Bag the tray packs! The fish doesn't look fresh! Get rid of the plastic wrap, bring back the seafood manager! Consumers demanded it. And they had an impact.
Supermarket fish are going Classic.
Following in the footsteps of another corporate switch, supermarkets have learned the hard way that the old way is the best way. After a stint with tray pack fish -- an idea built on reduced labor costs for the market and convenient self service for the consumer -- supermarkets are going back.
Now, in place of the Styrofoam sea come fresh grouper resting on shaved ice, their eyes bright and glistening; firm and silky white fillets held out for your inspection; a huge center cut of mako shark waiting on a chopping block for its transformation into steaks, a recipe suggestion and cooking time instructions from the clerk.
By the end of the year, Safeway will have 30 fresh seafood service counters. Already the chain has nine, nine more are planned in new stores and 12 more tray pack cases will be converted into service counters. At the stores that have already reinstituted service counters, seafood sales have tripled, according to Bruce Nuckolls, Safeway meat merchandising manager. And at least at one store, the Georgetown Safeway, customers are responding to fish manager Chuck Anderson with comments such as, "We're so glad to see this, we hated the tray packs."
Giant Food presently has 19 fresh seafood service counters and plans to phase in others if the volume warrants it. In the next three years, the chain intends to open 23 brand new stores, all with seafood service counters, according to Giant spokeswoman Sue Challis.
Out of A&P's 20 stores in the greater metropolitan area, five have service seafood counters, according to Dick Jones, merchandising coordinator of the meat department. "We are going in that direction" for other stores, too, added Bill Vitulli, vice president of A&P's corporate office in Montvail, N.J.
Washington's service seafood trend mirrors what's occurring across the country. And it's no wonder why it's happening. With the national interest in health and lower-fat sources of protein, coupled with the trend in "boutique" service counters (i.e. bakeries, fresh pasta, ready-made salads), fresh fish service counters are the next logical progression. Seafood is no longer an afterthought to the meat counter; it's a focal point. And consumers want quality products.
According to Karen Brown of the Food Marketing Institute, fresh seafood now accounts for nearly half of all seafood sales. And the number of stores with service counters is growing, although still outnumbered by self service facilities. Of the nation's supermarkets that carry fresh seafood, 33.1 percent of the stores operate service counters; 66.9 percent are still self service. Still, says Brown, "it's the 33 percent a pretty big number," considering that service fish was a rarity not too long ago.
What retailers are learning, says Brown, is that although a service fish counter is an investment in labor, goods and equipment, if it is a high-quality operation, the returns can be great.
In the past, one obstacle to successful service supermarket fish has simply been the perishability of the product and the lack of efficiency in delivering it from ship to market. Fish distribution is highly susceptible to time and temperature abuses, according to John Farquhar, vice president of scientific and technical services at FMI. Ten or 15 years ago when stores got into service counters, they didn't know how to handle them. "The margin of error is very small."
That margin is getting wider, however. Some processors are using time-temperature monitors, devices that can be placed on shipping crates to detect any lapses in temperature for danger-zone amounts of time. In addition, researchers are exploring the use of preserving fresh fish with ozonated water (ozone is a gas that is used to disinfect drinking water and deodorize foul air).
Another obstacle to successful service fish counters in supermarkets has been the lack of trained personnel. A lot of emphasis must be placed on clerk/customer relationship, says Farquhar. "You've got to have knowledgeable" clerks, "a separate cadre of fish experts."
In fact, Gary Bortnick, vice president of Magruder's, the nine-store chain that staffs clerks behind all its fish counters (except the one in Vienna, but remodeling is forthcoming, according to Bortnick), doesn't use the tray pack system because "we don't feel it's the right way to handle fish." The customer, says Bortnick, "likes to kibbitz with the fish manager," asking him questions such as 'when did it come in?' or 'how do you prepare it?'
Sirloin steaks and salmon steaks are two different animals, but in the past the meat manager or meat cutters have often been placed in charge of supermarket fish operations. In some cases in Washington chains, this is still true, although that too, is changing.
