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Business Trends: Traceability in action

Chefs, diners follow their fish with Trace and Trust

By Joanne Friedrick
November 05, 2011

When diners at Hungry Mother restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., order the “local catch en papillote,” they get a little something extra to go with the scup with mushrooms, leeks, potatoes and Tuscan kale in a beurre blanc sauce. What comes along with the entrée is a code that allows them to trace the origin of the fish to the date it was caught and the fisherman and vessel that landed it.

Barry Maiden, chef and proprietor of Hungry Mother, is participating in the Trace and Trust program that launched late last year. The program links fishermen, mostly from Rhode Island where it was conceived, with New England restaurateurs who want to offer customers a story behind the fish they are eating and have a guarantee for themselves that the fish is fresh and high quality.

Customers who entered the code printed on Hungry Mother’s menu in late September were directed to the Trace and Trust website, where they found that the scup was landed by Steve Arnold on Sept. 22 while fishing near Block Island. He sold the 85 pounds of fish from that catch to Hungry Mother and Tastings Wine Bar and Bistro in Foxboro, Mass.

The idea for Trace and Trust was born from a meeting of Rhode Island fishermen and restaurant owners working with Mike Clayton, founder of Trace and Trust and an industry consultant who also operates the Cap Log Group in San Diego.

“I did some work with smaller boat operators in New England,” says Clayton, “and I saw the trend toward traceability. But most of it was coming from the top down, for example large retailers wanting traceability, and that didn’t necessarily help day-boat fishermen out of South Boston.”

Linking small fishermen with individual restaurants benefits both, Clayton says. “Small fishermen bring security of supply,” he points out. “And the beauty of traceability to the vessel is that it lets the fishermen differentiate their business.”

Each of the six fishermen currently participating uploads information to the Trace and Trust website on the specific catch, including date, location of the catch and the name of the ship and port. This information corresponds with a coded tag on the fish, so the restaurateur then can view this information. Then the restaurant uses that information however it wishes — sometimes through putting the code on the menu, other times by creating a link between a QR code and the website or maybe just by highlighting the information on the menu and allowing staff members to pass along the specifics.

A participant from early on, Maiden met with Arnold to discuss what his needs would be and what types of fish Arnold could supply. The focus has been primarily on groundfish such as fluke, skate, scup and striped sea robin.

Maiden’s order arrives scaled and gutted to his specifications. While he expects fresh fish from all of his purveyors, Maiden emphasizes to his staff that the Trace and Trust fish “is unique beyond our regular purveyors.”

Since his first experience receiving skate from Arnold, Maiden has since purchased black sea bass, scup (which he likes to present on the menu as sea bream) and bluefish.

Working with Trace and Trust hasn’t driven up the price of the fish, says Maiden. “I think it’s competitive in price, especially because it is so fresh. The quality of the fish is high for the same price [as other purveyors offer], if not a little cheaper.”

Trace and Trust is still in its proof-of-concept phase, says Clayton, meaning it isn’t focused on turning a profit just yet. “We’ve tried to stay away from a subscription requirement,” he says, adding “for this to succeed, it has to be something [restaurants] want to do.” But he is anticipating a change in the revenue model.

Each party has certain requirements, says Clayton. For fishermen, they must separate the fish that is being coded from the rest of the catch and record the landing information. There are also periodic audits to make sure directions are being followed, he says.

The core issue for restaurant partners is that they notify Trace and Trust when they receive their fish and that it maintains ID integrity from the kitchen to the plate, by keeping it separate and identifiable as Trace and Trust product.

Feedback from customers to the wait staff has been positive so far, says Maiden, who recently added a QR code to his menu. “Now that we have the code on [the menu], I’d like to get some firsthand feedback,” he adds.

The relationships between the fishermen and the chefs has been exciting and satisfying for Clayton, who likens it to older times when a fisherman who took great pride in his catch sold it on a daily basis to chefs.

In some instances, restaurants aren’t dictating what they need, but rather are shaping their menus around what individual fishermen can provide that week.

Down the road, Clayton says Trace and Trust will continue to expand, adding fishermen in the Carolinas and some in Southern California. “We’ve had interest from more than 50 fishermen,” he says, “but it’s a change in process.”

There are about 95 East Coast restaurants participating, he says, stretching from Boston to Philadelphia. One of Clayton’s jobs is helping restaurants make the most of this experience by marketing it to their customers. “I’m working with them to take advantage of the extra effort it takes to make this happen,” he says.

Another idea on Clayton’s back burner is to offer DNA testing to restaurants so they can ensure the integrity of the other fish they offer. Working with a university lab, Clayton says he’d like to provide this service “so they can understand the origin of our fish and the other fish they serve.”

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

November 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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