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Case Study: A grand exposure

Shop pays extra attention to local and sustainable sourcing

 - Photo courtesy of Wild Edibles
By Lisa Duchene
September 01, 2007

If exposure defines a prime retail location, then it's tough to beat the visibility at New York's Grand Central Terminal. Every day more than 5,000 people from hundreds of cultures pass Wild Edibles' seafood shop in the terminal, one of three in the city. The Grand Central shop offers more than 40 species of seafood that meet muster not only with commuters, but with New York's three- and four-star chefs.

That's what sets Wild Edibles apart. In the seafood trade, many high-volume grocery stores pay less than what a top chef would and so get a lower quality fish. But Wild Edibles stores, with customers willing to pay for top quality, pick from the top of the catch just as chefs do. What doesn't sell at retail in a day goes right back to the wholesale side.

Selling wholesale to the finest restaurants represents Wild Edibles' roots and the bulk of its business. Retail comprises about 12.5 percent of the company's annual sales of more than $20 million.

"We turn over fish like it's nobody's business," says Steve Schafer, Wild Edibles' director of retail operations. "When I receive a piece of fish, it comes to me perfect. When it goes back [to retail] it's as perfect as it can possibly be."

And New Yorkers are willing to pay for the quality. On the first weekday of July in Grand Central, Copper River sockeye went for $19.99 a pound, Maryland softshell crab for $6.99 a pound and Hawaiian escolar for $9.99 a pound.

"The great thing about the [Grand Central] market is it has such incredible, incredible exposure to people from all over the world," says Schafer.

The location certainly gives Wild Edibles exposure to New Yorkers, who set the bar high and have sung its praises. Zagat's gourmet guide has given the retailer excellent scores in the last few years. Zagat's 2008 New York City Gourmet Shopping and Entertaining Guide , compiled from reviews by 6,807 New York foodies, scored the retailer 26 for quality out of a perfect 30, ranking it in seventh place among New York's seafood shops.

No company has ever reached 30, says Michael Mahle, manager of corporate communications for Zagat's Survey.

"'If this fish were any fresher it would be in the ocean,' gush groupies of this superb high-end east side pair that have it all," wrote reviewers in the 2008 guide.

In the 2007 guide, Wild Edibles' score for quality was 28 out of a perfect 30, placing it third among New York's seafood shops.

Richard Martin started the company as a wholesaler/retailer in SoHo in 1992. The tiny SoHo operation grew into the flagship Grand Central Market store, open since 1999. Now, its three stores, which carry almost no frozen products, are unique both among each other and compared to the typical grocery store.

The Murray Hill location opened in 2001 as primarily a retail store. When sales of the prepared foods took off, the company decided to re-tool and focus on a seafood bistro and oyster bar concept, which re-launched in March.

"We still do a fabulous retail business," says Schafer. "But the restaurant itself does a gangbuster business. It's completely exceeding expectations."

The product assortment at the Murray Hill location focuses on locally caught fish, as does the Brooklyn location, but with a special emphasis on whole fish and a larger selection of shellfish. The bistro offers oyster and wine "flights," in which customers select three types of oysters from the 12 on display. Each is then paired with a New York-made wine best suited to the oyster's flavor nuances.

In early July, the Wild Edibles' Murray Hill bistro offered diver scallops, Florida shrimp, black sea bass, blackback flounder and Spanish mackerel.

Wild Edibles' newest location is a store-within-a-store seafood shop at Forager's Market in Brooklyn, specializing in artisan, local and organic foods and opened in late February. There, Wild Edibles sticks to locally caught seafood as much as possible, defining "local" as from the North Atlantic to the Mid-Atlantic. "Hopefully that will get tighter and tighter," says Schafer.

The product assortment in early July included black sea bass, weakfish, monkfish, fluke, squid and wild striped bass, all from the Atlantic and Long Island Sound, and cod and skate wings from Massachusetts.

The five-month-old shop is doing "fantastic," says Schafer. "It's a huge success. It's a cutting-edge crew in Brooklyn. The customer is educated and price isn't really an object."

The Wild Edibles shop at Forager's Market also does a brisk business in ready-to-cook items, made from that day's fish according to a chef-developed recipe.

Specialties and top-sellers include Cajun catfish, salmon burgers and tuna burgers made with No. 1 tuna scraps.

The catfish is not local to New York, New England or the Mid-Atlantic, admits Schafer, but is the next-best thing - from the SouthFresh catfish farm in Oxford, Miss., considered sustainable by the Seafood Choices Alliance.

The retailer took its sustainability program to the next level in August, when it began to label all of its fish with green, yellow or red fish symbols to show the degree of sustainability of each product, according to Blue Ocean Institute's criteria. The Norwich, N.Y., environmental group also uses the Marine Stewardship Council's blue logo to show a product is MSC-certified as sustainable and a red flag if there are consumption advisories connected to the fish.

Schafer estimates more than half of what the company sells bears the green label, made possible by examining and changing some sources of trout, catfish, tilapia and shrimp over the past few years.

"We would hope that within the next five to seven years, every product we sell is sustainable," says Schafer. "We understand it can't happen overnight. But we also understand it's something that must be done."

All of this attention to sustainability and local sourcing adds another layer of complexity to an already-complex product. But the complexity is manageable, says Schafer, and the extra effort pays off in the product's premium price and the company's 
solid reputation.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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