Building a business, and a life, around a bivalve
By Doreen Leggett
In the 1990s, a lot of clams landed in Chatham and Domenic Santoro remembers a young guy coming to Barn Hill Landing with a pick-up truck, ice box on the back.
“He was in his early 20s, wicked high energy, wicked charismatic,” Santoro said. “Matt would come hooting and hollering down the dock: ‘Come on brother, you have to sell me your clams!’ He was always emotionally invested.”
Matt is Matt Rocheleau. Fast-forward 25 years, he owns a retail and wholesale business in Falmouth called The Clam Man, delivers to scores of restaurants with a fleet of trucks, has close to two dozen employees and a presence on the Boston Fish Pier.
“He has hustled,” said Santoro, who that morning sold Rocheleau mussels to put in his glass retail case. “He definitely stepped up to the plate and made it work.”
On a raw spring day Rocheleau was at The Clam Man in East Falmouth while his daughter Taylor worked the counter, and son Marc dealt with shellfish orders. He greeted those coming in the front and back doors.
“Thanks brother,” he’d say cheerily as Styrofoam boxes of fish wheeled past him.
Rocheleau still takes his family business personally.
“Wicked family business,” he laughed as he picked up his infant grandson, who was visiting with his oldest daughter.
His wife Sue has been doing the books for decades, and his two youngest “coming into the business has been my greatest pleasure,” he said, “the biggest accomplishment.”
Rocheleau has bought from many fishermen for decades; you could call them extended family. He had just spent $17 a pound on local scallops when he could have bought them for $12.60 from the mid-Atlantic, but no way are they as good.
“It’s about getting the best fish I can buy,” he said.
Willy Hatch, who owns Machaca Charters out of Falmouth, is one of the fishermen he works with; when Hatch isn’t busy with charters he’ll move tuna, haddock, fluke and striped bass.
“If we come in with a couple of big-eye tuna from the canyons he’ll put it on social media,” Hatch said.
Most telling, when Hatch wants to buy fish for his own table, he goes to The Clam Man:
“His stuff is the highest quality.”
Rocheleau also works hard at getting quality fish from around the globe, swordfish from Ecuador, Hawaii and other far-flung locales. He sends a truck to the Boston Fish Pier six days a week for whatever his customers ask for.
“That’s my favorite hobby. I get to talk to people all over the world,” he said.
He goes through 20 swordfish a week in the winter and about 60 in summer.
Rocheleau said it isn’t unusual for him to make deliveries, cook lobsters for retail orders and even wash dishes, “whatever it takes to make this business work.”
One of the reasons he stepped away from being on the water was because his retail and wholesale business began to mushroom. But Rocheleau was the Clam Man long before he opened his shop.
He moved to Falmouth when he was 10, before that coming summers with family to fish and dig for clams on Great Pond.
“I was always on the water, clamming, oystering, eeling back in the day,” he said.
Like many Cape Cod kids in the 1970s he had his own skiff and met some commercial clammers one day.
They wanted a ride from one side of the pond to the other and paid him a little money. After a few rides they showed him how to clam more effectively.
“With a toilet plunger,” he said with a smile. “And a chicken wire basket.”
He sold clams that first day and made $20 or $30, so along with his paper route had a side business. Rocheleau kept selling through high school and when he graduated, figured he’d start his own.
He had a truck and opened his first shop, bought a shed in East Falmouth for a few hundred dollars. It was state-inspected with a concrete pad, hose, and ice box. He’d weigh clams shellfishermen brought in and pay them right then. Afternoons and evenings he’d make deliveries.
Rocheleau went to Lance Shinkle (famous for carving and painting the carousel in Falmouth) to put the business name on his truck, but he didn’t have a business name yet. Shinkle suggested using his last name, but Rocheleau thought it sounded too much like a real estate company.
So they went with his nickname, The Clam Man.
In the early years, Rocheleau spent most of the year clamming and selling clams, winters making snow and skiing in New Hampshire.
He met his wife Sue in 1992, and with two kids to support he threw himself into the clam business, bought a house in Chatham later that year, and began picking up clams to wholesale.
Those were busy clam years, 250 bushels a day to Ipswich Clam and other buyers. There were other buyers too, paying a bit more than the fish companies in town. Many credit Rocheleau and others with making clamming a year-round business.
Regulations changed and he graduated to a refrigerated truck in 1997.
“Before that I used to keep clams in my town house refrigerator,” he said.
Rocheleau remembers those days and the shellfishermen fondly.
“Those are all good, stand up-dudes,” he said. “Great work ethic.”
During those years he bought a conch and sea bass permit, as well as lobster. He also bought his current location on Boxwood Circle in West Falmouth, with a retail component.
It became clear that he couldn’t fish and pay attention to his growing retail operation, and his growing family. So he sold his permits and concentrated on retail and wholesale. This year he put in another freezer, solely for shellfish.
With a long history, Rocheleau does get frustrated that the town doesn’t invest in the wild fishery or aquaculture. Fishermen come in and complain, and it bothers him.
“The older guys, they’ll fight for the younger guys,” Rocheleau said, worrying it’s a losing battle. “Local shellfishermen need more support.
“They won’t even fish on Saturdays. They can’t get a spot at the landings. Falmouth does not cater to commercial fishermen at all.”
Some businesses still do. Rocheleau has delivered to the Chart Room in Cataumet for decades.
“We bought steamers from him when he was a high school kid,” said owner Tom Gordon. “He started coming to the back door. You can’t get any fresher.”
Customers appreciate the variety and local catch, but most of them shop at The Clam Man themselves, Gordon said:
“He’s self-made. It’s been a great relationship. He is just a nice, nice guy.”