Safeway, Giant, and A&P have training stores where staffers learn about handling and selling seafood. At all three chains, some of the newly trained fish clerks are former meat cutters, others come from the outside, both with and without previous training in seafood.
Steve Himmelfarb, president of U.S. Fish, a Kensington, Md., wholesaler, says supermarkets have a lack of a "real consistent training program" and that he has been approached by area retailers to manage and set up full service seafood markets within the chain. It's still in the "if" and "maybe" stages, says Himmelfarb.
Jones of A&P disputes Himmelfarb's contention about lack of consistency, pointing out that seafood managers at that chain are trained "sometimes for as much as two or three weeks" before going to the stores. In addition, A&P has a full training manual on retailing seafood, Jones said.
Despite the consumer interest in some areas for fresh service counters, at least one Washington chain isn't hearing about it. Michael Herman, senior vice president of Jumbo Food, a chain that sells tray pack fish exclusively, says Jumbo has no plans to switch over to service counters. Jumbo displays the tray packs on top of ice, says Herman; "it looks just as good as it does behind the glass case" and "customers love it."
Tray pack proponents have long contended that the difference is "psychological" between the fish sold in tray packs versus the service counters. With the tray pack system, says Brown of FMI, "wrapping a piece of plastic around the fish presents a problem in some people's minds." It doesn't necessarily "communicate fresh," Brown said, even though proponents say that in many cases the fish is identical to the fish in the service case.
While in many cases the fish may be the same, critics of the tray pack system contend that the difference is the time/temperature attention it receives both along the distribution chain and in the store. The main reason why people see packaged seafood as inferior "is because it's a correct assumption," says Himmelfarb. "Once something's in a tray, it's very hard to check quality," Himmelfarb says. In terms of distribution and sources, just what is the difference at local markets between the tray pack product and how the service counters are operated?
At Safeway, a large majority of the chain's tray pack products are shipped from Boston about three times a week and arrive at its Landover warehouse, packed on ice. Local fish come from various suppliers in Maryland and Virginia. In both cases, the fish are already wrapped and packaged and arrive at the store the following day. All packages are marked with a five-day shelf life.
With the service counters, Safeway operates similarly to a fresh seafood shop. The wholesalers are often the same as those supplying the chain with tray pack fish, but the fish arrive without the plastic wrap and Styrofoam, bypass the warehouse and go directly to each store. They are received daily.
It is at the store, where people like Chuck Anderson, Georgetown Safeway fish manager, inspect shipments when they arrive, checking to see that the gills are bright red, that the scales are intact, that the belly is firm. Some days, Anderson says, he'll send back half the fish that aren't up to his standards. Usually, his service seafood sells out two days after the product arrives.
Anderson says he sells approximately $15,000 worth of seafood a week at the service counter and throws out about $200 to $250 worth of outdated fish a week. Although the labor to run a service counter is more costly than Safeway's tray pack operation, the new operation may end up costing the store the same amount, says Anderson, because with the tray packs, the chain "throws out a lot."
A&P operates similarly to Safeway in its distribution of service counter and tray pack fish, but at Giant, the fish are processed for tray packing on the premises of the chain's warehouse in Landover, Md.
Staff in insulated jumpsuits haul the whole fish and fillets to a holding room. Some of the fish then goes into a processing room, where it is filleted, scaled, cleaned and tray packed. The rest of the unprocessed fish just goes out another door, where it is sent to the stores with service counters. Although some service counter stores receive direct shipments, most of Giant's fish go through the warehouse. So aside from a few exceptions, the tray pack and service counter fish is identical.
A large supplier of locally caught fish to Giant and Safeway is the Baltimore wholesaler Silver Seas. Jim Grinestaff, assistant manager of Silver Seas, says that although the tray pack and service counter fish is the same, the difference may be the time each sits in the case. The service counters do a bigger volume so they can turn the product over faster. Customers don't buy the tray packs as quickly, so they'll sit there longer, says Grinestaff.
