Tag Archive | "recession"

Fulton Fish Market feels the pinch


Inside a white room the size of a toll booth, Diana Chicolo slides her window open at the tapping of a seafood distributor’s fingers. The warehouse air, regulated at 40 degrees, wafts in through her heated office, as she glances at the yellow receipt the distributor hands her.

“$186, even. Do you pay by check?”

For 13 years, Chicolo, 38, has been the bookkeeper for Caleb Haley & Co., one of the oldest and largest seafood wholesalers at the Fulton Fish Market. Between sips of coffee she said, “The fish market is not as busy as it used to be. It’s definitely dwindling.”

While it remains the largest wholesale seafood market in the U.S., the Fulton Fish Market has been shrinking in recent years. Four shops have closed since 2005 — a significant number in a market dominated by third-generation businesses — and many wholesalers cite sales decreases of 10 to 30 percent.

Caleb Haley, operating since 1859, is a big name at the market. Like those of the other 30 or so wholesalers, Caleb Haley’s core customers are seafood purveyors who distribute to restaurants and other eating establishments.

Sporting a navy blue baseball hat and jacket, a heavy-set Joseph Serrantonio, 52, oversees tuna and swordfish sales for the family-run business. He says the economic downturn has decreased his sales by 10 to 15 percent since last year. While the Zagat survey recently reported that 157 notable restaurants opened and 102 closed this year, Chicolo and Serrantonio both said the closings have impacted the wholesale business.

One of Caleb Haley’s longtime customers, David Coopersmith, 52, has been distributing seafood for Scandia Seafood for about 20 years. On any given day, he can buy 300 to 1,000 pounds, spending between $3,000 and $10,000, but he said demand from customers, including restaurants, is down 14 percent from last year. The economic downturn is “affecting us a little bit,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Chicolo also said the market’s relocation from downtown Manhattan in 2005 created a barrier for smaller buyers and passers-by. “People from Chinatown used to buy two to three pieces of fish,” she said “Now coming here means a lot of gas, time and parking fees.” The fish market charges $5 for drivers who wish to purchase seafood; those who brave the two-hour subway and bus ride have to pay a $2 pedestrian’s entry fee.

Opposite Caleb Haley, Anthony DeVito, 35, stands behind purple and red nets and white cardboard boxes of clams, oysters and mussels. It is a lot drier here. The third generation owner of the family-run New Seafood, DeVito has been working at the market for 32 years. “With the economy the way it is, business is down a little bit,” he said. He sells 10,000 to 20,000 pieces of shellfish, or about $30,000 a week. “It’s off by probably 30 percent” since last year, he said. He mulled over the number, chuckled and said, “I try not to look at it. You look at it, you just want to cry. The bills are getting paid. I’m happy with that.” He said the decreased demand has particularly hit high-end shellfish such as Maine oysters that require diving to obtain them.

On the other side of the 400,000-square-foot warehouse, Joel Rivera, 28, with a shaven head and solid build, maneuvers his forklift to unload fish onto the floor of Montauk Seafood. Having worked at the market for six years, he said, “I noticed a change in the money that the market was pushing. All the fish that was on the floor, all the fish that was being delivered. And there’s just such a big difference now.” He continued, “It just keeps getting smaller. Guys are getting laid off.”

Pan Sing Long, 35, a fish cutter at Caleb Haley, can certainly attest to that. After the company laid off two workers last year, he has had to double his responsibilities.

Meanwhile, outside the Fulton Fish Market, Restaurant Depot, a private wholesaler of food and supplies to restaurants, delis and grocery stores, has been aggressively growing, with 13 locations in New York and New Jersey. Staffed by former restaurant owners, chefs and food service specialists and offering thousands of food products at each location, the store calls itself the “the low-cost alternative to other foodservice suppliers,” according to its Web site. “A lot of restaurants are going to Restaurant Depot,” Chicolo said. “They buy in bulk,” and can get the seafood “frozen and cheaper.”

A line of purveyors grew outside Chicolo’s window, and, her wavy auburn hair highlighted against her white sweatshirt, she continued ringing up the purchases: $858.25, $4,742.68, $476.19. “It’s Thursday. It’s a busy day,” she said.

