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Product Spotlight: Croaker

This bony bycatch has a loyal following in the Southeast and the potential for larger markets

Rick Ramseyer
May 01, 2005

 Croaker has a bit of an image problem. The fish is bony, it’s sometimes considered bycatch, and its name isn’t particularly appetizing.

But thanks to its lean, tender flesh and near-sweet taste, croaker remains popular with many U.S. consumers, primarily in the Mid-Atlantic and along the Gulf Coast. It also is prized in far-flung locales such as South Korea and China.

“I’m not sure sales are growing, but it certainly is a popular fish, especially with [the Asian and African-American communities],” says Stuart OBier, president of OBier Seafood in Callao, Va.

“It seems to do well in major markets like New York and Washington, D.C., and it still has a strong following in the Carolinas.”

The Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus) is the smallest member of the Sciaenidae family of drums. (Market size generally is 3/4 to 1 1/2 pounds, though some 3- to 5-pounders are available.)

Also known as hardhead, the species gets its name from the sound made by the contraction of muscles attached to its air bladder.

Croaker is harvested in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, from Massachusetts to Texas. It’s plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay region during the spring, summer and fall and is found farther south and offshore in winter. The Mississippi Delta is another prime production area.

OBier Seafood, a longtime supplier, derives up to half its fish sales from croaker in season, mostly to supermarkets. Wholesale prices range from 75 cents to $1.50 per pound for whole fish and from $1.50 to $2.50 per pound dressed.

The family-run company, which already has frozen croaker in its product mix, recently introduced refrigerated, packaged croaker that will be sold under the Bay’s Best brand, possibly in Wal-Mart stores in

Virginia and in other outlets. Each package will contain two or three dressed, 12- to 16-ounce fish.

“Through proper marketing and packaging — there’s a special label that gives the consumer information about how to prepare it — I can see where croaker has a chance to grow,” OBier says.

Shirley Estes, executive director of the Virginia Marine Products Board in Newport News, Va., doesn’t need convincing about croaker’s potential.

“It’s ideal because it is plentiful, plentiful, plentiful, and it’s great-tasting,” says Estes, citing croaker’s prevalence in area supermarkets and in regional and Asian-themed restaurants.

Croaker is exported as well, predominantly to Canada, China and South Korea.

“In Korea it’s a very prestigious fish,” Estes explains. “Dried and properly packaged, it goes for hundreds of dollars.”

Some U.S. companies import related species, including whitemouth croaker (Micropogonias furnieri) and yellow croaker (Pseudosciaena manchurica), from Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina.

The Atlanta-based Great Fish Co., which sources from South America, touts a shelf-ready bag of croaker that’s carried in parts of the Southeast by retailers such as Bi-Lo and Wal-Mart.

The 4-pound bags, primarily sold frozen, contain 8- to 16-ounce headed-and-gutted fish priced at around $1.70 per pound.

“But I don’t see [croaker] getting super popular, just from the standpoint of all the bones in it,” points out Great Fish President George Carter, noting that croaker represents less than 1 percent of sales for his company.

“Most American consumers refuse to deal with that.” Still, “there’s a lot of communities in the Southeast that will go crazy over it,” Carter adds.

Glenn Sales Co. in Atlanta also imports croaker, which accounts for about 5 percent of its revenue. The fish, either H&G or dressed, is destined for regional or specialized grocery outlets.

“There’s steady demand, but it’s more of a niche market for us,” says Bruce Pearlman, company president. “My best guess would be we move a couple million pounds per year.”

Croaker, given its familiarity in the South, has long been a staple at leading supermarkets there. The Ukrop’s and Farm Fresh chains carry it, as does Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, with more than 1,200 stores in 11 states.

“It’s available pretty much chain-wide,” says Jeff Lowrance, Food Lion’s corporate communications manager, who says the company uses domestically caught fish whenever possible.

The bulk of croaker at Food Lion is packaged and refrigerated, but a handful of sites have full-service seafood counters that display fish on ice. Prices run from $3.50 to $3.90 per pound.

“Croaker is kind of a mid-range in popularity, so it has a good following,” Lowrance notes.

Restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast offer croaker as well, albeit with varying degrees of success.

“It’s not an easy sell,” said Dale Reitzer, chef/owner of Acacia, a top dining draw in Richmond, Va. “Everyone in this area is familiar with croaker, and they don’t consider it a fish they would buy in a restaurant as much as one they would catch themselves and cook at home.”

Reitzer nonetheless highlights croaker from time to time as a lunch special, perhaps crusted with cornbread or crushed potato chips, or sautéed and served with fresh pasta. Featured items normally range from $5 to $9.

“We usually serve fillets, because people have the memory of croaker being a bony fish, and it’s just easier like that,” Reitzer said. “But I stay away from small croaker, because they’re just more work than they’re worth.”

Nino Mancari, chef at the trendy Fish On! restaurant in Lewes, Del., also serves croaker as a special, typically grilled, for $18. And though he says boniness is one of croaker’s challenges, he has his own theory for its so-so sales: “The name just isn’t sexy.”

That apparently doesn’t matter to customers at Grandma’s Country Kitchen in Charlotte, N.C., where croaker represents roughly 60 percent of the restaurant’s fish business.

“It’s pretty popular, mainly among African-Americans,” says owner Abdul Bilal, who serves fried-croaker sandwiches ($3.95 for lunch and $4.95 for dinner) and entrées ($5.75 and $7.95).

And since the fish is mostly served head off and fanned open, he’s got some advice for bone-shy diners.

“There’s an art to eating croaker,” Bilal says. “You start on the meaty side, and then you flip it over and go under the skin. “Once you learn that, it’s easy.”
 

May 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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