The mother-daughter team of Virginia Oden Hardesty and Ashley Hardesty Armstrong, owners of Forsyth Seafood Market & Café,’ share their passion for seafood with the Triad community. “We are passionate, consistent, and love our community.” This message comes across loud and clear from these business leaders who have built a legacy of bringing happiness to their customers through more than simply great food.
Virgina and her late husband Charles started this family business over 37 years ago. Originally from Beaufort, NC, where they learned about the seafood business from their family, Virginia and Charles moved to Winston-Salem after graduating from North Carolina A & T and Elizabeth City State University, respectively. Though successful in corporate America, they made the brave decision to “go with what you know” and try their hand at running a seafood market. They grew Forsyth Seafood from a weekend truck outside Cook’s Flea Market to the current market and 100-seat restaurant on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. As the business grew, the Hardesty family made sure the community grew with them. They assisted members of the community who desired a college education, served on multiple community development boards, mentored those trying to start a small business, and were active in their church.
The Hardestys passed on their business talents and love of community to their daughter Ashley who is a co-owner and works in the family business. Ashley joined in 2014 after working in the textile industry in Charlotte, where she applied her degree from North Carolina State University in fashion textile management. “You should love what you do,” says Virgina, and Ashley did not love threading textile machinery, so she returned home to discover that she loved helping bring innovative ideas to Forsyth Seafood. She graduated from Johnson and Wales culinary school in 2018 and completed a prestigious internship at Kindred, the award-winning restaurant in Davidson, NC. Ashley uses her culinary talents and experience in marketing to expand the business model of Forsyth Seafood. They now have a food truck that frequents the Cobblestone Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, as well as visits to breweries and food pop-ups. She has strengthened their social media presence and visibility across the Triad. Virginia, armed with an MBA from Wake Forest University, and Ashley, garnering marketing and culinary degrees, have big plans for expansion. Heinz X Lee Initiative recently awarded this team with a $20,000 grant to explore potential retail products and distribution models for dishes like their Eastern NC gumbo & seafood breaders.
While several small businesses suffered during the Covid pandemic, Forsyth Seafood never closed, except for holidays. Virginia’s motto, “from street people to the judge,” reflects the love and respect they have for all of their customers. Their customers are shown respect and are considered blessings. The customers returned that love and support during the pandemic. “We all have more similarities than differences,” says this dynamic duo who lift up every customer with a kind word and a plate of NC seafood.
Small business owners face financial challenges, especially in the food industry, but Virginia and Ashley face the additional challenges of being business leaders, female and African American. The food industry is a male dominated business arena and diverse female business owners are rare. “It takes longer for us to prove ourselves and get recognized for excellence.” Their consistent goal of making customers feel important has helped to overcome the challenges of achieving success as African American entrepreneurs. Their passion for the community will help their customers overcome the challenges of finding joy while living through a pandemic. Some of their most popular menu items include the shrimp burger, oyster burger, and Eastern NC coleslaw that requires five hundred pounds of hand-chopped cabbage per week. Now that is dedication to making other people happy!