THE BIG CON
I LOVE THE seafood business.
Which is why it pains me so much to admit that lying, cheating, fraud, and outright theft are embedded into its very DNA.
There are some good actors out there, of course. I’d like to think that I’m one. I try to do things the right way. But that honesty comes at a price. I’m losing business every day to people who have no qualms about grifting everyone they come into contact with: their clients, their suppliers, their employees, and (I can only assume) their wives, their children, and probably even their pets.
That’s what I’m up against—guys who will scam their own fucking dogs.
All this bad behavior might not seem like it’s a problem to you, the humble diner, but it has a way of trickling down. If I lose business to an unscrupulous competitor selling crap product, then I have two options: one, I can try to beat him at his own game, selling equally bad food even cheaper than him. That, of course, will trigger a race to the bottom and everyone will suffer. I definitely don’t want to take that route. But then my second option if I start losing money to the competitors and their inferior wares, is that I have to boost my prices on my high-quality product to make up the difference. The restaurant will go on to pass those charges onto the customer as much as they can, but that leads to their margins getting smaller, and they’ll be forced to make up
the difference in other ways. Maybe they skimp on portion sizes. Maybe they water down the drinks. Maybe they start stocking the bathrooms with single ply. You get the point.
In other words, all it takes is a single bad actor to set off a butterfly effect leading to you, the next time you’re at a restaurant, overpaying. You’re either overpaying for the good product or —even worse—overpaying for the bad one.
This has to stop.
It’s why I wrote this book. I’m not pulling any punches here. I’m pointing fingers, I’m naming names. Distributors, restaurateurs, chefs, critics—every facet of this business we all love is due for a reckoning. I’m sparing no one.
Not even myself.
Because make no mistake: my side of the business deserves a lot of the blame.
HERE’S A FEW of the ways people on my end are looking to get one over on you:
First, substitutions—this is one of the oldest, most common scams. In an industry with as many products as ours, there are too many opportunities to slip things past people who know less than you do.
Take, for example, “Dayboat” scallops. In theory, they’re great. Dayboat means that they’re not coming from a fishing vessel that’s been out to sea for weeks. It means they’re fresh from a boat that went out that morning and came back that night.
In practice, of course, unscrupulous distributors will slap a “Dayboat” label on anything they think they can get away with. That could be “Overnight” scallops, which are less fresh and often soaked in a water-based solution designed to plump them up. Or that could even be frozen scallops, plucked from the sea weeks or months ago, and defrosted just in time to be pawned off on a restaurant kitchen that doesn’t know any better.
I can tell the difference between these types. Any chef worth his salt can tell the difference too. But can buyers—who are often juggling
dozens of suppliers—tell the difference? Will they even check? And if they do figure it out, will they even know the value differential, so they can tell how badly they’re getting hosed?
It depends on the buyer. It depends on the restaurant. But chances are, they won’t know any of those things. They’ll take the seller’s word for it.
That’s what the scammers are banking on. That no one will check. And that even if someone does check, they won’t have the know-how to detect the scam in the first place. Or they won’t have the confidence to call out the distributor. It’s not necessarily even the restaurant’s fault, at that point. But it’s definitely the person eating there who’s paying the price for it.
Another way that sellers get one over on restaurants: let’s call it “The Name Game.”
A restaurant will often place an order for “white shrimp.” That’s an industry term. It’s also an extremely vague one. A white shrimp is an umbrella name for dozens of different kinds of shrimp. A white shrimp could be farmed or wild. It could be from America, or Asia, or Central America or South America or India. It could be one of a half-dozen different size categories.
Depending on the specific combination of all of these options, we’re potentially talking a price swing of plus or minus $5 a pound.
But a lot of restaurants don’t take that into account. They just ask for “white shrimp.” No specifics beyond that.
At this point, the restaurant has essentially given the distributor permission to fuck with their menu. The menu promises one thing— shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. The distributor delivers another— shrimp from Thailand or the Indian Ocean. The restaurant has put their trust in the distributor, and now they’re in the position of inadvertently lying to all their customers, not realizing that their system of receiving their product is fundamentally broken.
When a lot of distributors hear a restaurant order “white shrimp,” they see it as an opportunity to unload whatever junk they have sitting in the back of the chill chest. The restaurant is going to get the cheapest possible product that can still technically be called that name. If the
restaurant presses the distributor on it, the distributor can always say, “Well, you asked for white shrimp, and that’s what we gave you.” And the distributor wouldn’t be wrong.
They’d be a dick, but they wouldn’t be wrong.
It’s the equivalent of walking into a Best Buy and saying “Give me a flatscreen TV.” The employee brings you a 32-inch from a no-name brand and says, “That’ll be $2,000 please.”
“But I was expecting a 75-inch Samsung!” you might protest.
