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Top Story: The market that doesn’t sleep

New York City’s one-of-a-kind Fulton Fish Market is alive and kicking

By James Wright
November 01, 2013

Just about all of the New York restaurants that Roberto Nuñez buys fresh seafood for want the same thing: genuine American red snapper (Lutjanes campechanus). He’s skeptical about finding any, though, because the guys at Fulton Fish Market haven’t had much to offer lately. It’s getting close to 2 a.m. on a late-September Thursday, as good a day as any to buy fish, he reveals. It may be several hours before dawn in the farthest reaches of the Bronx, but it’s time to go to work, because the market opened for business within the hour. This is no job, and no place, for timid types. 

As he drives his van through the gated, modernized seafood hub, passing a dozen or more trucks unloading fish, Nuñez — who local traders call both Roberto and Robert, depending on how well they know him — senses he’ll have a wide array of options once inside. There’s talk of some spectacular Spanish mackerel about, and he’s already pondering the snapper substitutes he’ll undoubtedly have to make, while reviewing a shopping list on a piece of scrap paper he jotted down from chefs’ voicemails, text messages and emails. 

He buys some of their seafood for them over the phone like anybody else, but there’s nothing like actually seeing and touching the product before purchase. Aside from New England’s display auctions that allow for early-morning lot inspections before online bids begin, the New Fulton Fish Market Cooperative here on Hunt’s Point in the Bronx is one of the last places in the world where you can truly buy with your eyes, wholesale. You want that fish? You got it. New York is known for window-shopping, but this place takes the hake. 

He’s fashionably late, but it’s a good time to arrive, Nuñez says, because all the vendors should be set up and ready to deal. Now if he can only find some red snapper. 

“Everyone loves American red snapper,” he says, shaking his head before striding confidently inside. He’s referring to the budding Mario Batali and Lidia and Joe Bastianich restaurant empires he buys for — about 90 percent of the fish served at the notable chefs’ restaurants has to pass his demanding criteria before ever touching a cutting board. “But my policy is I gotta bring something, so I often have to get creative. I can’t show up empty-handed.” 

Business at Eataly, a Batali restaurant on Fifth Avenue, is booming; so good that a second location is on track to open in Chicago this fall, he says, hesitating for a bit when asked about procuring its seafood essentials in the coming weeks. Conversations about that will surely pick up soon. 

What Nuñez does know is that the Eataly crew will flip for the first thing he lands tonight: a black plastic bag packed with fresh monkfish livers. They’re bright pink and bouncy to the touch — just right. He grabs them at the Lockwood & Winant stand at Unit 99, looking around to make sure nobody’s claimed them yet, almost like he can’t believe what he just scored. By simply pointing at them with a raised eyebrow, Nuñez tells the vendor he wants them. Lucky day, they’re available. The bag is hoisted onto the scale. 

With all 27 pounds now his, he sports a sly grin on his face like he didn’t even care what they cost. That’s because we soon pass another box of livers that aren’t nearly as nice. “See those? See how much darker and wetter they are?” he asks, barely pausing before walking on. Indeed, there is a noticeable difference, as this bunch boasts a touch of blood and appears to be a day older, maybe two. “Makes me glad I hopped on those other ones when I did,” he says with a burglar’s smirk, reflecting briefly on his good fortune before moving on like a shark in bloody water. 

The 46-year-old Lima, Peru, native is clearly in his element. Yeah, it’s wet and it’s cold (a steady 38 degrees F) and more than a little whiffy — a funky mixture of sea water, fish innards, gasoline fumes and cigarette smoke wafts through the air, despite the fact that smoking inside is verboten. But Nuñez is right where he needs to be to do the job, which is buy the best fish he can find for the 10 busy city restaurants he supplies. 

“There’s really nothing like New York,” he says, plunging a handmade wood-handled Japanese fishhook into the head of a local striped bass and lifting it into a hanging scale, the kind that’s in every wholesaler’s stand. All the fellas in the joint, it seems, carry one of these menacing tools, so you better watch your step. When they’re not being used to drag an icy wax-covered box of H&G salmon across the wet floor or spike a 15-pound golden tilefish in back of the head, they usually rest on their shoulders. The vendors’ clothing — ripped Carhartt jackets, hoodie sweatshirts and oversized New York Jets jerseys — plainly indicates the preferred landing spot for their indispensable instrument. 

