A blue tag in the gaping mouth of a 10-pound wild striped bass at the Fulton Fish Market tells its story from life to death in spare detail: who caught it, in which waters, at what time and how.
What’s not yet known is who will eat it. But chances are it won’t be an American.
Every midnight in the bustling Hunts Point facility that hosts the world-famous Fulton Fish Market, tons of product roll through the doors. Most of it comes from U.S. waters — mainly around Long Island and off the shores of New England.
At the same time, buyers willing to pay top dollar mingle outside, waiting for the market to open 1 a.m.
It’s a group as diverse as the ocean bounty being unloaded within.
Among them are representatives of many of the city’s top-shelf restaurants, but it will be buyers from world-class establishments all around the globe — in Japan, China, Northern Africa, Europe and elsewhere — who will snag most of the freshest, highest-quality product and fly it abroad, to be sold the next day at premium prices.
It’s worth it to those markets to know they’re eating fresh, untainted fish — and nowhere in the world is regulation tighter than in the U.S.
Which raises the question: how can more Americans get in on this?
Enter Meade Digital — a South Bronx startup that lets customers anywhere in the country order directly through fultonfishmarket.com, a custom website that delivers the catch of the day.
Currently, 90% of the fish consumed in the U.S. is lower-quality frozen product imported from overseas, while 75% of fish caught in our waters — among the cleanest and safest in the world — goes to wealthy markets overseas, said Mike Spindler, CEO of fultonfishmarket.com.
He aims to change that.
The website has already offered a lifeline to the Fulton Fish Market’s old-fashioned business model, which was slowly deteriorating due to global competition and a drop-off in foot traffic caused by its 2005 relocation from lower Manhattan to Hunts Point Terminal in the South Bronx.
Now home to 28 vendors and a cafe, the Fulton Fish Market employs hundreds of workers — most of them members of United Sea Food Workers Union Local 359 of the AFL-CIO.
“This is one of the best-kept secrets in the city in terms of jobs,” said Jerome Harris, who works at Slavin & Sons fishmonger. “I’ve been at the market seven years, it’s a union job, and those are the best ones to have — we have benefits and good pay. I’m not even going to tell you how much fish I get because then everyone’s going to want to work here.”
Since going digital about a year and a half ago, the Fulton Fish Market website has grown from a small delivery enterprise to one that represents roughly 7% of the market’s total business.
It’s not a bad outcome for a startup company that very nearly became the one that got away.
It was the brainchild of Jody Meade, a 30-year-old entrepreneur who came to the city when he was 24, straight from studying business at Penn State.
Looking to get in at a hedge fund, Meade began working in product development at Zagat — and then picked up a side gig selling oysters to high-end restaurants in Manhattan.
“I read an article about a hedge funder who quit his job and started an oyster farming business, so I called him up and said, I want to work with you,” Meade said.
One day, while juggling the two jobs, Meade was sent to the Fulton Fish Market by a restaurant client who wanted him to pick up an order.
“I walked in and I was hooked right away,” said Meade, who still comes to the South Bronx market most nights to dash around and maintain relationships. “I saw the potential immediately — and I couldn’t believe it had absolutely no online presence.”
While Meade was sold on the .com future, it wasn’t easy to convince the mom-and-pop fish sellers to let him take them digital.
“I basically walked the market almost every night for three years, just letting them see me, trying to make connections,” said Meade.
“I always wore the same clothes so they would recognize me, maroon pants and a yellow-and-black Northface jacket. They called me Dr. Deranged.”
Bit by bit, he wore them down and through a combination of hard work, the right connections to a committed investor and help from City Hall, fultonfishmarket.com was born.
In its short life, fultonfishmarket.com has already brought roughly two dozen new jobs to the South Bronx, and several Bronx locals can be found among its production and fulfillment staff.
Outside of its newfound online presence and its location, little has changed at the famous fish market, which got its start in 1822.
The familiar brackish odor that once permeated the South Street Seaport hangs heavy in the noisy warehouse, which fills every night with the cacophony of aggressive fishmongers and the whiz of delivery carts moving from the loading bay to the sales floor.
Buyers rushing from one purveyor to the other push past a rainbow array straight from the sea: yawning red-scaled grouper, colossal rolls of silver swordfish, milky oysters clamped in briny green shells, vivid yellow-bellied and finned jacks and trigger fish, raw and rosy scallops and bushels piled high with rippling lobsters and soft-shell crabs.
Endless rows of ice-nestled fish showcase the market’s tremendous variety — richness few Americans ever get the chance to see, much less to eat.
Even in the market’s hometown, most of the fish sold in local stores has been caught in Southeast Asia, where environmental regulations are loose and enforcement even looser. It’s frozen and flown here, and most of us are none the wiser.
But now, for about what most people would pay for fish at Whole Foods, buyers can tap into the Fulton Fish Market by going online.
“You can place an order up to 1 a.m. on say, a Tuesday, and we’ll have it to you that day, sometimes within four or five hours,” said Spindler.
To meet demand, Spindler and his employees work with split-second precision — mostly from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., with the crunch time coming between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., when all orders must be completed to make airplane connections out of JFK and LaGuardia.
As online orders come in through fultonfishmarket.com, Anthony Dattolico, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who now works with Spindler, goes shopping.
Competing among the first wave of buyers who flood the market around 1 a.m. for the very high-end stuff, Dattolico hunts for the best-tasting products to meet his customers’ high standards.
