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Joe Gurrera On Selling Seafood When Restaurants Aren’t Buying

Making up losses in hospitality with wholesale and retail as more people cook fish at home.

Joe Gurrera is the owner and fishmonger of upscale regional grocery Citarella. He also runs a large seafood wholesaler out of New York’s Fulton Fish Market, which before the pandemic served many of the city’s restaurants.

We’ve been pretty lucky that our fishermen are still bringing in fresh fish, especially out of Montauk or Shinnecock, and also out of the Carolinas or in the Virginia area—whether it’s Beaufort, South Carolina, or my other guys in North Carolina.

We get our farm salmon from the Faroe Islands. We get some from Norway. We’ll get some branzino in from Greece. Our seafood supply has pretty much been untouched by the pandemic.

What is happening is that a lot more people are cooking at home. Whether we’re talking about seafood, meats, or produce, that’s all multiplied tremendously. People still have to eat one way or the other. Whether they go to a restaurant or they eat at home, they still have to eat. I own a wholesale company in the Fulton Fish Market called Lockwood & Winant. That gives me direct access and allows me to ensure that I have the best seafood for all my retail locations.

Joe Gurrera at his wholesaler in Fulton Fish Market, which supplied seafood to many New York restaurants before the pandemic. Photo: Courtesy Joe Gurrera.

Selling to restaurants is a larger volume business. But it is what it is. Seafood is up over 200 percent in the stores, and people are just cooking at home. As an owner in the Fulton Fish Market, the first thing I could tell you is that I’m fortunate that I work with some pretty good fishermen, because they still continue to fish, which is pretty important for me. It’s unfortunate that the restaurants are not there. There’s a little business with outdoor dining, but we’re going to see what happens when the weather changes.

Overall, we’re actually increasing the amounts we’re buying. Instead of buying 100 pounds of flounder, we’re buying 300 pounds of flounder, or whatever the case may be. We’re not creating new seafood items. We’re just selling more of the same. We’re buying more for the retail stores, while we’re buying 10 percent of what we were buying before for restaurants.

When the pandemic started, the Fulton Fish Market was off maybe 50 percent. Then it started picking back up, and it was pretty good. It was maybe 75 or 80 percent. Then the riots started, and it went back down again a little bit because people were afraid to go out. Now it’s coming back again.

Soft-shell crabs. Photo: Courtesy Joe Gurrera.

The beginning of the pandemic was also the beginning of soft-shell crab season. The majority of soft-shell crabs are sold to restaurants. And they weren’t around. So what happened was the price had to come down in order for Citarella and other retail establishments to be able to sell a lot of those crabs. I haven’t seen prices that cheap in 10 years. Same thing with lobster.

That was in March or April—since then prices have flattened out. Now that we’ve been in the pandemic for six months, people know what they’re doing. It’s not normal, but we’re getting used to the steps. In March and April we said, “Holy shit. What are we doing?” Now we’re getting into it a little bit more.

I’m not convinced that the industry will contract at all. People still have to eat, period. I think they’re making healthier choices. I’m not selling premade salads as much as before. But I am selling four times the amount of arugula because they’re making their own salads.

The only thing I will tell you for sure is that holidays are not the same. On Easter and Mother’s Day, there were no big gatherings. Normally you would have cakes and have people over. But on Easter or Passover, there was none of that. Holidays were almost nonexistent in sales because there were no gatherings. There were no family meals. Now things are a little bit different. The weather’s nice now. People can eat outside in their backyards. You couldn’t do that in March.

Right now, things are a little more relaxed. So the end of year holidays might be a little bit more relaxed. But really I have no idea what Thanksgiving is going to bring.

Fortunately for me and ordering, the items we’re buying are not manufactured. It’s fresh merchandise. It’s not like I need ten thousand knit sweaters for Christmas for Saks Fifth Avenue. When the fishermen go out, they’re going fishing. Maybe they’re going to catch, maybe they’re not going to catch. That’s why they call it fishing.