Catching a Break

Seafood is in high demand by Americans—total consumption rose by 45 million pounds in 2009 over 2008, states the National Fisheries Institute. Restaurants are doing their part to feed the trend, but they’re continually grappling with price, supply, safety and sustainability issues. Despite these challenges, Mintel Menu Insights found that 9 percent more seafood is appearing on menus in 2010 than in 2009. And much of the activity is in appetizers, sandwiches and salads. That makes sense, with food costs up and diners pinching pennies, restaurants can deliver more value by menuing smaller portions. Here are other ways operators are meeting sourcing challenges.

Strategy: Become your own supplier
Jasper White’s Summer Shack, Boston

To assure a consistent supply of top quality seafood, Jasper White founded Shack Foods of America—a wholesale operation that supplies fish to all six Summer Shacks, his catering facilities and about 20 other restaurants. The HACCP-certified operation is headed by Max Harvey, a seasoned seafood buyer who supervises sourcing, cutting and distribution. “We save money through quality control and economy of scale,” notes Harvey. That said, “it hasn’t been an easy time, as prices are high and will remain that way. Plus, freight has gone up consistently over the last year.”

“Seafood prices are the best example of a supply and demand economy,” confirms White. Right now, global demand is high and supply is unpredictable—weather, fishing quotas and other factors are all having an impact. To deal with market fluctuations, White’s menu adapts to the most reasonably priced, highest quality fish of the day. Thursday may be tuna and cod; Friday, swordfish and snapper. But certain items must always appear on the menu. Pan Roasted Lobster, fried clams and oysters and clams on the half shell are Summer Shack signatures, and White buys these in large quantities. “Lobster prices went down for awhile during the recession, but now they’re back up. Even so, we can’t raise menu prices by much because our guests are still on tight budgets.”

While many sustainability advocates are most concerned about overfishing certain species, White feels the big issue is clean water, stating “if it grows in the ocean, I will find a way to cook it.”

Strategy: Seek out sustainable aquaculture
De Rodriguez Ocean, Miami Beach, Florida

Before opening his new seafood restaurant, executive chef Douglas Rodriguez worked closely with his supplier, Florida’s Finest Seafood, to research the best sustainable sources. To get a year-round supply for the 136-seat De Rodriguez Ocean,
he knew he would have to supplement the local and wild supply with farmed species. “Florida’s Finest is one of only six certified sustainable fish suppliers in the U.S., and they helped us choose purveyors from all over the world,” says Rodriguez, adding that the quality and stewardship of aquaculture has improved dramatically.

Guests at De Rodriguez can choose from organic Scottish or Irish salmon, a low-moisture, dense-fleshed fish; sweet Laughing Boy shrimp from Belize, which is cleansed in a purging tank before shipping; Peruvian blue tilapia, a firm, snowy fish totally different from its Asian counterpart; Mediterranean farmed branzino; briny white warm-water clams from Florida; Prince Edward Island mussels; and farmed Kona lobsters. “The hardest part is educating customers on the sustainability of farmed seafood and its higher price tag,” says Rodriguez. He intends to serve simply prepared fish and shellfish a la carte, with a choice of different sauces and sides, steakhouse-style.

De Rodriguez will also feature an extensive raw bar and 15 ceviches, accented with the chef’s signature Nuevo Latino flair.

Strategy: Offer daily blackboard specials
Fish City Grill, Dallas, Texas

Oysters are a big draw at Fish City Grill, and the Gulf spill played havoc on supply. “We’re finally seeing some relief,” reports chief seafood officer Bill Bayne. He’s also sourcing New England and Pacific oysters, as well as Gold Band—a variety that’s
pressure-treated in salt water to kill bacteria and ease shucking. “Our menu features many oyster items, including the best-selling Oyster Nachos,” says Bayne.

He’s noticed that the economy has spurred people to order appetizers as a meal. “Patrons can try new flavor profiles at a lower price,” he explains, “and we get a chance to do ‘market research.’ If something works, we’ll apply it to an entrée.”

The daily chalkboard at each of Fish City’s 23 units accommodates seasonal buys. “The GMs have the liberty to choose several specials of the day at their location,” says Bayne. “About 30 percent of sales come from the chalkboard. These prices are a little higher but still $2 to $3 lower than the competition.” Bayne is able to keep most costs in check by locking in contracts—he’s worked primarily with one distributor since 1991. He buys both wild and farmed seafood; from domestic sources as well as South America and Asia. By dealing with a “supplier with integrity” he knows that “we’re getting a ‘vetted’ seafood supply from well-managed waters and fisheries.”

