Back of the House: Sourcing sustainable seafood

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

How did I get into this industry? I met a guy in a bar. I was playing with my band, we got to talking and he needed someone two times a week [to help with deliveries]. I thought, "I can do that." I always loved seafood, so it was easy. Then, once I figured out how it all works, I dove into it. I'd go to Boston a lot, head to the pier and talk to people on the docks, the companies as the boats came in.

I started my own company about a year ago, but I've been in the seafood industry for five years. A big [seafood purveyor] in Columbus, what they will do is order a whole bunch of fish, get it for cheaper, and it goes to their warehouse and sits in a freezer until somebody orders it.

With me, I sell it before I buy it. I go to restaurants or text chefs and say, "Here's what's coming in today. If you want anything, let me know." I get it direct from the dock, whatever they want. My goal is 24 hours out of the water to the restaurant. I am trying to take the farm-to-table approach to seafood. I call it pier to plate. I want to cut out the middle man and get you the best fish that I can.

People have asked me: "Why don't you get cold storage and take on the big companies?" But I kind of like that I am the only person who sees your fish. I take pride in every single piece of fish and seafood I sell.

So far, I regularly sell to Kraft House No. 5 in Powell, Bar 145 in Grandview, The Crest (and other restaurants from the A&R Group) and La Tavola. Those are good people. [La Tavola chef] Rick Lopez loves me. I brought him a piece of fish to try, and he called me 15 minutes later and said it was the best piece of fish he ever had in Columbus. We've had a great relationship ever since.

But I am a horrible salesman. I am more of a likeable guy than I am a salesman. So what I do is bring chefs a gallon of scallops 24 hours out of the water. Let me show you this product, and let you be impressed. More often than not, they try my product and end up ordering from me the next week.

When I give restaurants my spiel, they say, "All oysters are frozen." And I'm like, "No, they're not." They say, "Well, that's what my salesman says." It's insane that you are getting this information. I bring oysters that are 24 hours out of the water, that are still muddy.

Sometimes it's a hard sell. It's always going to be bottom line, and I'm not always the cheapest product.

The people who care about their product are who I work with. I can get your mainline Chilean salmon that's been farm raised and lowest quality, and I will for a bar that's just going to fry it. But my specialty is being the seafood special guy. I can supply something that is not on the regular menu. That's where I knock it out of the park. Rick [Lopez] doesn't order anything specific from me. Whatever's coming in, whatever looks good, he'll say grab me 10 pounds of it and we'll run a special on it this weekend. A lot of people are like that.

A normal day? On Monday morning, I call the docks in Boston and they tell me what's coming in, where it's coming from, how much it is. Then I have a short amount of time to get that information out to all my chefs. They tell me what they are looking for, and I place my orders. My refrigerator truck will leave Boston at 3 p.m. Monday and come straight to me. I'll get it first thing Tuesday morning. Then I take it directly from there to the restaurants. I don't store anything. Everything I bring comes out that same day.

I like to get everything I can through Boston. But if I want crawfish, I can call Louisiana at 11 a.m. and it'll be here by 7 o'clock that night. I airfreight from Miami sometimes, too.

My goal is: I want to know where that fish was caught, who caught it and know that it was responsibly done.

That's a huge deal, sustainability. If I don't adhere to it, I'll put myself out of a job. Sustainability means that it's not overfished, that there is a plentiful supply. I try to sell line-caught fish instead of net caught. A lot of times, with the net, they'll drop it into the water and pick up everything that they can, drag it along for eight hours. That means the first fish caught have been drowning all day.

I don't know if what I do is interesting at all. It's just a different approach.

We're doing 400 Rich Farmers Market this summer. That's our first retail attempt. I can sell it cheaper than you get at any market. It raises eyebrows when I am shucking oysters, but I promise these are just as, if not more, fresh as the chicken breasts you are getting next to me. I am trying to narrow the gap.

Ian Holmes

Owner, Coastal Local Seafood

After four years in the fish distribution business, Ian Holmes broke off from his Columbus employer to start his one-man, sustainable seafood purveyor company, Coastal Local Seafood. His goal is supply fresh, never frozen, fish to chefs in the city.