The fresh approach to seafood selling.
Properly executived, with scrupulous attention paid to quality, inventory control, handling, storage, sanitation and display, the service fish department can be a first class image-builder and money-maker. Poorly run, it can be a financial disaster and a customer turnoff of the worst kind.
Because freshness and quality mean everything in seafood selling, it demands a strong retailer commitment. This must begin at the buying level and be channeled down to the store. All along the line, a little know-how can go a long way toward launching a successful program.
Keenly aware of this, a small group of retailers recently attended the "Fish School," a two-day training program sponsored by the New England Fisheries Development Foundation in Boston, Mass., to bone up on fish handling and selection techniques. Presented on this and the following pages are some basic fish facts and handling pointers that were discussed at the sessions. These are geared to grocers about to take the plunge into fish selling.
To get a good start on developing a successful program, a supermarket buyer must first learn what fish items are available to him and what marketable forms they come in (round or whole, drawn or scaled, dressed, fillets, steaks or chunks). He should also decide what type of department he wishes to set up--one that focuses on variety and specialties, or one governed strictly by price and supply. The next step is the search for a seafood distributor who can supply the store with consistently high quality products.
The program's participants were encouraged to visit a number of processing plants before selecting a supplier, since the working conditions and handling practices of plant personnel are good indicators of the quality the store can expect to receive. They were told to pay special attention to plant sanitation, cutting room temperature (no higher than 45 degrees F), and fish handling. One definite handling no-no retailers should look out for is the use of pitchforks, since every tine hole inoculates the fish with bacteria, and will end up as a blood spot on the product.
Once a supplier is selected, every effort should be made to establish a positive working relationship with the firm to ensure a quality commitment from the distributor.
When placing an order with this supplier, a seafood buyer should take price and supply into account, as well as the time of year (not overlooking holidays), what product is already on hand, what promotional events the store will be conducting and what ads will be running.
To prevent costly overstocking, it is essential that food inventory records be kept at the store level. These provide the buyer with documented facts on which to base his next order. Records should include what varieties have been ordered and their quantities, how often they are ordered, how they are moving, and what the shrink factor is.
Fish can never be made any better than it is when it passes through the receiving door, so it is imperative that a quality check be made by store personnel at the time of delivery. They should be trained to use their senses to determine the freshness and quality of the fish, and to reject any items that are not "up to snuff."
For a whole fish, indications of freshness come from the skin, which should have an iridescent, bright, metallic luster; the eyes, which should be convex, with black pupils and translucent corneas; the gills, which should be bright red with translucent mucus; the flesh, which should be firm, with good elasticity to the touch; and the odor, which should be a mild ocean or seaweed scent. (It should be noted, however, that the eyes are not always the best indicators of freshness, since ice packing sometimes causes them to cloud, which can be misleading.)
In determining the quality of headed and gutted fish, retailers should look out for body cavity cuts, incomplete evisceration, incomplete washing, improper heading and indication of belly burn or enzyme activity. Fillets and steaks should have a fresh, mild seaweedy odor; a consistency that's moist, firm and elastic to the touch; and a bright, shiny color with no spotting or browning.
Shellfish quality characteristics vary with each form. For example, live-in-the-shell seafoods such as crabs and lobsters should feel heavy for their size and should move their legs when handled, while clams, oysters and mussels should close their shells when handled.
Store personnel must also check the temperature of the fish being delivered by using a probe thermometer. Any shipment that has a reading of 36 degrees F or above should be rejected.
After the order is accepted, it is important to tend to the fish immediately. Any round, whole or scaled fish that will not be processed at once should be removed from the shipping container, washed in cold water, buried--belly cavity down--in clean, flaked ice, and put in the cooler. The cooler's temperature should be kept as close to 32 degrees F as possible, and fish should always be surrounded with ice to prevent dehydration.
Shellfish need a humid environment. Lobsters, for instance, should be kept in the rockweed or wet newspapers in which they were shipped. Since fresh water will kill most marine shellfish, mussels, clams, oysters, lobsters and crabs should not be buried in ice or immersed in fresh water.
At the Fish School, Leon Sepuka, a fresh seafood consultant from South Dartmouth, Mass., advised attendees to ask their suppliers where the fish they are getting comes from, and to have the supplier send a few whole fish with each order (even if it consists of fillets only). This enables store personnel to cut up the fish and learn their characteristics. It's also a good check on the integrity of the supplier, because cutting the guts open will tell knowledgeable personnel what the fish fed on--an indication of its origin.
