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Tips for buying shellfish

In this year of rising food costs, the good news is… shellfish don’t eat grain.

While the high price of feed is maxing out everything from chicken to steak to cheese, it’s not affecting shrimp, lobster, crabs, oysters, clams and mussels. But fishermen and seafood suppliers have their own worries right now in escalating fuel prices.

“It costs a large shrimp-processing vessel $150,000 to fill up with diesel before heading offshore to fish,” says Eddie Gordon, executive director of Certified Wild American Shrimp. “It’s a major investment just to go out, so you have to make sure the shrimp are there.” Day-boat fishermen with smaller boats currently shell out about $1,200 for fuel—an amount that is keeping some of them on dry land. Lobstermen, crabbers and shrimpers are all in the same boat, which means less product and top prices if fuel continues to run high.

Operators with shellfish-heavy menus are finding various ways to cope with this challenge and others. Listen to what they have to say.

Two Urban Licks
Atlanta, Georgia
Strategy: Fill in with frozen

Wild American shrimp cost $2 a pound more than imported Chinese shrimp, but “it feels good to help out the local economy,” says Cameron Thompson, executive chef. The product comes out of warm Southern waters—white shrimp from the Gulf, brown shrimp from Texas and pink shrimp off Florida. Around 70 percent are caught between August and November by freezer boats and 95 percent is frozen at sea.

“I prefer buying fresh shrimp, but the season is very short,” explains Thompson. Concentrics, his restaurant’s parent company, has an annual contract to buy the frozen shrimp in bulk; the shellfish is stored in central warehouses operated by Wild American Shrimp, Inc. and he gets deliveries as he needs them. Thompson tries to stay as local as possible to avoid shipping costs. He stopped using mussels because transportation was becoming prohibitive. Instead, he’s focusing on clams and oysters that come from Florida. “High prices are forcing us to be more creative about sourcing,” he notes.

Redfish Grill
New Orleans, Louisiana
Strategy: Multiple vendors for a steady supply

“We are fortunate to be in a place where shellfish rules our seasonal calendar; we speak of shrimp, crab, crawfish and oysters the way other people say fall, spring, winter and summer,” says Rich Krumm, purchasing manager. His proximity to the Gulf makes it possible to source all local seafood and work directly with fishermen and area purveyors. “A shrimper will call from his boat to tell me he has 300 pounds that can be on my doorstep the next day.” Even so, Krumm doesn’t close the door to distributors and is careful to partner with many purveyors to maintain his inventory. Everything from weather to holidays celebrated by Asian and Hispanic processing plant employees can interrupt the supply.

“Right now, I have one vendor whose focus is shrimp, another for crawfish and third and fourth for crab and oysters,” explains Krumm. Most of the catch is wild, but the crawfish and oysters are cultivated. Although Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage in and around New Orleans, it actually was cathartic for the waters; the storm attracted more fish. But numerous fishing boats were destroyed and the fleet has not yet recovered. “There’s enough shellfish out there but not enough boats to get it, sometimes leaving restaurants short,” he claims.

Phillips Seafood Restaurants
Baltimore, Maryland
Strategy: Global sourcing

In addition to running restaurants in every segment, Phillips owns a company that harvests, processes and ships seafood. “From water to plate is our motto,” says Bill Irvin, director of operations for Phillips Seafood Restaurants. Crab is the biggest buy; to meet demand, the restaurants source soft shells and blue crab from Chesapeake Bay and other waters but go as far afield as Asia and Venezuela to get enough fresh product. Oysters, mussels, clams, lobsters and shrimp are purchased in season from local fishmongers up and down the East Coast to supply Phillips restaurants from Atlantic City to Myrtle Beach. The menu’s core items remain the same, but “we bounce around and see what’s running, then charge our chefs to come up with specials,” Irvin reports. “Buying local not only supports the fishermen, it saves fuel.”

The restaurants also source cultivated shellfish to fill out the menu, primarily mussels, oysters and American-farmed shrimp. “Rope-grown mussels from American Mussel Harvesters are free of sand and consistent in flavor,” says Irvin.

Grand Central Oyster Bar
New York City
Strategy: Focus on a few distributors

Executive chef Sandy Ingber offers at least 30 oysters on his daily changing “raw bar” list and sells them to the tune of 4,000 to 5,000 half-shells a day. But he prefers to do business with select oyster distributors who deal directly with the farms. “There are so many oyster companies out there—many more than I need,” he states. “Working with a few and buying directly from the farms gives me the flexibility to change my selections around from week to week. It also provides the chance to get exclusives.” On the menu at any time along with the best-selling Blue Points, a local oyster, might be Belons, Kumamotos, Malpeques and Wellfleets. “About two-thirds of our oysters come from the East Coast and one-third from the West Coast,” Ingber adds.

Viral scares are a concern with cultivated oysters. Right now, a virus is affecting a major Western hatchery that supplies about one-third of the oyster companies, Ingber reports. This has the potential of wreaking havoc on supply and prices in the next few months. 

Legal Sea Foods
Boston, Massachusetts
Strategy: Centralized purchasing and inventory control

“We’ve built relationships with 25 to 30 smaller fleets and fishermen to guarantee quality and freshness,” says Rich Vellante, executive VP of operations. “Sustainability is also key to our strategy and these boats don’t have the problem of by-catch like the big trawlers.”