“You didn’t say that, though,” the employee replies. “You just said you wanted a flatscreen TV. So here you go.”
Of course, the main difference here is that it’s pretty easy to tell televisions apart. You just look for the manufacturer’s label, or consult the thousands of websites who do research and keep tabs on that sort of thing.
There’s no such informational backstop for seafood. Salmon fillets don’t come stamped with little brand names. The people who catch and pack your squid aren’t going to show up on a Google search. Oftentimes it’s literally impossible to judge by appearance alone. The difference in quality only reveals itself when it’s on the diners’ plates, and by then it’s too late.
HERE’S YET ANOTHER grift: the confusion around weighing.
Some seafood sellers will offer to break down whole fish into fillets for the restaurant. This is a great service. It saves the kitchen valuable prep time. But the hidden downside is that oftentimes the restaurant has no idea what they paid for.
Say a whole fish weighs in at about twenty pounds. A distributor tells a restaurant they can give them the fish for about $4.25 a pound, and they’ll cut it into fillets for them. But a fish, of course, isn’t entirely fillets. A fish is also skin, scales, bones, head, and tail. Subtract all that, and out of a twenty-pound fish, you might be looking at only ten or eleven pounds of actual edible product.
But the restaurant, meanwhile, thinks it got twenty pounds. After all, when they got the invoice, it said twenty pounds.
Then when I, another distributor, come in a week later, and tell them my price for fillets is $7.75 a pound, they hem and haw and
complain that so-and-so gave them the same fish for more than $3 a pound less. I have to explain to them that when we sell them the fillet, we price in
all the waste and all the labor that’s involved with producing that fillet. It looks more expensive on paper, but in reality, they’re paying less per pound of actual usable food.
Here’s the kicker—half the time they don’t believe me!
“No,” they’ll insist, “I got twenty pounds of fillets for $4.25 a pound. I have the receipt!” I’ve gone so far as to break out a scale in front of them and weighed their “twenty pounds” of fillets. They are completely blown away—shocked—when the scale registers barely half that.
AT THIS POINT you might be thinking there’s no hope. That this is an irredeemable industry, filled with liars, cheats, and corner-cutters.
And truth be told, some days even I think that!
But I reassure myself with the knowledge that there’s a small but potent contingent of people who do it the right way. As satisfying and cathartic as it would be to spend the next couple hundred of pages doing nothing but pointing out what’s wrong with the industry, I feel compelled to also use this book to celebrate what’s actually working well, and to single out those people and organizations who are doing the right things.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned that I can pass along to you, the restaurant-going public, it’s that you should seek out mom-and-pop establishments wherever you can find them. Maybe I’m a little biased because I’m also a part of a multi-generational family business, but there’s something about these restaurants that puts them a cut above. In New York City, you’ll most often find them in outer boroughs. Or elsewhere in the country, they won’t be in the hippest neighborhoods. They might be in areas that have their best days behind them. They won’t be serving the most modern cuisine. A lot of them will be red-sauce Italian joints. But the thing they have in common?
The food is spectacular.
I’m talking about someone like my friend Joe, who runs Marco Polo Ristorante in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. He cares so much about
the quality of his fish that it almost drives me crazy sometimes. But I’d much rather have a customer who cares too much—who is too
meticulous, and too
knowledgeable—than the opposite. The amazing thing is that Joe seems to have passed his keen buyer’s eye onto his son Marco. So I look forward to doing business with them and their great restaurant for decades to come.
(For those of you who get a chance to visit that neighborhood, just a few blocks away is another father-son operation, a little retail market called Fish Tales. It’s run by Chris and his dad John, and they never ask me to bring them anything but the best I have to offer.)
The list of small, family restaurateurs who care deeply about their product goes on and on. There’s Michael at the famous Don Peppe near JFK Airport. Not only do they have the best baked clams you’ll ever put in your piehole, but they are the most discerning purchasers of scungilli (that’s conch, for you non-Paisans) I’ve ever had the pleasure to come across. Or Tony from Park Side in Corona, Queens, who has a bread course so good that it could serve as a full meal in and of itself, but who also fusses over every piece of jumbo wild shrimp I sell him like a mother taking care of their infant.
There’s Sammy of Sammy’s Fish Box, Sammy’s Shrimp Box, and Sammy’s Sea Shore, a budding empire of restaurants on City Island in the Bronx. This guy is obsessed with putting the absolute best product on plates: South African lobster tails, wild shrimp from all over, beautiful red king crab, snow crab, and so on. No matter how high the price, he must have the product! If there were any justice in the world, Sammy would have all the Michelin stars he wanted and celebrity chefs would be calling every night begging for reservations.
These mom-and-pop restaurants are, from my standpoint as a supplier, usually the most difficult to please. But if I had my way I’d want every restaurant in the city to...