"They're the fish buyers not dodos," says Barry Scher, spokesman for Giant Food. "They don't order tons of fish just to sit there. They may order less if they're not going to sell as much."
In terms of price, interestingly, Safeway's service counter seafood is generally less expensive than its tray pack fish, according to buyer Henry Hughes. Safeway pays a lot for the prepackaging and sleeve boxes that the tray packs come in, says Hughes; the service counter fish arrives in 10- to 50-pound bulk boxes. As for the labor costs at the service counters, Hughes said Safeway has established a special wage rate for fish managers and clerks. This is lower than the meat cutters' rate the chain used to pay its seafood clerks before tray packs came on the scene, Hughes said.
Giant's director of meat and seafood merchandising, Marcus Brooks, says that comparable tray pack and service counter species should be priced about the same.
Here are some recipes to use with the fish from the new service seafood counters: FRESH TUNA SALAD WITH ROASTED VEGETABLES (4 servings)
This salad is as different from the everyday tunafish salad as a whale from a guppy. Smoky, savory, mellow vegetables are bathed with olive oil and paired with a broiled tuna steak -- the size of a porterhouse of beef -- flaked into bite-sized chunks. A splash of red wine vinegar pulls all the elements together.
This salad is basically prepared a day ahead and put together an hour or so before serving. Swordfish or mako shark may be substituted.
1 large red bell pepper
1 large green bell pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium zucchini, unpeeled
1 large onion
1 medium eggplant, unpeeled
12 large mushrooms, or 8 large shiitake mushrooms
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 pound tuna steak, 1 inch thick
1 head of bibb or boston lettuce
Begin the dish the day before it is to be served. Skin whole bell peppers without removing stem by charring them over an open flame or by roasting them in a hot oven or under the broiler. When the skin is thoroughly blackened, place the hot peppers in a brown paper bag and close it so that the peppers will steam in their own heat for 10 minutes.
Remove the peppers and peel away the skins under running water. They should rub off easily. Pat dry, remove stems, and cut the peppers in half. Scrape away seeds, remove interior white pieces, and slice peppers in segments 1/2- to 1-inch wide. Place in a small sloped dish or other container with 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Cover, and store in refrigerator.
Still the day ahead, cut the zucchini, onion, and eggplant into quarters; cut the mushrooms in half if they are very large.
Apply a thin coat of oil to flat pan, such as a cookie sheet, with sides no higher than 1/2 inch. (If you use a deeper pan, the vegetables will stew rather than roast.) Toss the cut vegetables and the unpeeled garlic with what remains of the 1/4 cup of oil. Set them on the pan and roast in a 375-degree oven for 20 minutes or more, turning occasionally, until everything is nicely browned with edges just beginning to char.
When done, remove and reserve the garlic cloves and allow the vegetables to cool.
With a tablespoon, carefully remove the pulp of the zucchini and eggplant, trying to scrape it away from skin in one or two whole pieces. Place pieces on a plate or platter.
Peel the cooked garlic cloves and place them in the work bowl of a food processor with salt, pepper, parsley, thyme, 1/2 cup olive oil, and vinegar, and work until smooth. Spoon this dressing over vegetables, but don't toss or mash vegetables. Cover; refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.
Final preparation: at least 1 hour before you plan to serve the salad, take the vegetables from the refrigerator to allow them to come to room temperature. Broil the tuna steak 4 inches from the heat for 5 minutes on each side. Flake while it is still warm.
Separate and wash the lettuce; blot dry. Choose the 6 best leaves and lay them on one end of a large oval or oblong serving platter of neutral color. Chop the rest of the lettuce and strew it over the whole leaves. Mound fish on top. Spoon a tablespoon of dressing collected from the vegetables over the fish.
Arrange the vegetables in a fan shape on the remainder of the platter, alternating for color and textural contrast. Serve with crusty bread.
