Rent-A-Fish makes sure aquarium owners and dwellers stay happy

Capitalism — A Fish Story: The troubled economic waters of recent months have tested large and small businesses nationwide and even churned up doubts about the free market system. Monsters of the deep such as AIG have floundered, and big fish such as Lehman Brothers have beached themselves and died.

So the fact that a locally owned enterprise called Rent-a-Fish is getting along swimmingly comes as reassuring news.

Aquaman: Bryan Jones is the owner, operator and full-time staff of Rent-a-Fish Aquarium Leasing and Maintenance Specialists, a Lexington company that has customers from Florence to Morehead.

Jones designs, supplies and maintains everything — including the fish — for a healthy ecosystem that is soothing for inhabitants and tank-gazers. That means he's part chemist, part biologist, part glass scrubber, part fish whisperer and part artist. He also pre-measures daily food portions, which makes him part Jenny Craig.

Economies of scale: Jones didn't originate Rent-a-Fish. It started in Lexington in 1980 with a man named Mike Adams. Jones first stuck his fin in the business in 1984, when it was attached to a retail pet store in Regency Centre. He stayed with the company through a move to Moore Drive and bought it in 2000.

However, "the retail end didn't support itself," he says, so in 2005 he decided to focus full-time on service. "That breathed a lot of life into the business."

In water quality, he has a pH D.: To get a better idea of Jones' work, it's necessary to meet him where he's fishtending that day — it could be a waiting room, lobby, restaurant, hospital or home.

On a recent morning, it was the Cheddar's off Tates Creek Road. As the restaurant was getting ready to open, he could be found on a ladder next to the 500-gallon tank between the bar and dining area, equipped with a long vacuum hose and cleaning supplies.

Every two weeks he replaces "no less than one-third of the water," checks that the pH is at 7.5 and the temperature a comfortable 76 degrees.

He uses fast-acting neutralizers on the fresh water to counteract the chemicals and a heavy-duty magnetized scrubber to clean the inside and outside of the glass at the same time.

"Kids go crazy over the fish," he says, and they leave plenty of fingerprints behind as evidence. Jones also assesses the big picture through the plate-glass sides to reassure himself that everyone inside is happy.

"My ancestors were from Lake Malawi, but I was born and raised in Cheddar's": The tank at the Tates Creek Cheddar's has about 50 residents, large and small, striped and solid. Most are African cichlids of different ages.

"When they're little, they're striped to be able to hide. As they grow bigger, they get color for breeding," Jones says. "Many of these fish were born in here."

Jones makes sure they don't get too crowded and start bickering. When personality issues surface, it can lead to "wounds that won't heal." Before that happens, he'll ask for volunteers to go to new tanks in homes or pet stores.

African cichlids, besides being attractive, are "much more intelligent than you might realize," he says.

Stress tests: Jones doesn't have favorites among the fish. "When I create the right environment, each species works to fulfill its niche within it. Then, the fun of watching them busily acting out their instinctive behaviors begins."

His mission is to prevent his aquatic charges from feeling stressed: "It's our responsibility to assist these animals to a thriving level, nutritionally and psychologically."

Moving fish is always a challenge because of the changes in water temperature. Ice storms and long-term power outages can be "a catastrophe of biblical proportions," he recalls, with a trace of a shudder. In 2003, "I spent most of my days and nights rescuing fish. But in many cases, there was very little you could do."

Rescue me: The majority of Jones' customers are commercial, but he has developed a residential fan base, too. Word-of-mouth draws new clients: Usually "they need to be rescued," he says, from dingy water and despondent fish. Praise for his services bubbles up: "My tank has become a showpiece with beautiful, healthy fish," says Herald-Leader restaurant reviewer Wendy Miller, whose job it is to be critical.

From water to wine: Aquariums aren't Jones' only realm. He also handles terrariums and maintains retail lobster tanks, but that's another story with a very different ending. As a sideline, he works as a consultant to area vineyards. "Winemaking goes hand-in-hand" with his understanding of water and pH measurements, he says.

Between building ecosystems that are both thriving and aesthetically pleasing, and helping produce better wines, Jones says, he's been able to nicely merge his studies at the University of Kentucky, where his majors were biology and fine arts.

Which medium back then was his favorite?