Legal’s oysters, hard shell clams, mussels and lobsters are primarily from Eastern coastal waters ranging from Prince Edward Island to Cape Cod and Delaware. All the seafood bought from fishermen, purveyors, aquaculture facilities and at the docks—even varieties flown in from Alaska—comes into a centralized commissary to be broken down and sent out to each of the 33 locations. This same building also houses a state-of-the art lab that tests all fish for contaminants, and a kitchen, where Legal’s famous clam chowder and sauces are prepared.

In sourcing shellfish for year-round availability, the weather is always a challenge, Vellante claims. “Nobody wants to go into the icy waters to harvest clams and mussels in the winter. The wind is also a big obstacle.” When the supply diminishes, wholesale prices go up and Legal Sea Foods sometimes takes a hit. But the chain’s volume and year-round buying power gives it leverage to secure fairly stable prices.

The Clam Bar andthe Seafood Barge
Long Island, New York
Strategy: Menu flexibility

Dick Ehrlich has run seafood restaurants for 28 years, and he can’t remember when costs rose so rapidly. Located on Long Island’s East End, the restaurant has access to local clams and cultivated oysters as well as lobsters right off the boat. He’s now paying $100-$125 a bushel for steamers that were $18 a few years back; oysters are 60 cents to $1 apiece, up from 15 to 25 cents; and lobsters that were $2.50 to $4 a pound are $6 to $9 in summer and as high as $13 in winter.

Ehrlich is taking a three-prong approach: raising menu prices when necessary, absorbing some of the increases and changing up his menus. “We’re working toward more affordable combinations of meat and shellfish, such as Paella, and offering value that’s not based on huge portions,” he says. Smaller servings of delicacies like Peconic Bay Scallops are on his menu. “I still have customers who come in for this ‘marine candy,’ even if I have to charge $30.”

Scarcity is a big part of the problem with the supply of bay scallops. Brown tide decimated the population and it’s taking time to replenish it through seeding programs. Ehrlich is hopeful that two years from now, the scallop harvest will be more ample.

Product cutting: Frozen shrimp

Led by Eddie Gordon of Certified Wild American Shrimp

The majority of frozen shrimp are caught by freezer boats and frozen immediately at sea. For foodservice, most frozen, raw shrimp are packed in 5-pound boxes. Certified Wild American Shrimp will have a certification logo on the package indicating that sustainability and safety standards are followed.

  1. Inspect the box for stains or leakage. This can indicate thawing and refreezing.
  2. Open the box and sniff. The shrimp should have a fresh, salt marsh aroma with no off odors.
  3. Check appearance of shrimp. There should be no black spots on the shell or in the meat. This can mean the shell is breaking down and an enzyme is starting to activate spoilage.
  4. Look closely at the meat. It should be white to pink; traces of red indicate that the shrimp has been abused in handling.
  5. Microwave frozen shrimp for 30 seconds to detect aroma. There should be a fresh smell with no ammonia odor.
  6. Cook the shrimp through and taste. Wild shrimp have a fresh, lively flavor.

Sustainability checklist

The chefs collaborative revised  its Chefs Guide to Responsible Seafood Sourcing. It outlines steps for menuing sustainable seafood; steps that may also boost profits.

Know your sources. Solid chef-supplier relationships let operators set standards and make demands.

Ask questions. Find out how and where wild fish are caught and what methods are used for aquaculture. Farm-raised oysters, clams, scallops and mussels are filter-feeders that actually clean the water.

Think locally and seasonally. In these times of high fuel prices, reducing the carbon footprint is not only eco-smart, it saves money.

Buy low on the food chain. Large predator fish, like tuna and swordfish, are high on the chain; most shellfish are low.

Be flexible. Experiment with lesser known species and adapt to changes in availability.

Support small-scale fisheries. Since small purveyors are under less pressure to bring in quotas, they use lower-impact catch methods.

Educate and engage your customers. Talk about sustainability on the menu or your Web site.

Educate yourself. Keep up to date with these Web sites:

Blue Ocean Institute (www.blueocean.org)
Monterey Bay Aquarium (www.mbayaq.org)
Seafood Choices Alliance (www.seafoodchoices.org)
Marine Stewardship Council (www.msc.org)

Crabbing around

Q&A with Randy Rice
Technical director, Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

How are you promoting sustainability?
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game issues seasonal harvest guidelines to limit the catch and protect the habitat of all Alaskan crab, including king, Dungeness and snow crab. Plus, only the males of a certain size and age are harvested. Sustainability efforts have been going on in Alaska for decades; a crab rationalization program has been added more recently to set quotas.

How does the supply look this year?
The catch rates for king crab are a little lower. And Fish & Game is managing stocks conservatively and for the long haul, constantly re-evaluating harvest limits. Therefore, supplies are similar to 2007—not super-abundant but satisfactory.

What other issues should purchasers know about?
Country of origin labeling doesn’t apply to cooked product or foodservice, so beware of shellfish generically labeled “Alaskan king crab”—it might be from Russia. This crab is cheaper because the supply is more abundant—Russia doesn’t practice sustainability. A slightly higher price means higher quality and a well-managed source.

What should operators look for when purchasing crab?
The crab has to have a good fill in the shell—that’s what determines quality. The catch is tanked on the fishing vessel and delivered live to the processor, where the crabs are cleaned and pre-cooked. The majority of Alaskan crabs are frozen and sold to foodservice whole, as legs and claws or in clusters.

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