From surf to turf: How fresh seafood gets to landlocked Charleston, WV

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail photos
A Tuesday morning shipment of fresh seafood from Pittsburgh is brought into Joe’s Fish Market.
Joe Harmon (left) and Robin Harmon receive a Tuesday morning shipment of fresh seafood from Pittsburgh.
F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail
Ichiban sushi chef Evan Wilson stands in front of the various sushi offerings at the restaurant.
Ichiban sushi chef Evan Wilson helps unload a shipment of seafood.

By truck and plane it comes, from oceans and lakes around the world.

Fresh seafood. But given that the capital city of West Virginia is several hundred miles from the nearest fish-filled fishing boat, what does “fresh” mean? And how does seafood get to Charleston, and how do restaurants manage the freshness of the seafood they serve?

For years, Charleston-based Buzz Food Service did only a limited amount of seafood sales in the region it primarily serves, which includes all of West Virginia, as well as border towns in Kentucky and southern Virginia. The fish they did sell was frozen, said Dickinson Gould, owner and president of the company.

“Fresh seafood was one of those things that in our business I said, ‘over my dead body’ for years,” Gould said. “It’s more perishable than dairy or produce, but ten times the cost. That always scared me and we just stayed away from it.”

But demand for fresh seafood and the ability to order it through daily truck shipments changed all that, he said.

“Five years ago, we didn’t sell any fresh seafood,” Gould said.

But in 2015, Buzz sold close to $2 million in fresh seafood.

“This program is still ramping up. It’s a new thing for us,” said Gould. “It’s definitely a growing category.”

The company gets its seafood from Land and Sea, formerly Pittsburgh Seafood. It has been a profitable partnership as Buzz ships certified Angus beef to Land and Sea (which changed its name last year as a result of now being able to sell meats) and the Buzz Food Service trucks return with a combination of fresh and frozen seafood.

“The product is consolidated to some degree in Pittsburgh, so we’re not having direct shipments from Scotland and Hawaii and Newfoundland. It can come to us in a centralized way. That’s basically what has made it possible,” said Gould of the company’s rising seafood sales.

“Previous to this endeavor, we would have stocked some frozen seafood — and might have stocked three dozen different items. Now, we’re in a position where we’re able to offer virtually any species from any corner of the world, fresh and frozen, and on a very short lead time.”

Dan Schumacher, vice president for sales at Land and Sea, based in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, said the company makes purchases at seafood ports up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

“About 35 percent of our business is fresh and 65 percent of it is frozen.”

Fish is frozen in different ways, he said. It is fished and processed on large trawlers and flash-frozen right on the vessel, he said, But a majority of it is caught in the oceans and brought back to land still fresh and then processed and frozen at facilities on shore.

Some species are routinely delivered frozen to Charleston restaurants because of their perishability, such as shrimp, or because of the distance it has to travel to get here, such as orange roughy from New Zealand, said Schumacher.

Land and Sea’s fresh seafood is packed on ice in tightly sealed containers, either a Styrofam container or a wax-coated corrugated cardboard box and because of the volume of its sales its trucks are hitting the road with product six days a week, said Schumacher.

Because of the frequency of trucked-in shipping schedules, and the ability to custom order just what they need, places like Joe’s Fish Market, in Charleston, are able to tailor shipments of fresh seafood to meet customers’ needs, said owner Joe Harmon.

“We get something every day except Saturday,” he said. “It’s great because you can pretty much order the day before you need it. It’s all fresh.”

A few items are frozen at some point, including shrimp, because of its short shelf life, and Chilean sea bass, he said.

“Other than that, just about everything we use is fresh,” Harmon said.

Since they have a delivery every day, they never keep anything very long, which helps in keeping the product fresh, he said.

“Since we get a shipment every day, we don’t have to order huge qualities,” he said. “We don’t get 300 pounds of salmon on Tuesday and have to sit on it.”

As a result, they are able to figure out pretty closely what their daily and weekly needs are for shipments — about 1,000 pounds of freight a week — keeping the freshest seafood on hand, he said. What’s their most popular item?

“We’re using about 250 to 300 salmon fillets a week,” said Harmon. “That’s our biggest seller.”

