really didn’t have the space to do very much.”
The new second-floor office was over an adjoining building whose bottom floor housed Mike’s, a somewhat seedy bar where I had once briefly spotted a woman who seemed to me to be an ancient crone. She was lifting her skirt and grinning as she danced on a table.
When I worked at Palmer’s, Bud Palmer could look out of the first-floor office’s glass windows and survey the store’s operations. He could lean out the door to call employees into the office. With operations expanding to the second floor, he had a telephone public address system installed. One day, speaking into the PA, he summoned Kip to his office.
“I come upstairs and I go through the hole in the wall,” recalls Kip. “I’ve got my boots on. I’ve got my frock on. I’ve got my apron on. I’ve got my Palmer hat on and I smell like a mackerel. My father says to me, ‘Son, your mother and I have made enough money in this business that we can retire comfortably.”
Bud Palmer continued: “We would rather not do that. We would like to see succession in the business, but I need to know what your intentions are. I want you to know that if you tell me you’re staying, you’re condemned. You’ll be here for the rest of my natural life.”
His dad didn’t demand an instant answer, Kip Palmer says. “He said, ‘I’m going to give you a year to make up your mind. At the end of year, I’m going to ask you.’”
The seriousness of his father’s demand didn’t immediately sink in. “I was 22 or 23, and pretty young and rambunctious. I said, ‘OK.’ I said, ‘Dad I’ve got all this work to do downstairs. Can I go now?’ And I went back downstairs.”
A year to the day later, when Bud Palmer again called his son to the second-floor office, Kip Palmer knew why he was being summoned.
As he remembers their interchange. “I still have my frock and my boots and my apron on and I still smell like a mackerel.”
Bud Palmer said, “I need to know what your answer is.”
Kip Palmer’s answer was yes, but with a condition.
“You have to promise me that you’ll put us in a different facility because we can’t grow here,” he told his father.
“It’s too limited,” Kip Palmer said. “I know it’s paid for and that’s great and everything else. But it’s too limiting and we’re handling stuff seven times before it gets to the client.”
Palmer says his father “shook my hand and gave me a hug and said, ‘You’ve got a deal.’”
Years of growth
In 1978, Palmer’s moved to the Genesee Valley Regional Authority complex on Jefferson Road in Henrietta. The State Street store remained open for a few more years.
This was around the time the first big expansion of the business came with the acquisition of Jacobson’s Meat Co. The acquisition happened fast and had not been planned.
A few years earlier, Jacobson’s got into a financial pickle when one of its trucks was in an accident and its insurance didn’t cover the seven-figure damages.
“We had developed a friendship with Seymour Jacobson,” Palmer recalls. “Mr. Jacobson called me on a Friday morning and said, ‘Would you and your dad be willing to see me this afternoon?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll ask my father,’ and he said yes. Mr. Jacobson came in at four in the afternoon on a Friday and said, ‘If you can’t help me, I can’t open Monday morning.’
“No one remembers those times now,” Kip Palmer recalls. “But that was an interesting time with the prime rate at 21 percent. Everybody was leaving their money in the bank for as long as they could because they were getting such good interest. We put the deal together over the weekend and opened up as Palmer-Jacobson Food services Monday morning. And that’s how we got into the meat business.”
At the time, “it was unheard of for a seafood distributor and a meat distributor to get together and then it was even crazier because people didn’t think you could have meat and fish on the same truck,” Kip Palmer now says, laughing.
Jacobson, whom Palmer fondly remembers as “like a second father to me,” continued to work for the conjoined enterprise, retiring in 1985 when he won a seven-figure New York Lottery prize.
In following years, Palmer says, “we made other small acquisitions of companies that did what we already did or provided product expertise in areas where we didn’t have that expertise. We acquired another seafood distributor.
“We acquired another meat company that made cheeses. We acquired another meat company that was primarily in dry goods, actually two companies that were primarily in dry goods. I believe the total number of acquisitions we made (was) eight between 1980 and 2002.”
The most significant acquisition was the 1988 addition of G&C, which put the Palmer enterprise in the redistribution business as a wholesaler, selling to other grocery industry wholesalers as well as to retail clients.
Direct to You
In 2009, the company opened the Palmer’s Direct to You Market at the Genesee Valley Regional Market. With gleaming counters, dozens of employees and a large eat-in or take-out seafood business, it alone is as large as the State Street operation where Palmer got his start in the family business. Still, one wonders, how many Rochesterians who pick up fish fries or shop for meat and seafood are aware of how big a business Palmer’s has become.
Today, says Palmer, “we’re in four segments of the food business. We’re in retail, where we started. We’re in food service distribution. We service about 2,000 active clients (from) the other side of Buffalo to Utica. We’re in redistribution through our G&C company, which goes to 26 states.”
Palmer’s services roughly 1,200 food service distributors and retailers, he adds, sales to restaurants, health care, schools including colleges and universities and casinos. The business sells some 10,000 items from frozen food to dessert, Palmer estimates. Exports is the fourth segment of the business.
“We have an export office in Miami where we ship to 24 countries,” he continues. “We’re considered a broad line distributor. We are on different tiers and each of the tiers is complementary.”
In the early days of working for the family business, Palmer says, “my dad and I didn’t work together. He was afraid that we were both too strong. I was primarily on the operating side and he was primarily on the administrative side.”
Still, he adds, “my father and I basically agreed long term, before G&C, that in order to survive, we couldn’t continue to be a specialty company, we had to expand our product line. We could see what was the beginnings of the Sysco companies and U.S. Food Services, the consolidation of our industry.
“When I came in the industry it was very fragmented. There were meat people; there were fish people; there were grocery people; there were frozen food people; there were people that were in beverage and janitorial. It was extremely fragmented.”
In 1991, Palmer became president of Palmer Food Service. In an industry dominated by players like the $76 billion Sysco and the $35 billion U.S. Food Services, Palmer Food Services is “tiny,” he says.
Thinking about succession
On a day in 1963 just after I graduated high school and was planning to leave for college in the fall, I was working with Bill Bakus. He worked part time at Palmer’s after finishing his afternoon shift at Eastman Kodak. We had just unloaded sacks of clams and wheeled them into the cooler.
As we stood in Pindle Alley, Bakus pointed to the distinctive Kodak Tower looming a few blocks north on State Street and advised me, “that’s where you want to go, you’ll be set for life.”
I did not take his advice. While Kodak’s revenues have fallen from a 1996 peak of $16 billion—$31 billion in 2023 dollars—to less than $1.2 billion last year, Palmer Food Services sales are still rising.
Even after Bud Palmer was diagnosed with cancer in 1989 and given five years to live, and despite his stated desire to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labor, Kip Palmer says his father never completely retired.
Well past his supposed retirement, Bud Palmer from time to time would come in to keep an eye on the growing business. He outlived his doctors’ prognosis by seven years and to the end, his son says, “never complained.”
At 70, Kip Palmer thinks about succession. Though a daughter worked for the company for a time, she no longer does and none of his children have said they would take over the business.
For now, he says, “I plan to work forever.”
Asked if he thinks a family member will succeed him, Palmer replies: “I don’t know, but I will say this: The company will never be sold.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].