In the early 1900s, a young Swede named Claus Wallin immigrated to
America with his family where they established a farm in Indiana. Young Claus,
however, quickly grew tired of farm life. When the Ringling Circus came to town,
teenage Claus seized the opportunity and hopped on the circus train heading south.
When he arrived in Sarasota for the winter with the performers and other roustabouts,
he fell in love with the picturesque little fishing village and with a feisty Indian-Irish
woman named Irene Gallagher. He and Irene were married in 1920, and the young
couple settled to stay in Sarasota.
Irene’s brother, Jessie Gallagher, was the best commercial fisherman at that
time. Jessie fished the waters between Punta Gorda and Sarasota until 1985 and
taught his new brother-in-law, Claus, all there was to know about the local waters.
Claus worked the local waters for the next several decades, pulling in his own nets,
setting his own traps, and selling his catches to the community.
It was this kind of heritage and work ethic that Claus Wallin handed down to
his son, Walter, Sr. By 1941, Walter, Sr. was not only fishing the local waters, but
also was operating a fish market on Whitaker Bayou. World War II
interrupted these activities. After serving his country, Walter, Sr. moved
to Indiana with his wife and two young boys, Walter, Jr. and Tom, and
worked as a railroad worker until the mid “50s.”
Eventually, however, the lure of fishing the bays and bayous of
Sarasota brought Walter, Sr. and his family back to Sarasota. After his
return, Walter, Sr., with money from the GI Bill, opened up the first Walt’s
Fish Market on 4th Street and Osprey Avenue. As he grew older, Tom
began helping his dad with the family business. Young Tom learned the
trade while fishing at night and taking turns opening up the market during
the day. Tom grew up in Sarasota, graduated from Sarasota High School, and
eventually took over the family business from his father, who passed away in 1981.
Tom used to say: “It was a pristine area then and Sarasota was recognized as
a commercial fishing village. I used to fish all night, poling my boat in front of the
Ringling Mansion grounds and the Jungle Gardens looking for schools of mullet and
other fish. All of the fisherman were local then and even though I was just a boy, we
were all friends. I had a few sidelines too. I used to collect rattlesnakes on Siesta Key
and sell them to Texas Jim between $2.00 and $5.00. Texas Jim would use the
rattlesnakes in his traveling snake show.”
“The men who taught me were the real commercial fisherman,” Tom also used
to say. “We worked all day and sometimes all night, year round. Working alongside of
them, I worked the seasons… clams, mullet, scallops, crabs and oysters. We knew all
the little bayous where grouper and snapper were plentiful. The waters were rich and
productive, especially around Vamo Road, Blackburn Point and Siesta Key. We would
get together, sometimes as many as twenty of us, putting out our nets. It was a thrill to
pull them up and see all the varieties of fish. We even caught sharks.”
Walt’s Fish Market thrived from the start. In answer to strong demand, Tom
began frying fish sandwiches for neighboring businesses using a makeshift fryer.
Business became so brisk that Tom soon found he needed a commercial fryer.
Customers were called upon to fold their own carry out cartons. Tom was astonished
at the volume of orders. The original Walt’s Fish Market was quickly outgrown.
As was the case with his father, his country called and, after his graduation
from Sarasota High School in 1965, Tom served a tour of duty in the army. When he
returned in 1967, Tom, again like his father, got a loan under the GI Bill and opened up
a new, larger, fish market and restaurant on US 301 and 6th Street. The market and
restaurant flourished and, again in answer to demand, Tom opened another fish market
and restaurant at 4144 S. Tamiami Trail. Walt’s has remained at this location to the
For several decades, Tom and his wife, Linda, ran the restaurant
and fish market business both at the US 301 and S. Tamiami Trail locations
as well as several other locations. When they were old enough, Tom and Linda’s
children, Tommy, Jr., Brett, and Megan, joined in running the family
business. After graduating from High Point University in 2001, Brett joined
his father in continuing to run the family business. In August, 2006, Tom
succumbed to cancer after a long and valiant fight.
Since then, Brett has not only continued to run the family business,
but also has brought it to greater success than perhaps ever before. Tom
always said that Brett was more like his great grandfather, Claus, than
either he or Walter, Sr. While an astute and enterprising marketer, Brett,
like Claus, prefers fishing the local waters. Just about every day, if you rise
early enough, you will see Brett in his boat heading into the Bay where he
catches the freshest local fish, crabs, and other seafood to sell at Walt’s. Walt’s is the
ONLY Sarasota market and restaurant, and one of few in Florida and the entire country,
to sell you fish and other seafood literally caught the day you buy it.
In 2012, the restaurant and kitchen were totally upgraded and renovated. An
authentic Chickee Bar was also built, adding live music and outdoor dining to what was
already one of Sarasota’s favorite restaurants. On the wall of the Chickee bar hang the
pictures of the four patriarchs of Walt’s: Claus, Walter, Sr. Tom, and Brett. The success
of the market and restaurant is directly attributable to this long heritage, to Walt’s great
and loyal staff, and to the continued support of the area local fisherman whose roots
with the Wallin family have now traversed four generations. These all combine to
guarantee that the quality of fish you buy and consume is the freshest and best you can
get anywhere, at any price.
We hope you enjoyed your time and meal at Walt’s. We look forward to your
future visits. Let us know if we can be of further assistance in making your time at
Walt’s the best ever!
The Wallin Family and crew