It is not uncommon for a person to spin a hobby into a successful business. However, it is highly uncommon for a person to take that route and then go further by creating and simultaneously running three retail businesses. But for Susan Hickey, it’s just another day at work at Captain’s Cove in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport.
Hickey’s unlikely odyssey began in a decidedly nonbusiness setting.
“About eight years ago I was part of a volunteer program at my daughter’s school with the Audubon Society,” she recalled. “The program was called CANE — Connecticut Audubon Nature Explorers — and it was designed to learn about the salt marsh. So, we set up a tank in class with salt water from Long Island Sound and went about catching creatures for the tank.”
Hickey’s travels along the Fairfield County shoreline clicked on an artistic inspiration and she began to collect shells, bones and rocks and arrange them into word signs. She also used similar materials to create miniature tiaras for the girls in her daughter’s class.
“From there, it just branched out,” she added.
In 2012, Hickey and a friend partnered in opening A Shore Thing as a small retail shop on the Captain’s Cove boardwalk that offered her handmade signs and other products with a maritime theme. After four years, Hickey’s partner bowed out and she took over the business, branching out into offering pirate-inspired merchandise and aquatic-inspired games, apparel and gifts ranging from jewelry to dried Philippine porcupine fishes.
“My oldest daughter is into aquaculture and created Santa Claus ornaments made from oyster clams and original paintings inside clam shells,” she said, referring to 17-year-old Charlotte Hickey, who also creates and sells original tie-dyed T-shirts with designs celebrating the aquatic life of the world’s oceans and seas. Earlier this year, A Shore Thing expanded into catering, with raw bar delicacies to be served at weddings, corporate events and holiday parties.
“We took an old Optimist sailboat and converted it into a raw bar,” Hickey said. “It can be set up either inside or outside.”
In 2014, as Hickey was taking solo ownership of A Shore Thing, she also took over the vacant retail space next door and opened Candy by A Shore Thing, which offers snacks that are rarely seen in traditional grocery or candy retailers.
“We have candy cigarettes, bubble gum cigars, gummy noodles that look like Chinese food,” she said. “There is also edible paper and ink. You can write whatever you want and eat your words — literally.”
Also prominent at Candy by A Shore Thing is a Ms. Pac Man machine. This 1980s entertainment is mostly ignored today by younger visitors who were not born when game arcades were ruled by oversized machinery.
“Not that many people play it,” Hickey said, adding with a frown, “Everyone plays on their phone now.”
Earlier this year Hickey learned that the owner of Seaport Sundae School, the food retail business next to Candy by A Shore Thing, was planning to retire. Recognizing the outlet’s popularity with the Captain’s Cove visitors, Hickey made an offer and acquired the business, renaming it Tabitha’s Ice Cream Classics after a friend’s dog.
“My friend Jack Van Sant and I completely gutted, renovated, fixed and took over,” she said, offering both traditional flavors and pop-culture-inspired novelties, including the Bye Bye Miss America Pie Shake, the Baby Shark Kids’ Sundae and Game of Cones.
As Hickey’s operations have expanded, she has ingratiated herself with the Captain’s Cove retailers and the site’s restaurant with a marketing tool designed to inspire the youngest visitors. “My oldest daughter created a pirate treasure map,” she said. “She drew every building with dotted lines and handed it out in the kids’ meals.”
Retailing at Captain’s Cove is mostly seasonal and waves of customers ebb and flow according to various times of the day — the after-dinner crowd is often vibrant and the students from the neighboring Sailaway Sailing School also stop by when classes have anchored. Hickey found the Captain’s Cove experience to be “very fun, but very challenging also, mainly because of the weather. Last year was so rainy.”
As for taking over additional outlets, Hickey made it clear that was not happening. “This is enough,” she said. “Three shops, two kids — I think I’m all set.”