Sourcing Superior Seafood

The Story Behind Really Amazing Fish at Zingerman's Roadhouse

by Ari Weinzweig

I cook a lot of fish, a) because I like it and b) when one starts with superior seafood, it’s simple and easy and a really great way to make a pretty special meal without spending more than a few minutes cooking. So, with that in mind, fresh fish is what I have for dinner two, three, four times a week. While my childhood fish fascination has stayed strong, I’ve expanded my range of favorites a lot. Lake fish is great, but there are oceans full of other options that my family never really accessed. The main characters in my fish cooking these days are mackerel and bluefish, with a recent big role for branzino (really great stuff from the Mediterranean if you haven’t yet had it). Sometimes though I cook trout, char, whitefish, hake, cod or catfish. I’m big on good scallops, oysters, and clams as well. And when I don’t go with fresh, I’m often enjoying really good tinned stuff—tuna, sardines, and anchovies.

Between cooking fresh fish at home so often and then all the work that’s gone into buying, cooking and serving it in every night for the last six years at the Roadhouse, I realize that I sometimes take good seafood far more for granted than is good for me. When I go to work we have fresh sardines (actually one of my favorites), scallops, striped bass, wolffish, oysters and all sorts of good stuff on the menu pretty regularly. But taking anything for granted is a sure sign of trouble, and I do try to be mindful and appreciative of all I’ve got around me. We’ve come so far in our understanding of how flavorful heirloom, freshly-picked produce can be, of what contributes to the complexity and quality of a fine olive oil, the difference between artisan cheese and what comes from the big factories, or what makes one chocolate great and another just so-so. But there’s seemingly very little discussion that I can remember about what makes better fish taste better.

Here at Zingerman’s we’ve worked to deliver much more than just lip service. From talking to the folks at Foley’s—one of the country’s best seafood houses, and a long standing supplier to us here—there are five things that we’ve come to look for in our fish sellers.

Five Really Reasons We Like Foley's Fish

1) Shared Values and Strong Relationships

Paul (Saginaw, my co-founding partner) has been working with Foley’s since his days as kitchen manager at the Real Seafood Company over thirty years ago. It’s a relationship he built and enhanced even further when he partnered with Mike Monahan to start Monahan’s Seafood in Kerrytown in 1979. Frank Carollo—managing partner at the Bakehouse for the last seventeen years who taught me how to cook the line in restaurant kitchens back in the 70s—also ordered fish from Foley's in the years when he was a kitchen manager and then when he joined Mike and Paul as a partner at Monahan’s for a number of years. Alex Young—now chef and managing partner at the Roadhouse—started working with the Foley family not long after that as well. Mike Monahan still brings in a lot from them today, which means that you and I can buy the same Foley fish we serve at the Roadhouse for your own house simply by stopping off at Kerrytown. I probably purchase fish from Monahan’s to cook at home two or three or sometimes four times every week. And there’s another local connection as well since Peter and Laura (Foley) Ramsden, the fourth generation to own and run Foley’s, went to school here in Ann Arbor and were regular Zingerman’s customers while pursuing their studies. Given all that, it won’t come as a surprise that when we were getting ready to open the Roadhouse six years ago, Foley’s was the natural choice to be our primary East Coast fish supplier.

In mid-June of this year, as I was working to prep for my talk for the Portuguese-American Fish Dinner we did at the Roadhouse, I figured I’d call Peter to catch up on things. I’m very glad I did. It’s always inspiring to talk to people who are inspired by what they do, to hear the energy that arises as they get into their passions. And fish at Foley’s is definitely a passion, not just a way to make a profit. I’m sure they have their cynics here and there (as we all do), but most everyone I’ve talked to at Foley’s over the years puts their fish passion out there pretty quickly, forcefully and consistently.

Peter is no exception. We spent a bit of time talking through the history of the company, the basics of what made better fish better, how Foley’s worked in such different ways than the vast majority of fish sellers out in the market. Maybe the most interesting element of the entire conversation was that what he told me was actually almost identical to what his father-in-law and grandfather-in-law had told me thirty years ago, which is a tribute really to everyone at Foley’s. While the world has changed, and they’ve certainly adapted, the basic principles of who they are and what they do have barely changed at all. In that sense the Foley’s folks are very much the same as us really.

