Fulton Fish Market Swims Upstream
Long before New Yorkers could order poke at nearly any food hall in the city or order a fried fish sandwich for 3 a.m. delivery, Fulton Fish Market was slinging out seafood at the crack of dawn. Since 1822, fishermen, fishmongers and wholesalers have lined Fulton Street at the East River, selling local fish to both professional and home cooks, providing much of New York City’s seafood from sundown to sunrise.
In 2005, the Fulton Fish Market officially shuttered in lower Manhattan, moving into an $86 million, New York City sponsored, 400,000-square-foot facility in Hunts Point. A decade after Mayor Giuliani began evicting vendors suspected of mob activity and following years of property value woes with the city of New York as well as new regulations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it was time for the market to move up the East River.
Inside the Bronx facility, now known as the New Fulton Fish Market, it’s hard to tell whether it’s 2 a.m. or 7 a.m., whether the sun has risen or just set a mere few hours ago. Despite the few glimmers of an iPhone here and there, it’s also nearly impossible to distinguish if it’s 2016 or 1986. The business of selling fish is old. Ancient, even. But the antiquity of FFM hasn’t stopped New York’s primary seafood supplier from prevailing into the modern age.
Jody Meade is accredited with bringing the FFM into the 21st century. While working at Zagat, Meade started selling oysters to high-end restaurants to make some extra cash. He’d stop by the Fulton Fish Market around 4 in the morning and deliver directly to chefs before his office job started at 9 a.m.
By 2010, Meade had built a solid reputation in the industry as a reliable seafood seller. As demands from chefs increased, he inquired about a Fulton Fish Market website to ease the fulfillment process. They didn’t have one. “That was the aha moment in my life,” Meade recalled. A few weeks later, he quit Zagat and started the process of bringing the century-old institution online. He aimed to sell FFM’s fresh products online to both consumers and restaurants, with a focus on providing high-quality seafood to landlocked areas of the country that usually do not receive fresh fish.
Generations of fishmongers and vendors weren’t quite as enthusiastic to break into the digital realm.
“It’s not easy talking six generations of business owners into using new technology,” said Meade. “They didn’t need it, they didn’t need me, they did enough and sold enough fish and didn’t want to do it. They didn’t trust me at first and didn’t believe in the idea.” Meade said many of the vendors weren’t familiar with the concept of online shopping. Many hadn’t even used a computer.
Eddie Manani, a third-generation wholesaler and president of Joe Manani Fish Company since 1985, was one of the cynics. “Personally, I don’t believe [e-commerce] is a good idea, he said. “I don’t believe that fresh fish will sell on the Internet because fresh fish is too fluctuating in price and availability.”
Many shared Manani’s old-school ideas, including Louis Rozzo, a fourth-generation wholesale seafood supplier, who still does not use e-commerce and instead hires a buyer to travel to the market each night.
Still, Meade was convinced that technology and fish sales belonged together. He began establishing relationships with veteran fishmongers, showing up to FFM every day and “hounding them” to sell the dream of vending seafood via an online platform. “I knew it was a great idea, and they had to understand it and believe it,” Meade said. “Over time, I became friends with a lot of them.”
This friendship allowed Meade to “carefully and slowly explain how the Internet worked” and build trust with vendors to demonstrate that he was trying to help.
Once vendors signed on for e-commerce, it took three years of legal negotiations with New York City, individual investors and an unnamed investor to launch the website in 2016. So far, it’s been a success with both vendors and customers.
“Ten years ago if someone told me to order fish online I would laugh—that’s disgusting,” Meade said. “Today I’m sending fish that’s right out of the water, the best fish in the world, all over the country.”
Before November 2014, Fulton Fish Market hadn’t made a single online sale. Following the official launch of e-commerce in summer 2016, FultonFishMarket.com plans to earn millions in sales by the end of the year. The market as a whole generates over a billion dollars in fish sales annually.
Ricky Schneider, who works at his family’s 40-year-old wholesale shellfish distribution company Montauk Seafood, spent 10 years working at the Manhattan market before it moved. He says that the move has helped business, though the ambiance has declined.
Schneider noted that “the new market is an indoor refrigerator. It used to be like an adventure, and now it’s like a job.” Part of the job has been growing the business online, which Schneider said has been great, and he’s excited to see where e-commerce will go. “It’s great that someone in Kansas can have fresh fish delivered to them every day,” he said. He’d love to see consumer e-commerce takeoff, especially with diners in the middle of the country.
The indoor refrigerator, however, is good for business, explained Director of Quality Control Robert (Bobby) DiGregorio. “The market has changed for the better,” he said. “It’s a cleaner, safer environment because it’s climate controlled and cleaner inside.” DiGregorio stands by the product, whether purchased in person or online. “I’m serious when I say that nobody has better fish than us,” he said. He also mentioned that he has “never met anyone who knows more than I do” when it comes to the seafood industry.
Shane Graybeal, the chef at Chicago’s Bin 36, has benefited from FFM’s expansion into the Midwest. Having never before lived more than four miles away from an ocean, East Coast transplant Graybeal was in a bit of a culture shock when he moved to Chicago last year and could smell rotten mussels wafting from a popular restaurant on Halstead. “Wow, this is terrible,” he thought to himself. In the Midwest, he believes, no one knows what fresh seafood is or what it could be.
“It was so refreshing to be introduced to Fulton Fish Market,” he said. He often swaps texts with his vendor at the market at 3 a.m. for orders the next day and said he wouldn’t have even tried to do business with FFM in the pre-cell-phone era. The digital age allows Graybeal to get fresh fish from the East Coast in his Chicago kitchen at 9 a.m.
“There are obviously a lot of challenges with doing this. It’s not like you’re ordering something from Amazon, your package gets lost and you can get your product three months later: If you lose 20 pounds of fresh shrimp, it’s gone.” The chef said great communication and customer service has made working with FFM, despite the distance, “really great.”
Many New York chefs agree. They may visit the market every so often, but the distance makes consistent trips a struggle. Adrian Ramirez, the chef at New York’s trendy La Esquina, is a loyal FFM customer. Even though his Nolita restaurant is mere miles from FFM, he relies on FFM’s seafood delivery for his restaurant
Traveling to an industrial park (not easily accessible by public transit) in the middle of the night may not be many New Yorkers’ idea of a fun weeknight outing, but FFM is open to anyone. Meade, however, wants to show consumers what FFM is really like, using social media and technology to tell FFM’s story and “stick to it.”
“I want people to see the market,” he said. “People never know what to expect… They see big, burly men lugging fish all night, but you can approach them, and talk to them, they’re the friendliest, most knowledgeable people when it comes to all things seafood,” he said. “It’s very rewarding.”
Check out fultonfishmarket.com for more info or to order fresh, sustainable fish.