City Paper is not for tourists
In the near future, buying fish in D.C. will look something like this: You go online and peruse a handful of specials or more than 1,000 types of seafood. The site displays information about each creature’s origins, nutritional value, Monterey Bay rating, and in some cases, recipes and videos of local chefs demonstrating how to prepare it.
You arrive at the market, and chat with your fishmonger, who actually knows what he’s talking about because he was a fisherman. Or maybe you don’t really want to hear about the benefits of eating the locally invasive blue catfish or snakehead on display. So you pull up, someone brings your seafood order to your car, and you pay curbside on a hand-held credit card machine.
This is the vision for Ivy City Smokehouse’s new “wholesale to the public” market, which quietly opened last Friday at 1356 Okie St. NE. It’s the first time wholesaler ProFish—a major supplier to restaurants and retailers in the area—is selling its seafood directly to individuals. Soon, the market will include a restaurant called Seafood Tavern at Ivy City Smokehouse. The company wants to eventually have three or four markets around the District.
ProFish Director of Sustainability John Rorapaugh says the idea is to give consumers the same buying power as chefs. “A chef can call me and say, ‘Hey I want 20 pounds of opah from Hawaii on Friday.’ That’s what it gives to the public now,” he says.
For a city so close to major waterways, D.C. has a surprisingly small number of seafood markets. A lot of that has to do with the business’ thin margins, constant fluctuations in price and availability, and high perishability. There’s the Maine Avenue Fish Market, where you can find live Maryland blue crabs in season, but also a lot of seafood of hazier provenance. More boutique-type markets like BlackSalt and District Fishwife in Union Market carry plenty of local, sustainable product, but it can be pricey.
The Ivy City Smokehouse market hopes to beat grocery store prices on seafood by as much as 15 to 20 percent because they have the buying power of a wholesaler but no middle man.
“All these other people that are selling fish, they have to work on a bigger margin. I don’t have to work on that margin. I’m across the street from an endless supply of seafood,” says fishmonger Peter Martone, who most recently worked at District Fishwife.
The market at Ivy City Smokehouse aims to offer one of the biggest selections of seafood in D.C. About 80 species will be displayed every day, but ProFish carries around 1,200 products, with up to 500 available in-house at any given moment. By ordering in advance, a customer can have access to all of it. Or, if all that is too overwhelming, patrons can choose from five highlighted, dinner-ready specials, like four 4-ounce swordfish steaks or two pounds of shrimp.
The mobile website, ivycitysmokehouse.com, is set to launch next week. Initially, it will just contain basic ordering info, but soon will include chef videos and recipes.
Because of the relationship with ProFish, Martone can walk over to the wholesaler and personally cherry-pick the best fish every day. Whatever isn’t sold will go back into inventory. Martone was previously a longtime fisherman and seafood buyer.
“Your traditional market or grocery store is going to order swordfish. They don’t know if that was a long line Asian boat or if that was a local North Carolina hook and line boat,” Rorapaugh says. “[Martone] is going to say, ‘Oh these are hook and line’ because he knows the shape of the fish.”
Displayed on the wall is a tattered lifebuoy with the name Hannah Boden. Martone says he once worked on that boat as well as on its sister boat, the Andrea Gail, which is depicted in the book and film The Perfect Storm.
Martone hopes to introduce consumers to lesser-known and less-pricey local fish like porgy or croaker that you don’t typically find at your average grocery store. The market will also carry invasive species like blue catfish, a relatively inexpensive fish that has already become a big success story. ProFish is on track to sell just under a million pounds this year. Five years ago, Rorapaugh says, it was basically zero.
The market is also looking into having a Community Supported Fisheries program—a CSA for fish rather than produce. “Anything that I can do to help fishermen, I’m going to do it,” Rorapaugh says. “Those guys work their asses off.”
The market itself isn’t that big—a couple of refrigerated cases, whole fish and shellfish displayed on ice, a shelf with some spice mixes, and tanks of live lobsters. But the operation behind it is vast—just peer through the market’s window into a prep room and you’ll see hundreds of filets of salmon stacked up and ready to be smoked, for example.
As Ivy City Smokehouse’s name suggests, the market is attached to ProFish’s newly expanded smokery, which can smoke up to 10,000 pounds of fish a day and nine million pounds in a year.
The Seafood Tavern at Ivy City Smokehouse is slated to open early next year in the second level of the warehouse. The eatery will have about 70 seats inside, as well as a 150-person outdoor patio and an even larger event space. A greenhouse will go on the roof. The open kitchen will be outfitted like a cooking show set with cameras overlooking the stove and TV screens. Chefs will come in to film videos demonstrating fish preparation for the market’s website. The setup will also allow for cooking classes. Rorapaugh says they plan to have public sessions on how to shuck oysters or filet a fish.
The restaurant doesn’t have a chef yet, but, obviously, it will be heavy on seafood and smoked foods. Like Martone, the chef will have the advantage of being able to go through the wholesaler’s inventory and choosing the very freshest fish. Rorapaugh also envisions a seafood “charcuterie” board with various cured and smoked products and possibly a collaboration with one of the neighborhood distilleries to smoke a barrel of liquor.
The operation will no doubt benefit from the neighborhood’s revitalization. But Ivy City isn’t quite there yet. Rorapaugh cancelled our original interview last week after a homeless man was murdered in front of their facility, and the streets had been blocked off. But beyond crime, will people venture to a neighborhood without Metro accessibility on a Tuesday night?
“The simple quick answer is Uber’s changed everything,” Rorapaugh says. “It has made local much larger now.” The restaurant and retail operations are also hoping to draw from the heavy commuter traffic up and down New York Avenue every day.
ProFish president Greg Casten says Ivy City Smokehouse is not a reaction to the development boom in Ivy City, which will soon be home to new apartments and trendy eateries. Rather, he says it’s the evolution of a business that’s been in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years.
When Casten bought the Ivy City Smokehouse building in 2012, he initially planned to use it for additional freezer space for ProFish. Then, he and partner Ron Goodman, who used to run a smoked fish company and has a chef background, decided to convert it to a smokery as well. The idea for a market and restaurant quickly followed. Casten owned restaurants before he got in the wholesale business and continues to operate Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place and Nick’s Riverside Grill in Georgetown.
“A lot of the message we’ve built over the years is on sustainability and local,” Rorapaugh says. “And the next natural step is to the public, because I think that’s where we can really make a difference.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery