By MEGAN GIBSON
At the Fulton Fish Market at Hunt’s Point, the oldest and largest fish market cooperative in the country, competition is fierce.
A struggling economy and an open market arena contribute to the competitively charged atmosphere. However, as a cooperative, vendors also come to rely on everyone’s company prospering, at least enough so that they can all stay in business.
Vendors are in direct competition with one another, as restaurant buyers and market suppliers weave through the warehouse, perusing the selection. The market “handles millions of pounds of seafood daily”, according to its Web site, and a lot of vendors are selling similar products, so haggling with the customers becomes an art.
Angelo Rosa has been working for Blue Ribbon Fish Co., Inc., a business at the market, for 24 years. A small man of Portuguese descent with a booming voice, he horses around with customers, jokingly calling them names and miming karate moves in their direction.
Late night hours—the market is open from 1 am until 7 am, Monday to Friday—don’t seem to affect his mood. However, Rosa does turn serious when talking about the market and sales. He says he cuts deals for loyal customers and that bargaining is part of the sale.
As prospective customers wander by, looks of disinterest on their face, kicking at boxes filled with ice and large fish, Rosa works to engage them into his playful banter. Some are receptive, some continue to the next vendor.
“It’s the most unpredictable market you can imagine,” said Rosa.
Richard Montelbano can attest to that. He works at Monte Seafood and after the economy took a turn for the worse last year, the company was forced to reduce their staff from 21 to 12. Montelbano, a tall and lanky man who glides around the pallets of boxes containing fish as if by second nature, said they are determined to “go with the flow.” He said the company has to carry on with the competition of market life.
“It’s all about sales.”
Sales are the driving force behind the market and the competition between vendors is palpable. Rosa said many of the vendors lie to one another over the prices of their fish.
“You don’t want anyone to go out of business, but it’s competitive.”
It’s not pure generosity that influences Rosa’s wish to see his competitors stay open. As a part of a cooperative, all the businesses operating at the Fulton Fish Market rely on one another to keep their own costs down.
The New Fulton Fish Market Cooperative at Hunt’s Point Inc. operates the market and the facility, which until four years ago was located on Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan. The huge, warehouse-style building is managed by the city’s Economic Development Corporation.
Dan Kim of Alaskan Feast said, “Since it’s a coop, if one company goes under we as a coop have to absorb the loss of revenue for rent.”
Unwinding as the long night draws to an end—it’s approaching six am—Kim is mostly finished selling to customers. As his coworkers go about organizing the seafood that hasn’t sold, he slips outside for a few minutes. The early morning air seems colder than the refrigerated warehouse. Leaning against the wall, Kim describes the cooperative’s operations.
Each business pays a share of the rent and utility costs of the facility that houses the market. The warehouse is divided into stalls and each business occupies one or more stalls, depending on how big their business is. Kim said that Alaskan Feast, which occupies two stalls, costs approximately $9000 a month in rent and utility bills.
Kim estimates that if a business goes under the rise in costs for the other businesses is about five to 20 percent, depending on the size of the business. When Arrow Seafood went out of business, “it was just upsetting.”
While only four operations have gone out of business since the move from Fulton Street to Hunt’s Point in 2005—Mazur Bros. and Jaffe Food Co. Inc., Soho Seafood Inc., and Sunrise Seafood Inc. closed before Arrow—Kim thinks that a few more businesses are not far behind.
Kim also said that when a new business comes in to fill the empty spaces, coop prices remain the same. Right now though, he has to get back to work, as the day is about to end. He ducks back inside the warehouse, where the sun has yet to rise.