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The unlikely recession-proof item: The oyster


Shouts for “Luis,” the gloved four-time champion, reverberated off the basketweave ceiling, as a hundred enthusiastic onlookers filled the subterranean Grand Central Oyster Bar.  As part of the annual Oyster Frenzy shucking competition, oyster-lovers craned their necks to watch the master shuckers and their bloodied fingers last Sunday while busy bartenders and waiters warned customers of a 45-minute wait for oysters.

Sandy Ingber, executive chef, delighted in the festivities. But he had more than the festival to be happy about. While most U.S. restaurants have suffered from the current recession — 68 percent of restaurants reported a yearly sales decline in August, according to a survey by the National Restaurant Association — the Grand Central Oyster Bar’s sales rose 3 percent over last year, he said.

On the supply end of the oyster chain, Robert Rheault, the president of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, which represents 1,000 shellfish farmers, said production in New England “has been increasing at double-digit rates for a decade.” (He included Long Island in the New England sector, the main oyster source for New York restaurants.)

Recent government grants have restored oyster cultivation in the Northeast, and unlike many fish, the oyster can better sustain environmental changes and has adapted well to the region’s turbid waters and polluted coastal estuaries. Oyster farmers can thus produce a steady supply at relatively stable prices for restaurants. Rheault, who manages his own boutique oyster farm, said “Speaking for myself, demand has been surprisingly strong through the downturn.”

Ingber made some changes in his menu to lessen the recession’s impact. “Through this bad economy and the crisis we just went through, we’ve tried to hold our prices down,” he said. “One of the great things about our menu is it’s a daily written menu.” As such, he is able to respond to the changing prices from his suppliers — an oyster farm in New England or a wholesaler at the Fulton Fish Market — and fills his menu with less expensive items if necessary. “My menu is a little more fairly priced throughout the economy. And it shows.” He said the restaurant sells approximately seven to nine thousand oysters weekly, a small increase from last year.

In the Flatiron District, Jay Shaffer has also seen “a small upward trend from last year” at Shaffer City Oyster Bar and Grill, which he has been operating for 12 years. “I think it’s more of a recession-proof item out there,” he said. Like Ingber, he saw customers buying less expensive oysters, and has introduced a more cost-friendly alternative for his diners, such as a happy hour at the bar from 4 to 8 p.m. from Monday to Saturday when $3 oysters are half price. The restaurant sells between  3,000 and 10,000 oysters per week, he said.

Oyster lovers have created a cult of loyalty that withstands economic troubles. Peter Slatin, associate publisher and editorial director of Real Time Analytics, said: “The recession has cut my salary by one-third. Nonetheless, I continue to eat oysters.” In the past year, he has had to close his business and take on a lower-paying job, yet he could not give up his oysters. “In fact, I believe I ate oysters three nights in the past week,” he said.

On a recent Saturday night, Lara Zibners, a pediatrician and oyster devotee, sat at the bar of Shaffer City with her husband, Gernot Lohr. “On the level of what we spend in our budget, oysters are a small blip on the numbers,” she said. “For us, oysters are such an enjoyable blip in that budget that we’ve never stopped.” She said she and her husband eat between two to eight oysters about two times a week at the average cost of $1.50 to $3 per oyster — a weekly range of $6 to $48.

Zibners praised the oyster’s health benefits. One oyster contains a gram of protein, six calories and the most concentrated dietary source of zinc, according to the National Institutes of Health. But the most salient point of the oyster for her is its “sexiness.” She was not referring to the oyster’s supposed aphrodisiac quality but rather its ability to stretch out the dinner date with her husband. “It’s not a quick fix. You choose it, enjoy it, talk about it.”

Shaffer also extolled the experience of eating an oyster. “They’re an escape from an everyday eating experience,” he said. “You don’t see it at home. People see it as a difficult thing to acquire on their own. And for people who love oysters, they see it as extra special. You have to keep eating them.”

Back at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, Luis Iglesias, who holds the record for opening 15 oysters in one minute, became a five-time shucking champion and picked up his check for $1,500 as the audience slurped away.

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Home cooking more popular during the recession

appliancesfinalBy WINNIE ANDREWS

Angelina Russo has an economizing strategy that includes buying pre-made cupcake mix.

“Cupcakes at Magnolia are $2.50 to $3 apiece so it’s a lot cheaper,” Russo says. Russo is comparing prices of cupcakes from the popular Manhattan shop to those she could bake from mix at the Madison Avenue Crate and Barrel. The box of coconut cupcake mix makes 10 cupcakes and costs $10.95. She notes that the same price would buy only four cupcakes at Magnolia.

Russo is cooking more and going out less because of the recession, she said. She is a home attendant for the elderly and lives with her husband and their 19-year-old daughter in New York City. Before the economic crisis, Russo, 40, ate out one or two times per week. Now, she eats in restaurants only one time every two weeks.

Like Russo, many Americans are eating in to save money. This year, 52 percent of restaurant goers aren’t eating out as often as last year, while 42 percent are eating in cheaper restaurants, according to a Zagat survey released in early October. The same survey indicates that 21 percent of restaurant eaters aren’t ordering extras such as appetizers and desserts.

The shift towards eating at home might inspire consumers to buy more ladles, food processors and wine racks. Kitchen appliances will be one of the few consumer goods that fare well during this holiday season, according to predictions by the marketing information company Nielsen. This would be one of the exceptions to otherwise sluggish holiday spending; Nielsen predicts that eighty-five percent of American households will either maintain or reduce their holiday spending from last year.

Cooking utensiles at Crate and Barrel (Photo: Winnie Andrews)

Lorraine Marcus was browsing the Crate and Barrel kitchenware on a recent afternoon. When asked if the economy has changed her restaurant habits, she responds with an emphatic “yes!” Before last year, she went out about five times per week, now she is going out once a week, she said.

Candace Plostoker, a PR fundraising consultant from Long Island, was also at Crate and Barrel looking for dessert plates. She hasn’t changed her restaurant habits much over the last year, she said, but does look for cheaper grocery prices than before the recession.

Dining at home can save a chunk of change. The average meal for one person in New York costs $40.78, according to a Zagat survey. The most expensive meals in the country can be found in Las Vegas, where an average receipt rings up at $44.44, about $10 more than the national meal average.

Cathy Erway, a copywriter in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, stopped eating in restaurants in 2006. They were too expensive and she was bored with the monotony of always eating the same dishes, she said. So Erway swore off restaurants and began cooking her own meals.

Erway saved $212 a month by cooking at home, or about $5,000 over the course of the two years she stayed out of restaurant seats, she said. The biggest challenge was planning lunches in advance. However, she got the hang of it eventually. “I started to adapt to the routine, I realized it was pretty easy to do and I just kept going,” she said.

During her break from restaurants, Erway started a blog about cooking called “Not Eating out in New York.” She said there were a few kitchen gadgets that she particularly liked. A food processor is particularly good for making hummus inexpensively, and makes preparing pastries a lot easier, she said. “It’s not necessary, but I find that I can make a lot more things now with it,” she said. Erway also likes electric ice-cream makers and said she likes to make inventively flavored ice cream with it.

The trend towards home cooking could be good for overall health. Maudene Nelson, a nutritionist at Columbia University’s Institute of Human Nutrition, said restaurant food tends to be higher in fat, sodium and protein, and those who cook their meals eat more fruits and vegetables than their restaurant-going counterparts.

Nelson encourages home cooks to use what she calls “the plate method:” one-third or less of a dinner plate should be filled with protein like meat or beans, one-third with vegetables, and one-third with carbohydrates like spaghetti, noodles, rice or sweet potatoes.

Cooking classes are also doing well.  Business is strong at Pizza a Casa, a mobile cooking school and catering company in Manhattan. The company’s owner Mark Bello said his 5-hour pizza courses routinely sell out. They cost $150 per class.

Bello said being in the kitchen appeals to people. “In addition to it being economical, cooking really brings people together,” he said.

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