In a rare bright spot for the fish trade, retail sales have set records, and consumers are trying species that even restaurants shy away from.
Written by: Pete Wells / New York Times
In 1963, on their way home from the hospital after he was born, Louis Rozzo’s parents stopped by a building on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea, where the family ran a wholesale seafood business, to weigh him in a scallop scale. This March, when virtually every restaurant, club and hotel that bought seafood from him closed and his firm’s income dried up in a matter of days, Mr. Rozzo went back to where it all began.
The F. Rozzo & Sons building was still in the family. Mr. Rozzo converted the ground floor into a makeshift store where he sells clams, scallops, sea bass and American red snapper to people who are suddenly cooking at home a lot more than they used to.
“I’m seeing people taking home fish, then coming in the next day and showing me pictures of how they prepared it,” he said. Some of them undertake recipes that require the better part of a day. Mr. Rozzo enjoys their enthusiastic feedback, although he also suggested that some of the energy New Yorkers are devoting to their kitchen projects is, like his overnight fish store itself, born of desperation.
“There’s not much else to do,” he said. “It’s either that or go home and drink all day.”
A future historian combing through the social-media records would have to conclude that Americans in the pandemic period subsisted on a diet of banana bread, whipped coffee and obsessively decorated sheets of focaccia. The only evidence that people ate seafood might be a few stray images of the more photogenic Portuguese sardine cans, all dating to the early days of the crisis, when you could still find them on store shelves.
But people are cooking seafood as never before, whether they’re documenting it or not. At supermarkets and other stores, seafood purchases have set records. Year-over-year sales of both canned and frozen seafood were around 37 percent higher for the four weeks that ended April 19, according to data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
Some large supermarket chains closed their seafood counters for a while so their regular workers could help stock shelves that were emptying nearly as quickly as new cans and boxes could be unpacked. Still, fresh seafood sales were up by about 13 percent in the same four weeks.
Workers in the United States fishery, a $5.6 billion industry in 2018, have not seen the mass outbreaks of Covid-19 that have swept through some meatpacking plants. But the routines of seafood trade have been knocked sideways by the pandemic.
Restaurants and other food-service establishments normally account for about two-thirds of the sales of fresh seafood in the country. When nearly all restaurants closed except for takeout or delivery, the entire seafood distribution network seized up. Along the Atlantic coast, some boats were dumping fish they couldn’t sell. The weather didn’t help the fishing crews make up for lost income.
“We’ve had an awful, just a terrible spring,” said Ernie Panacek, the general manager of the commercial fishing dock at Viking Village, on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. “It’s been very stormy and windy. That has helped contribute to a reduction in seafood production.”
The bright spot in Mr. Panacek’s business has been retail. Sales are considerably higher than usual at the seafood stores his wholesalers supply.
“People are still hungry for their seafood,” he said. “They can’t go out and get it at the restaurants, and they’ve got to eat.”
Like others in the seafood business, he has heard all the excuses consumers make for not eating fish at home — they don’t like the smell, they don’t know how to cook it, they’re afraid it will go off. But he hopes the quarantine may bring some of them around.
“I really think it’s going to change, eventually, the way people buy seafood,” he said. “They’re going to realize it’s easy to cook, it’s quick to cook. As long as you have good-quality seafood, they can handle it.”
This has been the experience of Robert DeMasco, who reinvented his Brooklyn restaurant supply company, Pierless Fish, to make home deliveries to housebound civilians last month. Mr. DeMasco said that after a somewhat rocky transition, business had been brisk. His new customers, he said, are even buying things that many restaurants won’t, like fish collars.
“I probably sold 30 pounds a day of collars,” he said. “I bought shad roe. I ran out in a day, and I had 60 pounds. I was like, really? You guys know what this is?”
In addition to the dried anatomical scraps it markets as pet treats, Pierless has also been offering Spanish mackerel, skate, silver dory and blue catfish. All have sold out.
Cooks stuck in lockdown have also been eager for shelf-stable products like smoked salmon, finnan haddie, salt cod and even one product that none of Mr. DeMasco’s restaurant clients will touch: frozen fish.
He said he had received a rave review for his two-pound boxes of frozen squid from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a longtime customer who, when his restaurants are open, rarely orders so little of anything.
In the old family headquarters on Ninth Avenue, Mr. Rozzo has also been surprised by how willing people are to take a flier on some strange aquatic specimen. “People want a challenge to create dinners with,” he said. “They can’t go to a restaurant, so they’re creating the excitement at home.”
In one day, the improvised Rozzo shop sold 100 pounds of drumfish from the Gulf of Mexico, which doesn’t often swim as far north as Chelsea. All the octopus Mr. Rozzo draped over ice as a conversation piece? Sold.
He has fielded requests for items as prized as bluefin tuna belly (he sold it for $25 a pound) and as ordinary as whiting ($1.50).
Mr. Rozzo noted that the wholesale side of his business is down by 95 percent after a record year in 2019. Getting back to that level, he estimated, will take two or three years at least.
Part of his rebuilding plan is retail sales. It would give the company extra stability and, as much as he prides himself on the friendships he has made with chefs, he has found that he enjoys talking to amateur cooks about seafood, too.
“The volume is a pittance of what it was, and the money follows along with that,” he said. “But you can’t always do everything for money.”