He’s backed by David Bracher, whose technical title at fultonfishmarket.com is production manager/pricing. But his family history — 40 years with his dad’s Merrick Seafood on Long Island — makes him uniquely qualified to spot a bad fish, a skill every good buyer must learn.
Every night, Dattolico, Bracher and a third member of the .com team, Robert DiGregorio, aka Bobby Tuna — a chess master whose other skill is detecting the fresh-seafood imposters — wade onto the floor and greet the fishmongers by name.
Most of them are family businesses on their third or fourth — and sometimes fifth — generation. The genuine bonhomie, however, doesn’t get in the way of business.
As many as six or seven salesmen per company — each with a lethal fish hook slung casually over a shoulder — stand around the makeshift storefronts to deal with buyers.
Some of the muscle is also there to guard the icy merchandise. One misplaced box of premium product can mean a $2,000 loss — and a surprising number of fish can sprout legs and disappear when backs are turned.
The actual sales are hard to see to the untrained eye — a casual approach, a quick nod of the head or a shrug of dismissal. A scribbled chit or sometimes just a handshake means the deed is done. Each buyer has a bay number and a vehicle number, and by the time they’ve made their rounds, all their orders have been packed and delivered to their waiting truck.
Some companies are known for specific products, like Salvatore “Calamari Kid” Ruggiero at Joe Monani Fish Company.
“I got squid ink in my veins,” Ruggiero bragged. Aside from squid, Monani is famous for its fresh lobster tails, harvested by three divers they hired and trained in the Bahamas.
David Samuels at Blue Ribbon is known as one of the most consistently high-quality sellers around — in part because of a long-ago relationship cemented by his grandfather with a fisherman in the seafaring powerhouse of Gloucester, Mass.
“My lunch today was a piece of Lingcod from a boat named ‘Vincien,’” said Samuels, whose family came to the U.S. from Russia three generations ago.
“The guy who caught it, his grandfather caught fish and sold it to my grandfather, off a boat with the same name,” he said.
Asked about his preferred fish, he laughed.
“Fish are like children for me — I have no favorite. I eat them all.”
As Dattolico and crew make their rounds, they balance price against quality, but with one overriding mandate in mind: taste trumps everything.
It’s imperative, Spindler said, to entice clients to get past the natural worry of buying fish online.
“We do tastings within the company all the time, Anthony arranges them and with his chef background, he can really separate the best from the best,” said Spindler.
The company is also adept at identifying when one type of fish masquerades as another, which happens far more often than most people think, he said. “The fishing industry is tremendously opaque and often by design. Part of that is the companies need to sell what they have, which may not necessarily be what you are asking for.”
Other motivations are more malevolent, such as hiding the origins of fish caught by illegal means, like net fishing, or from an area that’s polluted — or fish from a protected species that shouldn’t have been caught at all.
“China is a major player in the fake fish market,” Spindler noted. “They’ll send their product to Indonesia to be broken down, repackaged and sold as coming from there.”
To combat the prevalence of scams, Spindler’s team buys entire fish — not just cut-up pieces whose pedigree can be murky.
It can also test the DNA of a fish and even run a food test that reveals what it’s been eating, he said.
Happily for Spindler, the majority of Fulton Fish Market product is wild-caught and local.
But some types of farmed fish will also come into the mix, along with some foreign creatures, like massive tuna usually hooked in the Maldives.
Before dealing with any fish farms, Spindler said, he and Dattolico inspect them for sustainability, cleanliness and what’s known as “low pen density,” to make sure the fish aren’t crowded.
And all the farm fish is taste-tested before its sold, he added.
As soon as Dattolico and his team start making purchases on the market floor, the order is hefted to a far corner of the warehouse, where fultonfishmarket.com has its small production facility.
Each order is bar-coded with the fishes’ biographical details and the buyer’s info, put in a color-coded bin that indicates its urgency and then picked up by Spindler’s production team.
Inside a 37-degree packing area, the fish is broken down per the buyer’s instructions. For restaurants and big consumers who tend to buy the entire fish from head to tail, Spindler’s seafood merchandisers, as he calls them, don’t have to do much but vacuum-seal the whole animal, pack it on ice and box it up.
But other customers buy with specific instructions.
“We have one who orders a lot of branzino, like 30 at a time. He wants the bones out, a butterfly cut and the heads on,” Spindler said. “So that’s what we do.”
Seafood merchandisers break down the fish with dizzying speed — laying certain types over a lightbox to check for parasites — and then pass them along the production chain.
Placed on microbial-resistant backing, the fish is then vacuum-sealed, the bar code scanned again and an order name and address printed on a label. The packaged fish is placed in a box filled with ice-packs and lined with biodegradable cotton that Spindler says is great for composting.
From there, the boxes are lined up at delivery stations. Local orders around the city go out on trucks while those in other cities — anywhere in the country — are rushed to the airport, placed on a plane and picked up for delivery by a local courier or driver, sometimes even Uber Eats, Spindler, 66, said.
The company’s success has translated into a new future for Greg “Flash” Jacobus, 37, who was struggling with part-time gigs before he found employment as a seafood merchandiser.
“The hours are actually great, it lets me spend time with my daughter Brooklynn,” said Jacobus.
“I had no experience in this and they trained me in everything,” he said.
Crystal Gometz, 29, hired two weeks ago, said she’s looking forward to learning to fillet fish.
“They haven’t really taught me knife skills yet — I can butterfly, that’s it,” she laughed.
But the mother of two said she was most eager to make her first 401k contribution.
“I’ve never had a job that offered that before plus benefits,” she said, “and I can’t wait to get started.”