Celebrating Cortez’s Iconic A.P. Bell Fish Co.

For more than 100years, the A.P. Bell Fish Co. has been a mainstay in the historic, yet very much still functioning, fishing village of Cortez. The company, located on the northern edge of the Sarasota Bay, has been buying local seafood here and selling it throughout the state and around the world ever since it first opened in 1923. Which means, if you love a fresh grouper sandwich, some briny smoked mullet, meaty stone crabs, or any of Florida’s other seafood delicacies, then there’s a good chance you’ve got this family business to thank! Discover its history and influential role in preserving Cortez’s rich heritage.

Celebrating Cortez's Iconic A.P. Bell Fish Co.

The Bell Family Lands in Cortez

The A.P. Bell Fish Co. was started by Aaron Parx Bell in 1923, but that’s not where this story begins. To truly do it justice, we have to go back to the late 1800s, when the Bell family and several other families moved to Cortez from Carteret County, North Carolina. They sought refuge from the Atlantic’s frequent hurricanes and found much to like in Cortez, from the protection of the barrier islands to the excellent fishing along the shore.

Humble Beginnings, Successful Business

At the time of the move, Aaron Bell was only five years old. Naturally, he grew up by the docks and learned to fish. Eventually he met his wife, Jessie Fulford, whose family was also part of the great Carteret County migration. By the time they married in 1920, Aaron owned quite a bit of property in the area, and he received more as a gift from his in-laws. In 1923, he decided to go out on his own and the A.P. Bell Fish Co. was born.

The original fish house was small, just a basic, camping-like structure over the water—certainly not an indicator of how well the business did. Back then, they fished inshore along the beach and in the bays and rivers, using 20–30-foot gill nets (no longer permitted today). Much of what they caught went to Tampa, where they sent it to customers up north by rail. The company also shipped a great deal of seafood to Cuba.

Keeping Things in the Family

Aaron and Jessie’s seven children were no strangers to the fish house. Many learned the ropes and even became fishermen, including Walter Bell, who was told by his family–in so many words–to take the helm or the company closes.

Walter officially started running A.P. Bell in 1960. While he followed his father’s proven business model, he charted his own course, too, which would be key to its success. He built an offshore fleet, diversifying the company’s catch to include other seafood like swordfish and shrimp—a strategy that kept the business afloat when gill nets were banned in 1995. He also built a new, bigger fish house and installed a 3-million-pound freezer (yep, you read that right!) to allow the company to be prepared for unpredictable seasons.

But perhaps one of Walter Bell’s best business decisions wasn’t his decision at all—and one that took some convincing to get on board with. That is, of course, when his own daughter, Karen Bell, told him she wanted to join the family business. Karen remembers, “He didn’t think it was a good idea. He thought it was a man’s world—thought regulatory was getting more and more difficult [and] probably that it was too hard.”

This was back in 1986. Karen had just received her business administration in marketing degree from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and had a job offer from IBM, where she had interned. But she missed her hometown of Cortez, the friendly people, and the casual way of doing things. “Honestly, I didn’t want to wear a suit every day. It sounds ridiculous, but I didn’t,” says Karen.

Celebrating Cortez's Iconic A.P. Bell Fish Co.

A Lasting Legacy in Cortez

And thank goodness she didn’t! Today, Karen runs A.P. Bell Fish Co., which she became manager of after her dad passed in 2012. In addition to the fish house, Karen also owns and operates Star Fish Company, the neighboring seafood market and dockside restaurant she purchased in 1996. A founding member of FISH Cortez (Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage) and part owner of a few other area businesses, she’s passionate about maintaining Cortez and its fishing culture that impacts so many. “I always think it’s very cool [how far] this little fishing village reaches. What these fishermen and women do literally feeds the world … I like being part of that.”

Want even more of the story? Next time you’re in town, be sure to visit the Florida Maritime Museum for a deeper dive and pictures chronicling the company over the years. Of course, don’t forget to swing by Star Fish Company for some incredibly fresh seafood!