The Fishmonger: Generalist and Connoisseur

I’m a New Yorker, and I’ve had my fair share of days that begin at sunset and end at sunrise. But none that compare to spending a day at the docks. I’ve been coming to Pier 45 for a few weeks now, consulting in the office of a family-owned seafood wholesaler. Although I’ve built a career in business operations, today’s operations will be a bit different: processing fish at a commercial scale is a vertical that will be my first.

2 am

It’s just shy of 2 am when I arrive to meet the opening manager. He’s been with the company for several years, significantly longer than my tenure here, but for obvious reasons our hours typically don’t overlap. I’m hoping to learn as much as I can about his workstreams, the flow of customer order information through the warehouse, and general inventory practices. In return, my goal is to work with the team to operationalize processes, update systems, and get a handle on helping this company reach its next revenue milestone by launching a new business line.

You see, of the many devastating consequences of the pandemic, the agri/aquaculture and wholesale industries took a sizable hit, too. As a result of COVID and the “evaporation of foodservice demand”, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations forecasts that the trade value of seafood will decrease by at least $5.8billion to close out the year. Additionally, labor shortages in the supply chain have severely impacted producers and wholesale efficiencies, while demand for specific items have already seen and will continue to experience significant changes (30–40% decrease in shrimp production, and a 15% decrease in salmon demand for 2020 — source).

Because of this, many producers and wholesalers have begun to explore new revenue models, experimenting with direct to consumer brands, or added value products like meal kits. We (a small team of industry veterans and small business operators) are in the process of launching Truefish, a DTC brand for this Pier 45 wholesaler. The vision is that it not just augment current wholesale revenue, but continues to build enough momentum that it can stand on its own. As any good operator knows, it’s important to learn how the proverbial sausage is made.

4 am

We sit in the office and listen to voicemails of change orders and address updates, scribbling notes on pieces of paper that will act as the single source of truth for pickers, cutters, packers, and drivers. It’s a standard of communication that I’m all too familiar with, having worked on the restaurant side for several years: placing last-minute orders with the expectation that the vendor can decipher your madness. The opportunities for optimization are clear, the joys of design and implementation to come shortly.

With all the various channel inboxes now cleared, we finalize the master picklist and send it off for cold storage review. This particular wholesaler prides itself on fresh, local, and sustainable seafood, but with a product list comprised of thousands of SKUs, it’s tough to rely exclusively on the Bay. Even when product is flown in from Japan, Hawaii, or Malta, it typically arrives fresh on ice, and from fleets or farms that adhere to sustainable and non-invasive practices. The buyers here maintain personal relationships with their producers, make site visits when possible, and speak excitedly about the various Monterey Seafood Watch certifications each producer holds. Today's orders include local yellowfin tuna, local bluefin tuna, Atlantic salmon, Scottish salmon, Tamales Bay oysters, Maine lobster, red snapper, Japanese Iwashi, and rock cod, to name a few.

5 am

The team gets to work in assembly-line fashion: the picker heads to the cold storage room and grabs existing inventory, while forklifts begin to shuttle in ice-filled totes from trucks on the pier or fresh from the boats. The cutters set up their stations, check cleaning hoses, sharpen fillet and deboning tools, and wait for product to land on their table. After the fish are processed and their cut weights are marked, packers wheel the finished bins to the packing room. Here the various fillets/steaks/sides are wrapped, tagged, boxed up, and paired with their order sheets, organized by delivery zone, and ready for the 7 am shift. A whole fish goes from dock to shipment-ready deconstruction in a matter of minutes, in a process that will be repeated for several thousand pounds of seafood and hundreds of Bay Area delivery destinations over the course of the morning.

It’s an impressive process, from dock to door, especially at scale. But what really caught my attention was the team. Fishmongers are their own breed of generalist craftspeople. Over the course of the morning, many of them handled different types of fish in rapid succession and knew precisely where to cut in order to debone, fillet, and produce the highest yield. This is one differentiator that sets this wholesaler apart: in addition to an emphasis on respect for the sea, the knife skills are unmatched by machine and human, alike. It was truly incredible to witness the precision and near mechanization of the entire line.

In addition to this, every cutter began their career with the company as either a driver, picker, or packer, and seamlessly would pinch hit for various other roles throughout the course of the morning. They walked me through how to process a fish, how to cook various cuts, where each was caught, and how to package to preserve freshness. I learned that the collar meat from a yellowfin tuna (typically popular for grilling) is a sashimi favorite amongst the team, citing it as comparable to toro at a fraction of the price. Their knowledge and appreciation are of the entire ecosystem, and they took immense pride in being able to wear many hats along the way.

So what’s next?

We’re launching Truefish in partnership with this wholesaler to bring fresh seafood from our docks to your door. As we continue to work behind the scenes on operations, I’m excited to continue learning from these industry professionals about their craft and the systems that power our relationship with food.

If you’re curious to learn more, stay up to date, or want to order some of the Bay Area’s freshest, highest quality, and most affordable fish, drop us a line: www.truefish.com

Helping mission-driven founders launch sustainable businesses. But mostly running 🏃🏻‍♂️.