How to buy now
Smart sourcing means staying on top of seafood trends, the market, supply chain safety and value-added products. Three industry experts share the latest.

Seasonal supply: As fall turns into winter, Pacific waters are yielding an abundance of Dungeness crab, snow crab, halibut, cod and Oregon cold water shrimp, says Bob O’Bryant, marketing director of Pacific Seafood near Portland, Oregon. Ken Talley, editor of Seafood Trend Newsletter out of Seattle agrees that this will be a great season for Dungeness crab. “Although it’s still expensive—around $5.50 per pound compared to $6.25 last year—the crab has more meat and great taste,” he says. The sockeye salmon season is over, but it was a very good catch and there’s lots available—mostly in frozen form, Talley adds. Farmed salmon should be plentiful; Chilean supply is ramping up after last year’s virus, and more is coming in from Norway and Canada. “Salmon prices should be coming down a bit,” notes Talley. That prediction comes on the heels of “shockingly high prices for salmon—up $1 to $2 a pound wholesale,” according to Keith Decker, president of High Liner Foods.

“The best solution to assure supply and keep a lid on costs is to offer a mix,” says Talley. “Fresh and frozen, farmed and wild, imports and domestic.”

After the oil spill: The Gulf crisis has had the most effect on shrimp and oysters. “Even if you’re not buying seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, the oil spill has boosted the price of shrimp,” says Decker. Disease in Indonesia and export problems in Mexico have also diminished supply of farmed shrimp. A shortage of large shrimp from Thailand and increased global competition from Vietnam and China are also pushing up prices, explains Talley. Smaller shrimp are the best buys. “More of the Gulf is now open for fishing, but no one will know the long-term effects until next spring,” he adds. However, Gulf fishermen are now bringing in ample catches of many species.

Aquaculture update: Around 84 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is imported and nearly half of that is produced by aquaculture, according to NOAA. Farmed shrimp alone account for 80 percent of the world’s shrimp supply, reports Pacific Seafood’s O’Bryant, and newer farmed species, like pengasis (Asian catfish) and Vietnamese swai are joining standbys such as salmon and tilapia. While United States aquaculture lags behind that of other countries, activity is ramping up. American catfish and trout, perch from Indiana, Kona kampachi from Hawaii and orange steelhead salmon cultivated in Pacific Seafood’s facility on the Columbia River are some of the “home-grown” species available. And U.S. facilities are raising the bar on standards. “ACC (Aquaculture Certification Council) accreditation is a priority now to guarantee health, safety and sustainability,” explains O’Bryant. “To be certified, facilities must comply with a four-star checkoff program that covers everything from fish feed to plant operations to social responsibility.” Imports are also gaining certification, but some emerging countries are not up to speed. The best advice: know your supplier and check for ACC certification.

News from the sea: Vendors are offering seafood options that fit with today’s trends.
Smaller portions. The award-winning Tilth Restaurant in Seattle offers wild salmon and tuna at dinner in two plate sizes—priced at $16 and $27 accordingly. For more casual places, suppliers including Phillips, Icelandic, Fishery Products (FPI) and Trident are marketing items like seafood sliders, 4- to 6-ounce fillets and value-added appetizers.

Gluten free. Battered and breaded fish and shellfish have not traditionally
fit into gluten-free diets, but the seafood industry is working to fill that void. “It took three years to develop gluten-free battered halibut, cod and haddock that was approved by the Celiac Association but mainstream enough to appeal to people without celiac disease,” says O’Bryant of Pacific Seafood. Italian breaded sole and panko breaded butterfly shrimp are other options in the gluten-free line, which is slated to expand.
New coating systems. Although batters and breadings still rule on value-added products, lighter coatings are the new wave. Boneless pieces of tilapia, cod and salmon with minimal coating are not only healthier, they can be cooked on a flat-top grill in operations that don’t have a lot of back-of-house equipment, notes Decker of High Liner Foods. Products that fit these specs include an herbed rotisserie-roasted pan seared cod and a honey chipotle wild salmon.