Make the most of your seafood $$$

Sure, you want to source sustainably, offer top quality and variety and keep your food costs in line. These strategies can help.

•Buy from National Fishery Institute members. The NFI’s Economic Integrity Initiative requires its 400 members to commit to a set of fair business practices. These include truth in labeling as to country of origin, weights and counts (no overglazing fish with an extra coating of ice) and identity of species (no substituting one species for another.) The newly formed Better Seafood Bureau oversees and enforces the standards.

•Work with your purveyor to hook specials. Farmed fish generally come in at a gentler wholesale price, but wild species can be good buys when they’re running. At Fish City Grill, an 18-unit seafood concept based in Dallas, the regular menu offers mostly farm-raised fish while the chalkboard specials are primarily wild varieties. “This mix allows us more flexibility,” says founder Bill Bayne. “We can buy what is available in just the right amounts and don’t have to price our items too high.”

•Buy local, if possible. Restaurants near the coasts can get good deals buying direct from day-boat fishermen, but even Midwest locations, like Shaw’s in Chicago, puts local lake fish such as yellow perch, whitefish and walleye pike on the menu in season.

•Arrange a frequent delivery schedule. Many high-end restaurants get daily deliveries along with frequent fed-ex packs of exotic fish from as far away as New Zealand. But casual places with more mainstream demands can get the same deal by working with a trusted supplier. Fish City Grill eliminates waste and assures freshness with deliveries six days a week from nearby Fruge’s Seafood in Dallas.

•Consider frozen. “Technological advances and product care—from harvest to processing and storage—have improved dramatically,” claims Bret Lynch, corporate chef for Ocean Beauty, a Seattle seafood supplier. He adds that frozen offers the benefits of consistency, overhead controls, customization and locked-in pricing. Choose IQF for best quality.

•Don’t purchase on price alone. Custom-cut fillets and value-added products with on-trend flavor profiles may cost a bit more, but they save on labor costs and can improve margins.

•Lock in contracts. To assure continuity of supply and consistency on your menu, work with at least one large vendor. Bigger seafood suppliers or specialty fish distributors have more buying clout and can be flexible about locking in prices. Some restaurants lock in for individual specs, such as catfish or shrimp, if an across-the-board annual contract is not possible.

Where are prices headed?

Ask most operators and they’ll tell you the cost of seafood has gone through the roof. “We’re surrounded by water and we’re still paying top dollar,” says Michael La Scola, chef-owner of American Seasons in Nantucket. “I can only imagine what’s happening in the Midwest.” Quotas on ocean-caught fish, the effects of weather and the popularity of seafood in restaurants are all jacking up prices. “Fish is a lot more reliant on supply and demand than other proteins,” La Scola adds.

Even so, the supply/demand curve has remained pretty steady over the last year, notes Robert Santangelo, market news reporter with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Stocks in the Southeast are recovering nicely after the 2005 hurricanes and the Atlantic coast is showing only moderate fluctuations. In fact, the U.S. supply of fish fillets and steaks was at its highest in 2006, the last year for which data was collected. But prices are trending higher for most species, regardless of availability.

The burgeoning aquaculture industry is helping to boost supply and control drastic price fluctuations. Over the last decade, farm-raised seafood products have grown from a relatively small portion of total U.S. seafood imports to become the dominant source for certain fish, according to an April, 2007, report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Tilapia experienced the greatest surge—imports were up 17 percent in 2006 over the previous year. The ERS predicts that aquaculture imports should continue to face an expanding market through 2007 as the prices for competing proteins (meat and poultry) are forecast to go higher. As of this writing, there’s little evidence that China’s export limitations are having an effect on supply or prices, but that could change if the FDA’s directive remains in place. It might be an opportune time for American catfish, tilapia and salmon farmers to get a bigger piece of the foodservice market.

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