PARTNERSHIP: The Sea Merchant owners David and Denise Birney. They opened the Gatton shop in 1995.
PARTNERSHIP: The Sea Merchant owners David and Denise Birney. They opened the Gatton shop in 1995. Lachlan McIvor

Birneys took gamble going from seafront to the country

THEY were told when they first arrived in town that to be considered a Gatton local they would have to be around for 25 years.

Even with a couple of years to hit that mark, the Birneys might be an exception to that rule.

The couple arrived in the region in 1993 and started The Sea Merchant two years later with the aim of bringing fresh seafood into the Lockyer Valley.

Even with plenty of people doubting their decision at the time to shift from the sea to the country, they proudly remain at the helm.

David and Denise are now looking to hand over the business to the third generation of their family to pass through the doors.

They got their start in Hervey Bay having known practically nothing about the industry.

At first they approached fishermen right at the jetty to buy some of what they had just caught and Denise was taught how to properly fillet fish by them, a skill she passed onto her husband.

Crabs they had bought from kids down the road would try and escape back to the beach that was right on the doorstep of their shop.

Upon departing for Toowoomba, with their children and Denise looking to study at university, they would leave behind two thriving shops.

With the kids grown up and out of the nest, the couple then made the move into the Valley with the intention of farming on a 45-acre block of land.

But with a crippling drought, that plan shrivelled up so they started up a seafood shop in Gatton instead.

"We took the gamble,” David said.

"Everybody at that stage said 'oh my god what have you done coming into a little country town, it's not going to work,'” Denise said.

"That was quite a risk we took to bring what we knew to here. Back in those days bringing in fresh fish was a risk.”

But the locals were quickly won over and for many a plate of fish and chips soon became a new staple part of their diet.

The Sea Merchant owners David and Denise Birney.
The Sea Merchant owners David and Denise Birney. Lachlan McIvor

The Birneys' commitment to staying true to tried and tested methods and using fresh fish has seen them remain popular more than two decades later and a one-of-a-kind in the region.

Over the years, cod and chips has always remained the go-to dish.

"That's probably what sells our product, because it's good home cooked stuff.

"They can pick a piece of fish and we'll take it around the back and cook it while they're waiting.

"That's our uniqueness in this day and age.”

David visits the fresh seafood markets in Brisbane every Wednesday morning, leaving home at 2am and returning a few hours later with a full van.

The Sea Merchant's front of house was renovated in the last 12 months and there are plans to re-do the kitchen in the near future.

A particular point of pride for the pair was the amount of young people who they had employed over the years, which they estimated to be over 100.

Some who had gotten their start in the shop had gone on to have their own fish and chip ventures elsewhere, including in Surfers Paradise and Tin Can Bay.

Three of their grand kids - Madison, Jacynta and Jordan - currently work in the shop.

"The grandchildren are showing interest at the moment,” Denise said.

"Whether that comes to fruition I don't know. They love it.

"They've taken over a lot from David and I as we've gotten older.

"It is getting passed down, whether they take it or not is going to be their decision in the end. We've got a couple of years to go yet.”


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