Pirie’s First Family of Seafood thrives on as the Chips are done

More than 80 years after the Caputo family name was first associated with Port Pirie seafood the famous business has found a new path to the future – back to basics, hot fish ’n’ chips.

The Main Road seafood supplier, S.D. Caputo and Sons, has been a waterside institution for generations, but a recent decision to dial back the clock with the traditional hot offering has proved a lifesaver though such suddenly challenging covid-19 times.

Managing director Maurie Mezzino, whose great-grandfather Salvatore D. Caputo founded the current business in 1951, is the latest link in a chain stretching back through the city’s Italian heritage.   Salvatore was one of the many fishermen operating out of Port Pire during that period – and decided retailing the local catch could provide a more predictable return for the Pirie fleet.

It’s been a great story in itself, but perhaps not so well-known is that the Caputo name played a vital part in establishing retail seafood as a vital part of Port Pirie life during the Great Depression.

In 1930 one Mr L.M. Caputo established a fish and chip shop at 12 Main Road, Port Pirie, on the site of what is today the local police headquarters.    The precise nature of the family connection is entwined somewhere in the story of immigration from Molfetta which dates back to the 1890s.

Another, Mr S.M. Caputo, opened another fish and chip business at 25 Goode Road, Port Pirie West in 1938.   “S.M.” shared the corner of Fourth Street with a young man of Greek heritage who had moved in from the foothills – a certain Mr Con Polites.   A handsome and ambitious young farmer, Con Polites established “a cash and provisioning market”.   These days they’d probably have called it a grocery.

The first Polites business was soon taken over by the S.M. Caputo “fish-shop” next-door as Con moved on to build his great fortune as one of South Australia’s best-known businessmen.  Both buildings remain, worn but standing, today.

For Maurie, 35, who runs the famous business with wife Tarryn and a seemingly endless and well-established network of family and friends – the term “employees” just doesn’t quite fit –   these ties with local history are a fringe benefit of the business.

He was ready to study Information Technology at university before deferring, then deciding to stay on with the family business which had been run by his father Sebastian.   For one who had grown up working the long hours of a seafood business, it seemed a hard habit to break.

Maurie laughs today, saying the idea of running a takeaway “start-up” from within their long-established and highly regarded fresh-fish business might once have seemed a bit too obvious to contemplate.

Today, with dozens of meals going out the door between 11am and 2pm, he really likes the idea that the newest venture is performing so well in the shadows of successful franchises attached to the largest multi-national fast-food businesses in the world;   McDonalds, Hungry Jacks, Subway and Dominos Pizza are all literally just across the road.

For all the strengths of those super-brands, Maurie reckons there’s a distinct advantage in being so obviously local.

“I think it’s a very Pirie sort of thing, first the convenience of fish and chips… then there’s the cultural side, with fish so important to many of our people being Catholics,” he says.

The business has developed in recent years to delivering to hotels and restaurants throughout the Clare Valley, down along the Yorke Peninsula, to Port Augusta and Whyalla.

“We started the fish and chip thing as a sort of trial in February, and then the restrictions suddenly meant all the hotels and restaurants we did deliveries to had just pretty much shut down,” Maurie recalls, adding they had tried out the “new” line shortly before news of the Covid-19 pandemic broke.

“This little idea, a fryer and doing some chips and cooking our own fish… will it just became a god-send.

The “pick-up” has quickly developed into a weekly ritual for many people in the local community and with the return of tourists Maurie says he is noticing good increases in walk-in sales from travellers.   Those who are attracted by the shop’s reputation often take out kilograms of fresh fish along with a box of hot fish and chips.   The lines of customers waiting outside are more related to the social distancing practices of 2020, but their numbers are increasing overall.

In modern times the old tradition of wrapping the serves up in old newspaper have gone in favour of customised cardboard, but the inter-generational spirit of quick ‘n’ easy fish and chips remains.

At Caputo’s, it’s just like part of the family.

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