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A Guide To Buying Fish  

Just Ask Why

Chef Jon Campbell was faced with the biggest opportunity of his career. The chance to operate the city's most prestigious restaurant. Well recognized as the place where kings of industry meet, where the elite hold their soirees, this all is going to be Chef Jon's. The restaurant's chef of 26 years was retiring and Chef Jon was the winner over a short list of prestigious names. This was Chef Jon's big chance. He wanted to show the world that he was the best. His first order of business was to focus on operations. After all, the restaurant already had an excellent reputation and following. Like all good chefs, Chef Jon wanted to fully understand and control food cost.

Understanding food cost was going to be a challenge for Chef Jon. The bistro where Chef Jon worked for the last 9 years had a fairly narrow menu. In particular, Chef Jon had limited experience with fish. While he was comfortable with his ability to prepare exquisite fish dishes, he feared his knowledge was not current. Chef Jon liked this challenge; he knew superior knowledge was necessary if he was going to be a success.

After Chef Jon's first staff meeting he asked Ed Minor, the restaurant's fish buyer, for a meeting. Ed was a little leery of his new boss; but he reasoned that this feeling is expected with any change in leadership. In the meeting, Chef Jon was forthright with Ed and laid out his need to improve his knowledge of fish. Ed was impressed and relaxed with Chef Jon's openness. Chef Jon and Ed agreed they would get quotes from the three leading purveyors of fresh fish. Additionally, they would make plans to tour the fish purveyors facilities. Tuesday morning Ed found Chef Jon and said, "Our job is going to be easy. With these prices, we are only going to have to tour one facility." Chef Jon took the faxes and Ed's summary and began to study the figures.

Prices for the Week
Fillet Prices Competitor #1 Competitor #2 Competitor #3
Salmon $4.40 $4.10 $3.85
Halibut $10.50 $6.95 $10.40
Sole * $4.00 $3.50
COD * $6.50 $5.95
* = Prices are daily

"Look at how much money we can save with Competitor #3," Ed said. Chef Jon continued to study the figures when he finally raised his head and asked "Why?". Ed looked puzzled. Chef Jon continued, "Why are they different?" "I am not sure what you mean." Ed responded.

"Let me explain, Ed. When prices are different, especially this different, I want to know why. If you tell me that everything is the same, just that some competitors are trying to make more money, then our job is easy. But I can tell you, our job is rarely that easy," Chef Jon explained.

Ed called each of the purveyors back and asked "Why?" Competitor #3 with the lowest salmon prices, went on and on about good purchasing and wanting the business. Competitor #2 did not really have an answer; he just wanted to know if he could get the order.

The surprise was Competitor #1, the vendor with the highest prices. This fish purveyor seemed to have an answer for each "Why". Competitor #1 claimed that salmon is trucked to their market on Sunday. But unlike the competitors that buy salmon once a week, this purveyor has salmon shipped by airfreight the other five days of the week. Competitor #1 claimed they could cut their price by 30 - 40 cents per pound if they trucked the product to the market. But, in fact, Competitor #1 felt it was important to air freight the product to ensure good quality.

Ed said, "that explains why you are more expensive than Competitor #2, but Competitor #3 at $3.85 per pound of salmon fillet would still win. Competitor #1 said, that's only if you are willing to forego my North American farm-raised Atlantic salmon for a pre-cut Chilean product. Competitor #1 continued to describe the advantages North American Salmon products have over South American products. But Ed latched onto the purveyor's description of the DOW (days out of water) scale for the primary differences between North and South American products. The quality of the salmon deteriorates exponentially with each passing day the salmon is out of water. And this deterioration rate increases threefold if the product is filleted. This generally explains why some South American product is softer with a more malleable texture.

But Halibut was a different game. Initially Ed seemed to have Competitor #1 stumped as to why Competitor #2's Halibut was so inexpensive. Competitor #1 shared the East Coast prices with Ed. The price for East Coast whole halibut was $5.95 and with shipping that would mean a $6.80 whole halibut cost to the wholesaler. And considering halibut yields, that would mean a $9.00 per pound wholesaler cost. Competitor #1 claimed the only way to match that price would be to sell frozen halibut "slacked out" (slacked out means thawed). Ed questioned Competitor #2 but they maintained it was fresh product. Ed had no choice but to order samples from Competitor #1 and #2. The sample products arrived in the morning; but it was not until mid-afternoon when Ed had time to check it. Not surprisingly, Competitor #2's product showed signs of being thawed. The edges of the fish turned a light brown and the fillets continued to lose water as the cellular structure exhibited signs of freezing.

Competitor #1 further explained that some product can not be quoted weekly unless you are only going to buy once. The disadvantage is that prices will swing. But, he explained, "you'll never call with quality problems."

Ed's meeting with Chef Jon was a short one. Good quality and integrity was the choice as Competitor #1 was awarded the business after a tour of their food safe facility.

Chef Jon and Ed's fish challenges are not uncommon. Just ask "Why" is a phrase required of today's chef and fish buyer. Other games to be aware of:

Poor fillet trimming resulting in further trimming will increase your cost per pound - thus, the lowest price may actually be the highest.

Selling products beyond a fish season suggest substitution or poaching

Cheaper product with prices that last more than 5 days suggest bulk buying - beware of less shelf life.

Buying fish from "long trip" boats as opposed to day boats - lower prices but poorer quality.

As all fish buyers know, they can either play or avoid fish games. Just ask why.

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