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One on One: Dirk Fucik

Owner, Dirk's Fish & Gourmet Shop, Chicago

By James Wright
December 01, 2007

"Fishing is the last frontier; the thrill of the hunt. There isn't much that people hunt for anymore, which is good and bad. If we had only wild [fish] stocks, we'd have eaten them all by now."

 

Specialty-seafood shops have to be creative to stand out in a big city like Chicago, especially with a Whole Foods Market just a few blocks away. Dirk Fucik, owner of Dirk's Fish & Gourmet Shop, says one of his secrets sits atop his car.

"You don't see too many canoes around Chicago," says Fucik, alluding to the Old Town vessel decorated with his store's name that only leaves his roof rack for his getaway fishing trips to Boundary Waters Wilderness in northern Minnesota. When Fucik's not fishing for smallmouth bass, the canoe serves as a rolling ad that Windy City fish fiends can't help but notice.

"I'll drive down Michigan Avenue and park it in obvious places," says Fucik, adding that his hometown of Skokie, Ill., fined him $35 for having a billboard. "That's some pretty cheap advertising."

Marketing may be the only thing that Fucik, 50, skimps on. Word-of-mouth and consistent customer service - he only has four full-time employees - have served him better than the radio spots he paid thousands of dollars for. His shop features some of the highest quality seafood available, including Alaska king crab and salmon, Dover sole and daurade from Europe as well as an array of domestic caviars.

Fucik's customers see Dirk's as a restaurant wrapped up in an intimate retail setting (it's only 1,700 square feet). There are always fresh soups available and prepared seafood items like grilled tuna chili, salmon roulade, barbecued corvina po' boys and marlin burgers stuffed with cheese, as well as a modest six seats in which customers can sit and enjoy a quick meal. Years ago, Fucik abandoned plans to attend the Culinary Institute of America because selling seafood satisfied his need to work with food.

Fucik's seafood career began at Burhop's, a long-standing Chicago chain that went out of business in 1990. After five years in wholesale sales ("It wasn't my cup of tea - collecting wasn't my thing," he says) and several more as owner of a store with the Burhop's name, Fucik knew he wanted to start his own business on his own terms. He opened Dirk's Fish & Gourmet Shop in 2003 and does more than $1 million in annual sales.

I caught up with Fucik in early November after he returned from a trip to Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

 

WRIGHT: What is the importance of visiting places like Alaska and other seafood sources?

FUCIK: It gets me enthusiastic about selling crab; you learn what it takes to get the stuff here. Fishing is the last frontier; the thrill of the hunt. There isn't much that people hunt for anymore, which is good and bad. If we had only wild [fish] stocks, we'd have eaten them all by now.

 

What's so special about fresh king crab?

Hardly anybody carries it, but it's so significantly different in taste [than frozen product]. When people try the fresh stuff, you just watch their faces light up. "Oh my god!" they always say. It's such good food. Not many foods elicit such a response from people when they eat it.

 

Do you sell wild and farmed seafood?

A little bit of everything. We sell 50 pounds of Atlantic salmon a day for up to $12 a pound. It's mild tasting - a lot of people don't like "fishy" fish. We'll sell Copper Rivers for $40 a pound, both kings and sockeyes, at the start of the season. But people still like the farmed stuff. Some come in looking for only wild. Some are well read, but there are things they don't know [about aquaculture]. With seafood consumption increasing, you've got to have other options.

 

What is your store best known for?

Our soups. We have a white bean soup with kale, escarole and halibut meatballs. It's sort of like an Italian wedding soup. Local chefs were coming by asking for it. We don't necessarily give out the recipes for the stuff we serve in the store. We're debating the meatball one now. Can't give away all your secrets, right?

 

Chicago is renowned for sausage and meat. What's the seafood scene like there?

More people are cooking fish these days; they hear that it's good for them. They want to try it, even though they're meat-and-potatoes people. But Chicago is a melting pot. I often say Chicago is a great place to get fish, and I get a lot of skeptical East Coast guys. We have no prejudice about either coast's seafood. We're equal distance to the East, West and the Gulf, plus we've got the Great Lakes nearby. We can get anything here. Most places sell only regional seafood.

We do a small mail-order business too. I don't know if I'm quite there yet - it's expensive to ship overnight. The beauty of retail is you can develop a relationship with people. They'll come back, and they'll tell their friends. It's a slower method, but it's concrete. You'll have them forever.

 

What types of marketing do you do?

We have a bi-monthly e-mail [newsletter], and we host cooking classes once a month. In our sushi class, we taught 20 people how to make four different rolls, some nigiri, how to make the rice and then let them loose with pre-cut stuff. Unless you do it yourself, it's not the same thing. We also held a tailgating class.

It helps sales. A lot of classes have a regular following. You're much closer [than in a classroom]; it's like if you came over to my house. Our samples are like full servings. When people walk out of here, they're stuffed; they can barely walk. It's a great way to bring in new customers. Lots of people want to learn to cook. We give them a warm environment and help and guide them. They're surprised they're able to cook a fish that good.

 

Any famous customers?

We also sell a lot of fish to food photographers. They come here because they want things cut a certain way. Rick Bayless gets fish from us for his books, and our fish was in the Weber [grills] cookbook. We even supplied some fish for a Red Lobster commercial, which was kinda funny.

 

Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com
 

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