Florida Seafood Is Sold at Steak-House Prices. Why?

Categories: Chef Chat
Since I arrived in August, I've been struck by how much seafood on menus is from up north, whether it's swordfish, oysters, or lobster. I've also been curious at the pricing of local that's often higher than what's caught in the Caribbean and New England. What's the story?

grouper.jpg
A basket of snapper, just delivered, in the walk-in of a local fish distributor
I've been asking around -- line cooks, recreational fishermen, and chefs -- to find out more about this market. I thought Dean Max's assessment of how Florida seafood is selling at 3030 Ocean was especially interesting.

"Despite that 3030 Ocean is a seafood restaurant, we sell 48% beef. That's a pretty high percentage for a seafood restaurant," he said. "I'm not serving mahi sandwiches for under $20 here, so I think a lot of people don't want to commit to a plate that they're not familiar with."

Max said that at 3030 Ocean, year-round residents are less likely to order Florida seafood than visitors. "Visitors are all about local wahoo, pompano, and tuna," he said, though he's selling fewer stone crabs because they're so much more expensive than fish.

Red snapper, Ahi tuni, and mahi-mahi, are bestsellers, though when it's on the menu, black grouper sells out fastest. "People know black grouper. It's the hottest fish and the most flavorful grouper. That said, I can't sell it at my restaurants in Cleveland and Columbus, where most of the menu is under $20. Or if I do, I have to be more creative in the presentation."

Max says he buys black grouper wholesale for $16 to $18 a pound. He serves it filleted, with a vegetable and likely a sauce, which brings the restaurant cost to $13 a plate. "For me to build in cost of ingredients and labor, I'm charging $34 a plate for black grouper," he said. "Seafood has become steak-house pricing."

What about other varieties of the fish? "All grouper is expensive now," he said, because of catch limits and limited supply. "The days of the $8 grouper sandwich are done." Part of why it's so expensive is because it's the third year that grouper fishing is closed -- right in the middle of the season, which runs from January through April.

Pompano is making a modest regional comeback, of which Florida has "a small supply," he said. "You're not going to see Pompano out in California." Max describes it as an oily fish that's less gamey than bluefish from up north. He likes to pair it with something tangy, like a passion fruit vinaigrette with an arugula salad. "It contrasts really well with the bitterness of the salad." he said.

Do bigger name restaurants drive up the price of seafood? "It's not like ten or 15 years ago, when people ate beef, chicken, or salmon," he said. "I know people who eat fish three and four times a week. The demand is really high, and we just can't find enough product."

And while fish prices will fluctuate with the market, he doesn't see any significant relief from high prices. "Fish farming needs to improve. How will we do it in a healthy way that doesn't harm the environment?"


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9 comments
Vicky
Vicky

 You interview 1 guy, at a place that serves a $24 breakfast. Hotels overcharge for food. That's quite a scoop.

gna
gna

Interesting topic. It would be nice to see a followup on places to get fresh fish at a decent price in the area.

Melissamccart
Melissamccart

Good idea, though if you're getting grouper at a decent price right now it's something else masked as grouper.

I was just told from a fisherman that January and August are the worst months, so perhaps we should wait to buy local fish until February and resign ourselves to stuff from up north and out west for now?

The FoodBrat
The FoodBrat

Just to let you know Melissa, I am over on the West Coast - where the Grouper is caught and my prices are higher here than when I bought fish in Miami. How can this be? Supply and DEMAND....If there is more demand, there will eventually be more supply to that region. So all the Gulf Grouper caught here on the West Coast is sent immediately to the East Coast to cover the demand.

Chef Michael Bennettformer chef at Bimini BoatyardFLL

Tricia Woolfenden
Tricia Woolfenden

Hey Melissa, I recommend giving Chef Andy from Talia's/Baba's Shrimp Shack in Boca a call. He has lots to say on the topic of Florida fish vs. trucking it in from elsewhere.

Randy
Randy

Speaking of something else masked as grouper...that basket of fish in the picture is not grouper. Those are yellowtail snappers.

melissamccart
melissamccart

Actually Vicky I am writing a feature on florida seafood and have interviewed chefs, vendors, scientists, and fishermen in broward and miami for a feb article, dean is a pioneer in terms of local sourcing, an expert. His interview corroborates with others.

freakerdude
freakerdude

Chef Andrew rocks! Let's just say he is very opinionated too....hehe

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