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Aquarist Lodestar

Fish lovers school up 
in a New Jersey store that rivals public aquariums.

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Absolutely Fish, Clifton, NJ

URL: 
absolutelyfish.com; OWNER
: D. Patrick Donston; OPENED 
FEATURED STORE: 2000; YEAR 
FOUNDED:1999; SQUARE FEET: 4,850; EMPLOYEES: 23 full-time, 11 part-time; FACEBOOK: /absolutelyfish; INSTAGRAM: /absolutelyfish


ABSOLUTELY FISH STANDS OUT among the boxy, earth-toned buildings astride U.S. Route 46, with its ocean-themed muraled façade, it beckons commuters that something unique lies within.

Patrick Donston opened his store in 2000, and it’s become a beacon for fish geeks from New York City and North Jersey, hobbyists looking for a wide selection of aquatic livestock, aquacultured coral and name-brand aquarium gear.

Attendees at a recent coral show in New York City, for example, carved out some time to visit Absolutely Fish, with some heard to say that the store’s coral selection surpassed that of the show.

It is this broad selection of aquatic livestock coupled with an exceptionally well-trained and knowledgeable staff that puts Absolutely Fish in a league of its own, Donston believes.

Schools of Fish

When people first walk in Absolutely Fish, what jumps out are the “rows and rows of aquariums filled with different fish” and another 2,500 gallons devoted to corals and coral frags (short for fragments; these reproduce asexually, reducing the need to break wild reefs apart).

“Holy mackerel — pardon my pun — but there’s a lot of fish,” Donston quips.

Absolutely Fish has several themed aquariums and one of the more interesting setups is the CARES (Conservation, Awareness, Recognition, Encouragement and Support) Preservation Program tank. It is a freshwater planted tank that mimics a tropical tributary habitat and is stocked with CARES fish (endangered fish listed at caresforfish.org).

“We were the first CARES store in the United States,” Donston says. “You get the feel right away of what we are about.”

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Getting Schooled

Donston, who describes himself as a teacher at heart, literally wrote the manual — several times over, in fact — on how to develop diamonds in the rough into “professional aquarists.”

“My training protocol has been something that has been developed and worked through over the past 18 years,” he says. “My people are not schooled to be fish slingers. Even if you are a teenager and in high school and working for me part time, I’m schooling you to be a professional aquarist.”

Stores err, Donston explains, by getting hung up hiring only the most experienced people.

“We look for passionate people who love animals. That’s all I care about,” he says. “I’ve got to see the flicker in your eye, the gleam, the smile on your face, and if I can sense that through the interview, I’m going to hire that person.”

Passion is innate; the rest can be taught, and teach it Donston does.

New employees are expected to work through their training manuals methodically; they receive on-the-job training from more seasoned employees.

They often round out the workday by joining Donston for classroom sessions, which include everything from water quality to planted aquaria, compatibility of species, servicing aquariums, talking to clients, customer service and more.

In the end, it all leads to exemplary customer service and high customer satisfaction.

Absolutely Fish provides a platform to “educate and provide services for successful aquatic animal care and captivity” and to “inspire and connect” people “to oceans and freshwater waterways, with an emphasis on conservation.”

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“That’s what I think is truly unique about our service that sets us apart from box stores or from other places,” Donston says.

Environmental Stewards

Donston and his team champion a major aquatic conservation project annually.

The 2015 Nielsen Global Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability found environmental consciousness to be important for about three out of four millennials and more than half of boomers when considering a business to shop at.

“Every year, we try and get behind something and put our money where our mouth is,” Donston says.

That might include $15,000 raised to track hammerhead sharks in the Caribbean, or $20,000 for a reef ball in the Turks and Caicos.

“People like to support us because they say, ‘You might be a little more, but I know you are trying to do things for the environment.’”

Other projects include $15,000 to the Great Bay Terrapin Project to build fences along the Jersey Shore to keep endangered terrapins (a brackish water turtle) from getting run over.

For its work, Absolutely Fish was granted a special permit to display an endangered terrapin in one of its tanks for educational purposes only.

“We are the only store in New Jersey that actually has a Great Bay terrapin,” Donston says.

Three steps in the door and even the most jaded aquarist will be hooked on Absolutely Fish.

PHOTO GALLERY (13 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Absolutely Fish

1. EARLY INSPIRATION: As a child of the 1970s, Donston got his early inspiration from television naturalists Jacques Cousteau and Marlin Perkins, hosts of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

2. PAINTING THE TOWN: The eye-catching mural of an Indo-Pacific reef adorning the front exterior of Absolutely Fish was designed and painted by Johnny Vega, an artist and longtime Absolutely Fish customer.

3. LOCAL LIVESTOCK: Absolutely Fish captive produces more than 60 species of hard and soft corals, four species of clownfish, 25 species of freshwater fish and live foods at its 5,000-square-foot aquaculture facility in nearby Paterson. “We believe in harvesting locally, reducing emissions with less shipping of wild-collected fauna,” Donston says.

4. INCENTIVIZED LEARNING: All the younger staff own home fish tanks, which they are encouraged to have so they can learn about keeping fish. An employee incentive program called “Rico rupels,” named after the manager who started it, allows employees to earn faux currency that can be used for in-store purchases, used tanks and equipment, and lunch or gift cards.

5. TO A “T”: Absolutely Fish began its Midnight Madness sale in 2000; the event grew in popularity to where the line wrapped around the building and the wait to get in topped two hours. In 2013, the name was abbreviated to MM sale, as it outgrew its midnight slot and became a daytime event on Saturday and Sunday. Each MM sale is immortalized with a T-shirt; coincidentally, the MM sale for 2018 is MMXVII — the Roman numerals for 2018 — which appear on this year’s shirt.

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ONLINE EXTRA: Q&A with Patrick Donston

Most significant mentor and why:
Rick Preuss of Preuss Pets (Lansing, MI). He truly operates a Pet Shop the way we should all be doing it; with integrity, passion, compassion for the animals, and respect for his team and all who works with him. He is a true level 5 leader.

Favorite Business Book:
It’s Not What You Sell; It’s What You Stand For by Roy Spence Jr.

Favorite Book:
The Dragon Behind The Glass by Emily Voigt

Advice for a new store owner:
Don’t do it to get rich, do it to become enriched.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally?
Part ways with a manager of eight years.

Favorite Film:
Philomena

Best vacation ever:
Bay of Fundi, Big Sur California Drive, and Ireland — Connemara

Favorite job at work that doesn’t involve customers:
Conducting classes on fish keeping to my new employees

If I weren’t a pet business owner, I’d be:
A spiritual adviser

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