Ed Fox has traded in his blue-jean overalls for a dark business suit, giving the boot to a still-thriving family business that helped churches and other organizations raise money for 22 years.
“People are in shock. But it was time. I never had a weekend free,” said Fox, whose fish fries served an estimated 50,000 people a year - until he abruptly ended the business this week because of soaring fish prices and a desire to serve people in a different way.
Instead of frying fish in the back of his customized bus, Fox will now help wife Kathy run the Tom Mungovan Funeral Home at 2221 S. Calhoun St. She will be the funeral director and Ed will assist customers with pre-death planning. The couple may buy the home in the future if all goes well, he said.
All went well for Fox's fish business, too - except for recent dramatic increases in the cost of Alaskan pollock that threatened to price him out of business in any case.
“Last year a lot of churches went up $2 per person, to $7 or $8 (for a fish dinner), and I just didn't think it could go to $10,” he said.
His decision - which he announced on his answering machine Monday - caught many of his friends and customers by surprise.
“I didn't even find out until after the Sunday service,” said the Foxes' priest, the Rev. Phillip Widmann of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Fort Wayne, which had planned to host a Fox fish fry in February. “This will surprise a lot of people, but he's got to do what he thinks is right.”
“How are we going to get through Lent?” asked Vince LaBarbera, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
Fortunately, this is Advent, not Lent, so people and organizations addicted to Fox's flaky fish - and the money it generated for their organizations - still have time to make other plans. “I've called 80 people so far, and I just want to thank everyone for their support in the past,” he said.
Fox catered his first fish fry in 1986 at the now-closed St. Andrew's Catholic Church on New Haven Avenue. People from other parishes liked the food so much word began to spread. As his business grew, so did his menu, as he added chicken tenderloins, pork chops, potato wedges and other items.
Candy Boneff, a member of the social committee at St. Peter's, called the loss of its annual Fox fish fry “the end of an era” for a church that used it not as a fundraiser but as a social gathering.
With Fox gone, St. Peter's and all the rest will have to prepare the food themselves or find someone else to do it.
Bill Schultz, manager of Nelson's catering in Fort Wayne, expects his business to be a logical alternative. About half his business comes from the kind of fund-raising events Fox served.
“This is a hard business, and it can wear you down. We may have been cutting into his business already, with people getting away from fried foods in favor of healthier things,” said Schultz, whose company is known for its “Port-a-Pit” chicken.”
Nonsense, Fox said. “Our numbers were up last year, and we made a good living at it. But I gave (the prices) a year, and it didn't seem like that was going to change.” So Fox, who already has his pre-need funeral license, decided he'd change instead.
He'll try to sell the famous Fox bus, Widmann said. So there's no going back. No looking back, either, as far as Fox is concerned.
And so passes another small piece of what makes Fort Wayne unique. We've had Fox fish fries at my church, and the choreography is almost as impressive as the food. Volunteers prepare much of the food, but Fox prepares the fish in the bus, with people running back and forth trying to keep up with demands for second helpings. And thirds.
But new traditions replace old ones, and I can't blame Fox for trading long, hot, hard hours in the back of a bus for the relative comfort of a funeral home where the customers never complain.
Not that I ever heard a bad word about his fish, either.
You could say it was to die for.