At Black Restaurant Group, a code for every fish


Black Restaurant Group’s sustainable seafood program, which allows customers to see where their food is coming from by scanning QR codes located on the restaurants’ menus and seafood cases. (Scott Suchman/Courtesy Black Restaurant Group)

There are dozens of types of fish, clams and shrimp for sale at BlackSalt Fish Market in Northwest Washington.

And there are just as many QR codes, those black-and-white squares that lead users to specific Web sites, lining the market’s seafood cases and menus.

The Black Restaurant Group, which includes the Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Republic, has spent the past year giving customers a behind-the-scenes look at where — and how and when— their seafood was caught. The idea, fishmonger M.J. Gimbar says, is to bring transparency to an industry that has increasingly become the subject of suspicion, mislabeling and fraud.

“A couple of years ago, customers started asking things like, ‘Is this fish sustainable?’ ‘Where did it come from?’ ‘What does it taste like?,’ ” Gimbar, 33, said. “Seafood can be adulterated, fish can be switched out. We want to make sure our customers know what they were getting.”

But relaying that information to customers has proved more difficult than expected.


QRCODE for the Chincotegue Clams. (Courtesy Black Restaurant Group)

The company kicked off its QR code-based traceability program a year ago to much fanfare. NBC was there to cover the launch, as were ABC and National Geographic. Hundreds of people flocked to BlackSalt Fish Market, smartphones in hand, ready to scan those small digital codes.

But in the months since, Gimbar says the novelty has worn off. The number of customers scanning the company’s codes quickly fell from 300 every month to 50.

“Honestly, it hasn’t taken off in the way I had hoped it would,” said Jonathan Pearlman, vice president and director of operations for Congressional Seafood, a Jessup-based supplier that developed the program with Gimbar. “The excitement has definitely died down.”

‘Portlandia’ provides idea

Pearlman got the idea for the seafood traceability program which watching the satirical television show “Portlandia.”

In a 2011 sketch, the show’s characters pepper their waitress with a number of questions: What do the chickens eat? Are the hazelnuts in their diets locally sourced? How big is the area where the chickens are allowed to roam free? (Eventually they leave the restaurant, glasses of wine untouched, to go vet the farm before they order their meals.)

“I saw that and thought, you know, people do want to know where their food comes from,” Pearlman said. “That’s something we can tell them.”

Pearlman and Gimbar spent the next six months tracking down hundreds of data points, including photographs of the fishermen behind each type of seafood. (“That was kind of a challenge,” Gimbar said. “Fishermen aren’t really glamour hogs.”)

Then came the hard part: Figuring out the best way to present that information to customers. Gimbar thought about printing certain details, such as the name of fisheries, on restaurant menus. But, he decided, those names and places would be largely meaningless to customers. He wanted to relay more information than that, but without weighing down the menu.

“No one wants to spend 45 minutes reading [a menu] before they order their food,” Gimbar said. “The QR codes were the easiest and least complicated way we could think of to fit all of this information into a small space.”

The codes themselves were easy — and free — to create. Gimbar printed about 15 different codes for BlackSalt Fish Market’s seafood cases. Seasonal menus for Addie’s, BlackSalt and Pearl Dive were reprinted to include the one-inch squares. Gimbar estimates the entire effort cost about $1,000.

‘Short attention span’

The QR codes were a hit — at least at first. About four months into the program, Gimbar noticed that fewer and fewer people were scanning restaurant menus and signs. Only about 30 percent of BlackSalt customers knew what a QR code was, and even fewer had the proper scanning app on their smartphones. (Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on 14th Street NW, which tends to attract young professionals, fared a bit better, he said.)

“In the world of technology, there’s a very short attention span,” Gimbar said.

Over the next month, Black Restaurant Group pared down the number of codes on its menus. Instead of including separate QR codes for every type of seafood, the restaurants have begun using one code that takes customers to a central page. From there, users can click on individual links for anchovies or golden tilefish or venus clams that include descriptions of the seafood, their origins and how to cook them.

At Congressional Seafood, a supplier to hundreds of area eateries including Brasserie Beck, Bistro Bis and Restaurant Eve, Pearlman says it has been similarly tricky to get customers to warm up to the digital squares.

“The problem is that QR codes are ugly,” he said. “We sell to high-end restaurants and country clubs, and they’re having a hard time incorporating this little block of digital information onto their chic and sexy menus.”

Pearlman has tried different approaches, creating posters, window clings and signs that restaurant owners can keep on tables and bars, as well as a small cheat-sheet servers can hand out on request.

Most recently, Pearlman has begun adding regular features like “Meet your fish” to the company’s Facebook page.

“Truthfully,” Pearlman said, “people click on those much more often than they scan QR codes. Maybe we should just switch to Facebook.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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