Note: If your platter is dark colored, use a leaf of lettuce under each portion of vegetable so it will stand out attractively. If your platter is round, center the tuna on it. From "Seafood As We Like It," by Anthony Spinazzola and Jean-Jacques Paimblanc (Globe Pequot, $19.95) Grilling Tuna Steaks
Tuna is a tough steak to grill properly, according to food consultant Mark Caraluzzi, because it is so susceptible to drying out. Caraluzzi suggests foremost choosing thick steaks. Cook until the inside of the tuna looks like a medium done (beef) steak. Check for doneness by cutting off a small portion of the fish and check to see that a thin line of pink runs down the center of the steak. MARK CARALUZZI'S MARINADE FOR GRILLED TUNA (Makes about 3/4 cup)
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped shallots
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Mix all marinade ingredients together. Place tuna steaks in marinade and marinate for 2 hours at room temperature or overnight, refrigerated. ORANGE ROUGHY WITH SPICED ALMOND COATING (4 servings)
1 1/2 pounds orange roughy fillets
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup almonds
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon soy sauce
4 tablespoons milk
Wipe fillets, sprinkle with pepper and arrange in a baking dish. Grind almonds in blender or food processor until pulverized, then mix with remaining ingredients. Spread mixture on top of fillets and bake at 350 degrees about 10 minutes.
Adapted from "The Complete Book of American Fish and Shellfish Cookery," by Elizabeth Bjornskov (Knopf, $18.95) OVEN-FRIED CATFISH WITH SESAME SEEDS (4 to 6 servings)
2 pounds catfish fillets, cut 1 inch thick
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons milk
Dash of cayenne pepper
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup sesame seeds
Flour for dipping
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons oil
Hot pepper sauce for serving
Wipe fillets with a damp cloth, sprinkle with salt and pepper. In a wide dish beat milk and cayenne with egg. Mix cornmeal and sesame seeds in a pie plate. Dust fish lightly with flour, dip in egg mixture, then turn in sesame mixture until evenly coated. Set pieces on waxed paper to dry for 30 minutes; turn once after 15 minutes.
Put pan in the oven and heat it at 500 degrees for 10 minutes. Then melt butter and oil in hot pan and lay fish in the hot fat, turning so both sides are coated, and return pan to oven. Oven-fry fish, uncovered, about 10 minutes, until cooked. Pass hot pepper sauce.
Adapted from "The Complete Book of American Fish and Shellfish Cookery," by Elizabeth Bjornskov (Knopf, $18.95) CHICKEN WITH SEAFOOD (8 servings)
3 1/2- to 4-pound chicken, cut into serving pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons safflower oil
1 tablespoon rosemary
4 cloves garlic, skin on
Hot pepper flakes to taste (optional)
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or 1 tablespoon dried
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
4 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
1/4 cup capers
1 dozen littleneck clams, well washed
1 pound lean white fish fillets, such as cod, orange roughy, pollack or monkfish, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 pound shrimp, shelled
Salt and pepper the chicken. Heat oil in a skillet and cook chicken over medium to high heat, about 5 minutes, turning often. Add rosemary and cook until chicken takes on color. Drain and discard all fat and oil, then add garlic, hot pepper and vinegar. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 5 minutes. Uncover and raise heat to reduce vinegar by half. Add parsley, basil, mint, tomatoes and capers. Cover and simmer over moderate heat 10 minutes, stirring occassionally.
Remove chicken from sauce with a slotted spoon and place in a large, warmed serving bowl. Bring sauce to a boil and add clams. Cover and cook, removing clams as soon as they begin to open. Place in bowl with chicken.
Add chunked fish to sauce and cook, about 10 minutes, or until done. Add shrimp during the last 3 or 4 minutes of cooking and cook until pink. Remove fish and shrimp and place in bowl with clams and chicken. Pour sauce over the seafood and chicken. Serve with rice.
Adapted from "Eat Right, Eat Well, -- The Italian Way," by Edward Giappi and Dr. Richard Wolff (Knopf, $19.95)