In 1988, Mickey Mahaffey proposed not once but twice to his fiancee, Joni. First, he proposed marriage. Then, barely four months after the wedding, he proposed again. This time, he meant business.
Mickey, 37, wanted to start a door-to-door seafood company in Asheville. He had friends in Boston and Washington who were making a good living at it, and he was convinced he could reel in a profit, too.
Joni, 30, was skeptical. So his D.C. buddy drove down a truckload of fish for Mickey to sell as a trial run. He sold 100 pounds of red snapper, shrimp, scallops and other fishy favorites the first day out. "It was a lot of fun," says Mickey, who after 15 years of running Lifestyle Enterprises in Hendersonville was weary of the construction business. "No one expected me to say, Hi, I'm Mickey Mahaffey, and I'm selling seafood.' "
Mahaffey started calling on employees at offices and shops. He figured he could hook increasingly health-conscious workers with the convenience of having seafood delivered right to their desks. And he could undercut prices at supermarkets such as Harris Teeter.
In January 1989, the Mahaffeys launched Seafood Express. They loaded their back-porch freezer with fish bought in 20- to 100-pound cases from wholesalers in...