Josh Lowthian, the chef at Tidewater, recently attended a 15-hour class at the “School of Fish” at Foley Fish, based in Boston, the restaurant’s main supplier.

He went out on a scallop boat, learned about how fish is bought fresh off fishing boats, how it is processed and shipped around the world, he said. “I learned a lot more than what I thought I knew.”

Foley flies its fish into Charleston’s Yeager Aiport on Tuesdays and Thursdays and then trucks bring it to Tidewater, said Lowthian. “They tend to use a lot of metal tins because it helps to conduct the temperature of the ice into the fish to keep it at that 32 degrees you’re looking for.”

The only frozen seafood they receive are shrimp and lobster tails, as well as Chilean sea bass which is frozen at sea and then shipped to the restaurant “and on the way to us it thaws out,” maintaining a maximum 32-degree temperature along the way, he said.

“Everything else is fresh,” said Lowthian. “We have a big fish box in the back that has about 10 or 15 big drainage bins we stack the fish in, keep it covered on ice at all moments,” he said. “We cut our fish in the cooler. So, it never really sees the outside of a cooler except coming from one cooler to the station on line where it’s prepared.”

Like Joe’s Fish Market, salmon is Tidewater’s biggest seafood seller.

“I get about 300 pounds of fresh fish every other delivery, mainly salmon being our biggest seller,” said Lowthian. “Everybody loves their salmon, and it’s so easy to prepare with so many different sauces and everything else. We go through on average probably about 150 pounds of salmon a week at least.”

Laura Ramsden is the fourth-generation owner of Foley Fish.

“We deal with primarily fresh seafood caught 24 to 48 hours before landing,” she said. “Our mission is to get the just-harvested, delicious taste of fresh seafood into the mouths of consumers throughout the country. We operate on a buy-to-order philosophy whereby our customers place the orders ahead of time and then we go to the auctions throughout New England to get the fish, cut and pack it the same day and send it out to our customers.”

Since the company does not use any chemicals at all in its processing, “we are racing against the shelf life clock to get the fish into the market,” Ramsden said.

“We don’t warehouse product like a local distributor would. We are turning inventory every 24 hours. Frozen would certainly be easier, that’s for sure. But our niche is fresh, all natural seafood.”

Sushi, meanwhile, since it is served raw, presents special challenges.

The website notes FDA requirements that all fish (with the exception of tuna) destined to be served raw in the U.S. must first be frozen at a minimum of minus 4 degrees for seven days or minus 31 degrees for 15 hours. Either process will kill any and all parasites inside a fish. Freezing in this method happens so quickly that the ice crystals that form are very short and don’t pierce through cell walls, so the fish can legally be sold as “fresh,” according to the site.

A July 15 New York Times article noted that for years, many New York sushi restaurants “have lured gourmands by boasting of the freshest fish in the city,” but that new regulations now require that fish served raw, undercooked or marinated raw in dishes like ceviche must first be frozen, to guard against parasites. Last March, the city’s Board of Health approved the regulations, which now align with Food and Drug Administration recommendations

The FDA regulations and flash-freezing methods help ensure that parasites in fish aren’t being served along with an order of sushi, said Sean Carver, sanitarian at the Kanawha Charleston Health Department

“It’s about live parasite destruction. That’s the point of the flash freezing,” she said.

Evan Wilson, is the head sushi chef at Ichiban, in Charleston, and he gets deliveries from a variety of vendors.

“I just try to space it out as much as I can and go with the best product I know I can get.”

“If I get it fresh or I get it when it comes it in here frozen solid, it has been flash frozen and treated for parasites,” he said. “They super freeze it when they catch it at sea.”

Even though he could get vacuum-packed salmon, for instance, he prefers to order a whole salmon so his chefs can learn to cut and portion the fresh fish and sushi Ichiban sells

“If I’m going to get salmon, I’d rather get the whole thing,” he said. The restaurant is saving a bit of the cost in doing the butchery itself, and also gaining a chance to teach its chefs how to cut the fish ultimately served to customers Wilson said.

“Just opening it up from a vacuum-packed container, that’s not good for anybody who’s aspiring to be a good chef.”

Contact Douglas Imbrogno at 304-348-3017 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.

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