2) History, Culture, Passion

As much as one might reasonably argue that business today is totally different than it was a hundred years ago, at many levels I don’t think it’s really changed all that much. Michael Foley took the boat over to Boston from his home in County Tipperary in Ireland back in 1906. He started Foley Fish down by Faneuil Hall, leasing a small retail space and selling fresh fish by the pound or the piece. Within four years Foley’s was considered the foremost fish retailer in the city.
By the time 1920 rolled ‘round, Mr. Foley had begun shipping seafood across the country on refrigerated rail. As the years passed, his son Frank took over. I first met Frank when I went to Boston to visit Foley’s, probably in about 1980, and I remember him coming out to visit Monahan’s any number of times over the years. By the time Alex, Paul, Frank and I got going with the firm, Laura’s dad (and Peter’s father-in-law), Mike (a former Harvard football and rugby star who, the Foley’s folks say, might have been the “tallest fishmonger in history” at 6 foot 4 inches) and her mother Linda had began running the company.
A few years back, in ‘05, Peter and Laura (the two U of M grads) bought out her parents and took over. “Laura and I are the fourth generation,” was one of the first things Peter told me when we talked. “When you have your name on the roof everything changes.” I certainly know that feeling. By the way, notice Peter’s choice of words. Obviously he wasn’t running the business in 1906, and he actually married into the family, so it’s not really even his name on the roof. But he still—as I would, and I think he should—uses the word “we” whenever he talks about the company. For him, and everyone at Foley’s, it’s really about the whole organization doing the right thing to create success for everyone involved, not just for themselves.

3) Direct, Bought on Spec

“What differentiates us from the typical model is that we are a process-to-order seafood house,” said Peter. That probably doesn’t mean much to most of the world that’s never bought and sold seafood. But to anyone “in the industry” who’s buying fish at the high end, it’s huge. Most of the other houses go to the dock and buy what they buy, then bring it back to their plant and put out the price list and hope to sell it. Foley’s works in reverse—first they get our order, then they go to buy, and then bring the newly purchased fish directly back to the plant to clean, cut, filet and ice and then ship it to us. No sitting around and no second grade.

4) Freshness and Handling

Having sold, served, bought and cooked fresh fish for a long, long time now, I’d say the most commonly asked consumer question one hears is pretty certainly some version of, “When did this fish come in?” While the query is quite well intended, it’s pretty much really the wrong question to be asking because when something arrived here in Ann Arbor has little certain connection to when it came out of the water, and none whatsoever to how it was handled en route. By contrast a more effective question to be asking would be something along the lines of, “When was the fish caught?” And, if you wanted to really investigate, you could follow that up with, “How was it kept between the time it came out of the water and when the server brought it to the table?”

Here’s the scoop. Modern day fishing vessels are often out at sea for a few weeks at a time. The thing for us, and for Foley’s, though, is that we totally do NOT want the fish from anything other than what’s brought on board near the end of the trip.

Another important thing to mention is they don’t use middlemen. I“We only ship directly,” Peter said. “There are other processors that will cut anything that’s landed and then ship to a distributor. They buy on speculation and then they sell that way.” By going only direct to their restaurants and retailers, Foley's has a far higher shot at staying connected and keeping the quality of the product we cook, serve and eat at a very high level. Since, as we know from the wholesaling we do at our own Bakehouse, Creamery and Coffee company, the product the consumer tastes may leave here in great shape but can still be subpar if the people we wholesale to don’t handle it well.

5) Sticking with Sustainability

As much as I’ve known about how Foley’s operates, their focus on sustainability was actually sort of new to me. I mean I wasn’t really shocked or anything—sustainability in seafood is clearly right up Foley’s fish-loving and living-off-of-fish alley. It’s just nice when someone you already feel good about comes through in a way that you hadn’t really thought would be their forte. But, lo and behold, Foley’s turns out to be at the forefront of the work to help restore and sustain seafood stocks in an environmentally and fish friendly way.

“We’re very active with fishery management,” Peter told me. He wasn’t talking with the tone of someone hesitant or unsure of what he was doing. Peter rattled off names and statistics with passion and feeling, pretty clearly coming from a grounded (or maybe “anchored” would be a more appropriate term) place. “We’re on the ground fish advisory panel for New England,” he explained. “We’ve been very active participants in setting policy for conservation. There have been laws in place in New England since 1993 that have been quite successful.”

“With what sort results?” I asked, truly not knowing what the answers were likely to be.

“In many cases, it’s actually been a huge success story. We’re actually not over-fishing anything. We’ve seen a 15-fold jump in scallop population. Haddock has had a 30-fold increase. We’re actually harvesting under quota to stay within the law. The boats are only allowed to fish about 70 days a year. Even though there’s lots of haddock in the water now, they don’t have enough access in those 70 days to get at the allowable levels. Little by little,” he added, “the good news is coming out. Steadier and more affordable pricing and supply.”