« March 2013 Table of Contents Pin It

Top Species: Blue mussels

With versatility comes volume potential

Canada is the biggest producer of live blue mussels to the U.S. market. - Photo courtesy of Acadia Aqua Farms
By Joanne Friedrick
March 01, 2013

If you ask the people who operate Flex Mussels, two Manhattan restaurants focused on mussels and little else, the versatile and affordable bivalves are the next chicken.

With retail prices in the $3 a pound range, mussels take center stage at Flex. Its menu offers 22 preparations each day, ranging from the most popular Thai in a coconut curry broth with lemongrass and kaffir lime to the Copenhagen with Danish blue cheese or the Southern featuring Dijon mustard, ham, corn and bourbon. Mussel entrées sell for $19.50 to $25.

There is also The Number 23, a special that changes daily and provides the opportunity to test out new recipes that may eventually find a way onto the menu.

Alexandra Shapiro and her parents Laura and Bobby Shapiro run the New York eateries on 13th and 82nd streets. The concept was born from a seasonal restaurant the Shapiros operate in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Although they no longer have a restaurant there, the Shapiros have ties to PEI, the source of their mussels. They use about a ton and a half of mussels weekly between the two locations.

The Shapiro family has always been in the restaurant business and wanted to focus on filling a niche by highlighting mussels. “We’ve taken this protein and turned it into chicken by preparing it so many different ways,” says Alexandra Shapiro.

There has never been a supply issue related to mussels. If there were a shortage of PEI mussels, Shapiro says they would look to Maine or some other fresh supplier, but wouldn’t consider frozen product.

Among Flex Mussels’ customers, Shapiro says there are the die-hard mussel fans who are thrilled to find their restaurant; those who liked them, but have now become fanatics; and others who are just discovering them for the first time. 

“We like to consider ourselves the mussel experts,” she says, noting that “if all goes according to plan” there will be more Flex Mussels locations in the future.

Grow your own 

Fiona de Koning, business manager at Acadia Aqua Farms in Bar Harbor, Maine, anticipates more volume from the operation she works on with her husband Theo, and son, Alex.

The de Konings are now sixth-generation mussel farmers with the addition of Alex to the business. The family’s mussel heritage goes back to the Netherlands where the family has operations as well.

The business began as a partnership with Great Eastern Mussel Farms in Maine, but when that company went out of business, the de Koning’s took over the leases for bottom-culture farming of blue mussels, says de Koning. Acadia Aqua Farms was founded in 2010 and currently produces about 600,000 pounds yearly. That’s only about a third of what could be produced, she says, but the company doesn’t want to grow unless the sales and marketing support is in place. 

Bottom-cultured mussels produce a different flavor profile, says de Koning, as the seabed offers a more diverse set of minerals. The resulting mussel is bolder in flavor and has a denser shell that makes it stronger and easy to ship, she says.

Canada is the biggest producer of live mussels and the chief competitor for Acadia, says de Koning. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, Canada in 2012 exported 32.8 million pounds of live mussels to the United States. The 2011 landings total of blue mussels in the United States was about 4.6 million pounds. 

Acadia has focused on the top end of the market, de Koning says, selling into Boston for distribution to companies along the Eastern Seaboard and west to Illinois and Ohio. Very little product stays in Maine, she says, because Maine already has rope-grown mussels that are popular among Portland’s restaurateurs.

Having come from the Netherlands where businesses work collaboratively, de Koning would like to see more mussel producers in Maine, and has become involved with various state agencies to develop the industry. “We don’t feel threatened by competition,” she says. “Rather, you just concentrate on what you do best. 

“This is a great part of the world to grow seafood; the water is so nutrient-rich,” says de Koning, who adds that they are very careful to fit in alongside the existing fishing industries. 

The mussels are grown in about 10 feet of water, she says, and choosing the lease sites is the critical part of the business. Finding those key spots are part science, she says, but also come from years of having worked with mussels and knowing what is best. 

Imports offer consistency 

Another big part of the U.S. mussel business is imported frozen product from another key producer, Chile. In 2012, the United States imported 10.6 million pounds of mussels (frozen, dried, salted and brined) and another nearly 4 million pounds of prepared mussels from Chile. Only New Zealand sent more frozen product to the United States — 22.9 million pounds.

Tom Sunderland, VP-marketing and communications for Ocean Beauty Seafoods in Seattle, says mussels are trending upward among the seafood offered by Ocean Beauty. “I think in two to three years, mussels will be one of our top items,” he says.

Recently, the company introduced breaded mussels in a 1-pound retail bag under the St. Andrews brand. The audience for this product, says Sunderland, is a bit different, as it appeals to the chicken-nugget crowd as well as the bar-food audience. 

With supply good and available at steady prices, Sunderland says mussels will continue to gain popularity. He describes Chilean blue mussels as “very mild tasting, sustainably harvested” and a product that doesn’t require a lot of education.

Chile is a good source, he says, because producers there offer a superior frozen mussel. “It comes down to supply,” he says, and then they can look to develop new products, such as the breaded mussels and possibly a smoked item.

Ruggiero Seafood in Newark, N.J., also buys mussels from Chile, says VP Frank Ruggiero. Thus far this year, he says, supply has been consistent and prices competitive, fluctuating 5 to 10 cents a pound in the early part of the year. Farmed blue mussels have been steady in the $1.50-per-pound range, f.o.b. New York. Frozen green-lipped mussels from New Zealand are steady in the low-$2 range.

Much of what Ruggiero Seafood sells goes beyond the Long Island area, he says, because of competition from fresh product. The Midwest and South are key markets for the farmed product, which Ruggiero says is harvested “when they have the most meat and the shells are hard.” 

Ruggiero sells frozen 10-pound vacuum packs to foodservice operators, but also offers half shells and mussel meat in bulk and retail. “I love fresh mussels, but it’s hard to keep it consistent,” he says. “With frozen, the quality is always good.”

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine 

Find other SeaFood Business articles covering blue mussels here.

March 2013 - SeaFood Business

Featured Supplier

Company Category