A Tasteful Display
An efficient service fish case must keep the products cool, clean and moist. To accomplish this, a gravity flow refrigeration coil--without fan units, which can dehydrate the fish--is needed. A stainless steel pan capable of holding at least 8 inches of ice should form the base of the display. The refrigeration unit should be able to deliver up to 280 BTUs per hour in a 100 degrees F ambient temperature for each running foot of display case. This requires a 1/3 horsepower condenser for an 8-foot case, and a 1/2 horsepower condenser for a 12-foot case. While refrigeration in the case is essential to prevent excessive ice melt, it never replaces the need for ice, which is necessary to bring down--and keep down--fish temperature, and to maintain moisture.
A closed case is a good choice because it keeps the cool, moist air surrounding the fish. However, if an open case is used, a transparent shield or sneeze guard should be placed around the edge of the case, reading practically over the top. This will keep the cool, moist air above the fish and restrict any drafts that might dry it out.
Good drainage is also vital in the setup of the case. This should be in the form of a large, unrestricted pipe that allows slime, scales and melt water to drain away quickly.
The Daily Routine
Store personnel should begin setting up the fish display each day by laying down a thick bed of clean flake ice and smoothing it over with a straight edge tool. Then more ice should be piled up toward the rear of the case to create a tiered effect for good shopper visibility.
The case may be set in a variety of ways. Some retailers prefer to group similar product forms together, such as all the fillets in one section and all the whole fish in another. Others take a more creative approach by selecting a dramatic focal point, such as a king crab, and building a display of contrasting colored products around it.
The freshest fish should always be displayed in the front of the case and the older merchandise in the back, so employees are selling the oldest product first. The fastest moving items should be positioned where they are easiest to reach.
Fillets, the favorite form among customers who are fearful of fish bones, should never be placed directly on the ice because the melting action draws out water soluble nutrients from the exposed flesh. Not only does this create a sanitation and odor problem, but it reduces the salable weight. To prevent this, fillets and steaks should be placed in clean, flat metal pans with holes in the bottom for drainage. These should have a 2-inch layer of ice at the bottom, topped with a layer of plastic, on which the products should rest.
Unskinned fillets should be displayed skin-side-up, says Consultant Sepuka. Besides looking more attractive in the case, the skin makes the fish more readily identifiable. What's more, the fillets with skin will be easier to handle when being cooked.
Clams, oysters and mussels in the shell should be sprayed with fresh water to remove loose dirt before being put into the case. Since shellfish need to breathe, it is a good idea to keep the containers loose in the cooler, or to keep the products in the burlap or onion sacks they were delivered in, until they are ready to go on display. If they must be overwrapped, as often is the case at supermarket self-service displays, holes should be poked into the package.
Shrimp is usually sold to stores frozen in 5-pound boxes, so it must be "slacked out," or defrosted, before it goes on display.
Small quantities of live lobsters can be merchandised on ice, but retailers handling more than a few pounds a day should consider investing in a lobster tank. Live lobsters and live fish, such as the popular trout, can be good traffic draws.
Retailers who are selling cooked seafood from the same display case as raw should take pains to separate the two because of the potential for cross contamination from the ray to the cooked products. Those who wish to display the products together should separate them with a full-length plastic partition.
To add color and eye appeal, some retailers garnish their fish displays with fresh produce items such as lettuce leaves, parsley sprigs, lemons, limes and radishes. However, the garnish must be kept fresh and clean or it can contaminate the fish. For this reason, Sepuka advised Fish School attendees against its use. Some state laws also prohibit the use of fresh produce in the seafood case.
While it is important for shoppers to be able to see the prices and identify the products at a glance, markets should never be placed directly into the flesh of the fish. This inoculates the fish with bacteria and speeds product deterioration. Good alterantives are putting the price markers into lemons next to the fish, or suspending price tags from the light fixtures with magnetic clips.
Most shoppers turn their noses up at offensive fish odors, so it's a good idea to keep a small size waste receptacle in the department to encourage employees to empty seafood waste frequently. The waste should be kept frozen until refuse pickup.
Day Is Done
At dayhs end, all fresh seafood should be removed from the display case and items that are still acceptable for sale should be properly stored, labeled and dated.
Once this is done, the daily sanitation routine should begin. This includes the thorough wiping down of the case each day. (The case should also be fully cleaned and sanitized twice a week.) The ice should be changed daily, and coolers should be cleaned and sanitized with special attention paid to the walls, floors and drains.
Backroom work areas should be swept, cleaned and sanitized at least twice a day--once after the morning setup and again during the evening cleanup. Tables, work surfaces and walls should also be cleaned. Utensils should be cleaned as they are used, and all unused utensils should be soaked in a sanitizing solution.
It is also necessary for fish department personnel to maintain high personal hygiene standards. Anyone handling the fish products must first wash his hands with germicidal soap from a dispenser and then dip them into a chlorine or other suitable sanitizing solution. Disposable plastic gloves may also be used.