Nuñez, whose prized apparatus protrudes from the back pocket of his faded Levi’s jeans, has fish-inspection skills worthy of respect — after all, he’s been coming here for more than 13 years now, with 19 years of service for the Bastianich/Batali group. He carefully lifts cod gills to scrutinize their color, peers into grouper eyes to check for clarity and gently presses Florida blue crab carapaces to feel how soft they are, before carping about the price (even though he clearly wants them). “Very expensive, $58 a dozen. A dozen!” He opts to pass, thinking that’s too much for Felidia, Lidia Bastianich’s restaurant on East 58th Street. Her kitchen crew would likely be happy with the baby octopus from Greece or the urchin roe from Chile. The fish in this building hails from all corners of the globe,  from Newfoundland to New Zealand. 

The mere look on Nuñez’s face signals if he likes something or not. He’ll pass boxes of nice-looking fish without stopping, because he’s fixed on the steel table of fresh mahimahi that’s calling his name. He grabs the best four bullets, weighs them up and quietly ponders which restaurant gets what. He’s constantly scribbling notes and checking his smartphone. 

Suddenly, a horn honks loudly. “Outta da way potato head!” screams a forklift driver before muttering some more as I step back. With dozens of those suckers scooting around at 20 mph, and fishmongers talking twice as fast, the action at Fulton really keeps you on your toes. If you want to keep them all, that is. 

A hard day’s night  

In some ways, little has changed since Fulton departed Manhattan for the Bronx more than eight years ago: It’s still crazy busy, it’s still equal parts reputable and rude and it’s still a gritty gig — it’s still New York.  

In other respects, the ones that truly count in today’s sanitized foodservice world, the new place is nothing like the decrepit digs on South Street in Lower Manhattan, where fresh fish and food safety were rarely uttered in the same breath. Instead of rainwater dripping onto boxes from the viaduct above and summer temperatures wreaking havoc on a highly perishable inventory (same goes for the dead of winter) in the open-air market, the climate-controlled facility designed for in-and-out ease is a godsend — or at least it depends on who you ask. 

“It’s much bettah!” exclaims David Samuels, who runs Blue Ribbon Fish Co., along with several family members. With his nephew Bob Weiss on the team, it’s a fourth-generation business, the one founded by his grandfather Nathan in 1931. “Like trading in a Ford Comet for a new BMW. Anyone who tells you any different is not a businessman. Workin’ outdoors, you kiddin’?” 

The Bronx facility is one-quarter mile long, Samuels explains, and it’s worth every square foot (all 400,000 of them). Fulton is now the second-biggest seafood wholesale building in the world, second only to Tsukiji in Tokyo. 

“It’s the length of the Empire State Building. It’s the best $85 million the city ever spent. It’s a fantastic resource” for the 20,000 restaurants and hundreds of fish markets throughout the city’s five boroughs, Samuels adds. He’s obviously proud of this place, as well as his place in it, as demanding as the conditions may be. “What would New York be without this, huh? It’d be Philly,” he deadpans with a subtle wink, like only a lifelong New Yorker can. 

For years, however, it seemed like this space would never see the light of day (or the dark of night), with one delay after another pushing back its long-anticipated opening. The original Seaport marketplace along the East River dates back to the 1600s, and was always near the center of activity in America’s largest city. The building that housed the original Fulton Fish Market opened to salty fishmongers in 1822 and was their home for 183 years, but by the end of the 20th century it was well past the stage of showing its age. In 2005, the new Bronx facility finally opened its doors to three dozen seafood companies, to the chagrin of the city’s nostalgic old-timers and to the applause of aroma-eschewing Wall Street suits and the gentrification they represented. 

Fulton’s history is colorful, to say the least. The United Seafood Worker Union has long held significant influence on daily operations, as did a lengthy dispute between wholesalers and Laro Service Systems, which held a monopoly on delivering fish to individual stalls, a job the companies wanted to do themselves. In the 1980s, Mayor Ed Koch vowed to rid Fulton of its not-so-secret mafia influences and the city has been largely successful in that objective, say current vendors. Unending rancor and racketeering in the form of payments for pickups and other nefarious dealings were part of Fulton’s charm, some might have argued. The real working chefs who ventured there to build (and earn) trust found that task by no means easy. 

“I went fairly regularly to keep my finger on the pulse and make the purchase directly, which took a while to happen. Individual families sold to bigger distributors, and if they sold to me directly, the distributors would be upset,” says Rick Moonen, owner and founder of RM Seafood in Las Vegas. For years, Moonen made regular trips to Fulton as chef at the Water Club and later Oceana. He knew he’d earned the vendors’ respect when he’d spot them dining in his restaurant. Ten years removed from the Big Apple, his Fulton memories are mostly fond. 

