The Fisher King

By Kris Frieswick | Boston Magazine |

ROGER BERKOWITZ AND HIS BROTHERS, Marc and Richard, were raised in Waltham and Lexington, but they grew up in a fish shop: Legal Cash Market in Inman Square. The store was a family business, run by Roger’s grandfather Harry and father, George, and it functioned as young Roger’s summer job, his afterschool activity, and his hobby.

But when it came time for college, Roger decided to study journalism. So off he went to Syracuse University, where he hosted his own radio news show. After graduating, Berkowitz returned home with the intention of working for a couple of years in the family’s restaurant — which had grown out of the fish market — before embarking on a media career. Nearly 40 years later, he’s still at Legal.

In 1992, George announced that he was passing the leadership of Legal Sea Foods to Roger, not Marc, who had also spent his life working for the company. The move set off an epic family battle (which was featured prominently in a 1997 article in this magazine) despite the years of preventative family therapy and professional transition counseling that led up to it. Marc eventually left the company and then sued for the portion of the restaurant chain he felt he was owed. The suit was settled out of court in 1998, and the rift these days has largely been repaired, though general counsel and family friend Rich Heller says, “Those relationships will never be the same.” A nondisclosure agreement from the settlement has kept the Berkowitzes out of the media ever since — all except for Roger, that is.

Berkowitz has placed himself in Legal’s radio and TV ads for decades — owing, perhaps, to his broadcasting experience — and made himself into the face of Legal Sea Foods. When he’s not using that soapbox to frustrate T drivers or agitate the eco-community, Berkowitz uses it to enhance Legal’s “fresh fish” reputation, which happens to be another of his personal obsessions.

“There were always buyers that weren’t quite as particular as Roger,” says James Kendall, who was a scalloper off New Bedford for 32 years and these days is a seafood-inspection consultant. He remembers Berkowitz as one of the only buyers who actually used to come to the docks to check out the catch before he bought. “Our product had to be handled really well, or else they wouldn’t accept it,” Kendall recalls. “Roger was the final handler of the fish. He wanted to know everything about its history.” Which, Kendall acknowledges, earned Berkowitz a reputation as a mighty pain in the ass. Not that he cared. “Roger got noticed for being that way,” Kendall says. “Once he raised the standards, everyone else had to follow.”