“At three o’clock in the morning, there’s no safer place to be in New York City,” he adds, with a laugh. “There, you felt like part of a family. Once you were in, you were in. But you have to be recognized and respected for [the vendors] to be comfortable. It was awesome. But those guys, it was like they were a family forced to move out of their house. The old place was so cool, so archaic, so visceral and real. The new place feels like a dog that got neutered. It lost a lot of its rough and tumble original flair.” 

The days of temperature-control troubles and the meddling Genovese crime family are long gone. The only payoff that persists is the monthly gate-access fee for buyers. The only heat you have to handle is the pressure on your bottom line, which is as heavy as ever. With shrewd guys like Nuñez pushing the buttons, margins can take a hit. Still, the buyer-seller symbiosis here is unique and creates a palpable energy that’s fun to watch. 

“Most important to my success is good relationships. They know who I work for, who I am. They might be hiding fish out back that they’ll show only to me. They know they can’t mess around with me,” Nuñez says, without at all sounding cocky. He buys regularly from about seven or eight of the businesses here. “It’s fun, interacting with them; as you can see, there are so many personalities. Usually, we’re both happy.” 

Not everyone beams these days when discussing Fulton and its prospects. Some vendors fear rents may increase, putting even more pressure on razor-thin margins. Others simply miss Manhattan. 

Alaskan Fresh is the only one of 34 registered vendors in Fulton that has no fish on the floor today. Operating costs have increased since the move to the Bronx, says GM Dan Kim, so his business has been aggressively pursuing export opportunities and offering less-common items like fresh cooked and live king crab, which he
says the competition lacks. This makes more sense, he adds, than to play the price-matching game and fight over the same pool of Fulton customers. 

“I got my ass kicked the last couple years selling product on the floor,” says Kim. “There’s no money in it unless you push volume, volume, volume. That’s why we find branding our products so compelling.” 

Alaskan Feast is becoming more of a purveyor than a traditional wholesaler, he adds, pushing its Benefishal line of smoked products through more contemporary distribution channels. “Some of the major players are shifting to that model,” he says, adding that he’s considered leaving Fulton altogether, as about a half dozen other companies already have since the move. He’s staying, for now. 

“I wouldn’t say we’ve outgrown it. It’s a management of priorities now,” Kim says, declining to get into specifics. “The city/landlord and the cooperative definitely have some issues that need to be quickly resolved, things that have significant implications for us in the short and long term.” 

Way out there?  

King of the kitchen at Esca on West 43rd St., Dave Pasternack is demanding when it comes to buying fish for his upscale clientele. If he had the time, or never slept, he’d do all the buying himself for one of his friend Batali’s most respected restaurants. So he trusts Nuñez and his discriminating eye implicitly. 

“We understand each other,” says Pasternack. “It’s important that he has the clout to pull the trigger. Even if I don’t need something I give him the benefit of the doubt.” 

Pasternack believes the new Fulton is good for the product, and “somewhat” good for retailers. But the old days were just different — instead of visiting the market several times a week, he’s down to once a month. The round trip to the Bronx is a “[expletive] pain in the ass.” So does he miss the old barn under the bridge? 

“Big time,” he says. “It was a market for the people. Anybody could go there. I liked the old market and its chaos. Some of the greatest sunrises I ever saw were there, coming up from under the Brooklyn Bridge, as the guys unload fish. It was more colorful, charismatic — like a good novel.” 

It’s now 4 a.m. Summer is officially over: The Yankees’ postseason hopes were doused at the Stadium the previous evening, and the city is unusually quiet. Maybe that’s because we’re way out on the periphery of the Bronx, where you can’t see the city lights. Maybe the city is actually asleep for once. Not here, though. Six nights a week, this place is hopping. 

More forklifts speed over to load Nuñez’s delivery truck with boxes of Fulton’s freshest. He ballparks his annual Fulton fish spend at $1.5 million. Not every day is as successful as this one, so he sounds relieved. 

“Today was a good day,” Nuñez says, placing his hook into the back of his van and removing his Yankee cap and black Fulton Fish Market jacket before climbing in to drive into the city and map out the day’s distribution. Not everything on his wish list got checked off, but that’s fine. He knows he got the best stuff available. “I wanted at least 100 pounds of red snapper, but there wasn’t a single pound of it. I’ll take a shot tomorrow.” 

Fulton, as usual, will be open. 

Email Senior Editor James Wright at jwright@divcom.com 

 

  November 2013 - SeaFood Business

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