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“Here is the chicken you’ll be enjoying tonight. His name was Colin. Here are his papers,” a server tells Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in the Portlandia skit. Their characters want to know exactly where their meal is coming from: Is it local? Is it organic? USDA organic, Oregon organic, or Portland organic? (Never mind that the latter two don’t exist.) Are the hazelnuts the chicken is fed organic? And just how big is the area where the birds roam free?
To answer their questions, the server hands them a dossier of information, including a photo of Colin. “He looks like a happy little guy who runs around,” Armisen says. “Does he have friends? Other chickens as friends?” They ultimately ask the server to hold their table while they take a trip to the farm.
This is not just foodie farce anymore, though. Instead of parodying restaurant trends, Portlandia is actually now influencing them.
Inspired by the chicken sketch, Black Restaurant Group has teamed up with one of its main fish suppliers, Congressional Seafood, to launch a “traceability program” that allows diners and shoppers to get in-depth information about their food. While you won’t find out the name of your swordfish, you will learn the names of the guys who caught it (and see their photos) as well as where they harvested the fish, the gear used, and what it tastes like.
BlackSalt Fish Market plasters stickers with QR codes, which lead to Web pages with facts, photos, and anecdotes about the fish, on the counter glass and on a poster up front. Meanwhile, the group’s restaurants—BlackSalt Restaurant, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace/Black Jack, Black Market Bistro, Black’s Bar & Kitchen, and Addie’s—have a new special menu available upon request featuring QR codes. The main lunch and dinner menus also have “by land” and “by sea” codes at the bottom, which lead to directories on Black Restaurant Group’s website with links to all the ingredients. (You don’t have to eat at the restaurants to access the information; it’s available at blackrestaurantgroup.com/eco-practices.)
“I’ve stood on a dock on a Sunday and watched live wiggling fish come off a boat that I know are going to be in my restaurant the very next morning,” says restaurateur Jeff Black. “And that’s what we’re trying to capture. We’re trying to capture the essence of that exact moment.”
The masterminds of the program, Black’s fishmonger MJ Gimbar and Congressional Seafood VP and Director of Operations Jonathan Pearlman, spent four to five months assembling information about their fish, visiting farmers and fishermen, and taking photos and videos along the way. (Gimbar has also collected information and created QR codes for vendors who sell strawberries, eggs, cheese, and other non-seafood products to Black Restaurant Group. Those are available on the same QR code menus as the fish.)
The idea came from watching Portlandia. Pearlman says the questions in the skit reminded him of the kind of questions people really do ask about Congressional’s seafood. “That show certainly takes things to an extreme, but I don’t think it’s really that far-fetched,” he says. Many restaurants already list farms on their menus, he says, but not a lot of detailed information is available about fish, especially at the moment people are about to order.
Marketing is part of the motivation, too. “We’re hoping it becomes something that sets us apart from our competition,” Black says. He also hopes it helps customers understand why his restaurants and market charge a premium and makes them feel more comfortable buying lesser-known types of sustainable fish, not just salmon and tuna.
But ultimately, Black says it’s not just about making his restaurants more transparent, but pressuring other operators to be more forthcoming about what they sell as well. And for good reason: The prevalence of seafood fraud is shocking. In a widely publicized report released in February, advocacy group Oceana revealed that one of four fish it tested in D.C. grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi spots was mislabeled. That’s actually better than the national average: a third is mislabeled.
Consumers obviously don’t want to be duped or ripped off, but there are potential health risks to seafood fraud as well. For example, every order of white tuna sampled in D.C. was actually escolar, which can cause unpleasant digestive problems if too much is consumed. Oceana didn’t list the establishments it tested because it’s unknown whether the mislabeling was perpetrated by the fishermen, distributors, retailers, restaurants, or some combination.
Oceana Campaign Director Beth Lowell, one of the report’s authors, says traceability programs could help curb mislabeling: “The more information that travels with the fish throughout the supply chain, the harder it is to launder fish that’s either illegally caught or mislabeled.” If fraudulent seafood is found, it’s easier to track back where it came from.
Still, it’s not perfect. Even QR codes can potentially lead to inaccurate information, Black admits. “Everything can be cheated…Our attempt is to make it less likely and to show how we do business,” he says.
Last week, I gave it a try over dinner at BlackSalt. The QR code menu, which you might mistake for the wine list from its gray hard cover, was missing, but the server directed me to the “by land” and “by sea” QR codes at the bottom of the main menu. The program had only launched the week before, and he informed me I was the first diner to ask about the QR codes.
While trying to decide what to order, I flipped through the seafood profiles on my phone. Some entries stick to facts about the species of fish and the fishermen they came from, but others delve into personal anecdotes from Gimbar. Reading “A Little Diddy Bout Soft Shells,” I learned that the soft-shell crab season started early this year and that Gimbar spent several seasons shedding soft-shells. He writes about how the low pressure from thunderstorms would trigger a “massive shed” with all of the peelers popping out of their shells at the same time: “That was insane, trying to ‘fish up’ all those soft crabs at once.”
Not all of the seafood on the menu has its own QR code yet. I ordered the Icelandic loup de mer special before realizing it didn’t have its own profile. Black Restaurant Group lists more than 30 seafood products, which will continue to grow as the traceability program develops.
Congressional Seafood is now also opening the QR code service up to other retail and restaurant customers. Balducci’s has committed to using it, and Wagshal’s and River Falls Seafood Market in Potomac have expressed interest. So far, Pearlman says the idea has gained a little more traction for retail fish counters than with restaurants. “The QR code is kind of ugly,” Pearlman says. “To put it on a menu, you’ve got to kind of find a cool, sexy way to do that.” While Black’s Restaurant Group does it in menu form, Congressional Seafood has been playing around with table tents or index cards that a server could leave with diners.
The idea isn’t completely new. A Mississippi-based company called Gulf Seafood Trace offers a similar QR code system to follow fish throughout the supply chain, and Boston-based Red’s Best uses the codes to display information about fish species, the type of vessel it was caught from, the gear type, and photos of the fishermen, along with facts about them like “once caught a 19th-century corked bottle in the front of Nantucket Harbor that said ‘to his majesty the king.’” (The folksy anecdotes make it an effective sales gimmick.)
Other restaurants are making detailed information about their ingredients available to lesser degrees or in different formats. It’s become the norm for restaurants to list Whitmore Farm pork loin or Border Springs Farm leg of lamb in their dish descriptions. At Pitango, posters on the walls show the cows that produced the milk for your gelato along with descriptions of their farms and the names of the farmers.
“Ten years ago, people couldn’t care less,” Black says. “They didn’t care if they got strawberries from South America or cantaloupe from Mexico. And now, everybody is very conscious—beyond just the carbon footprint element. What are the ethics and the morals and the standards of the company that’s growing that stuff?”
Black says that the kind of in-depth sourcing information his restaurants provide could someday be common practice. Gimbar expects it to be law. Legislation introduced in both chambers of Congress earlier this spring could make it that: The Safety and Fraud Enforcement (SAFE) for Seafood Act would require vendors to specify the seafood’s scientific and market names, as well as whether it was previously frozen or treated with any substance. The bill calls for businesses to make clear how, when, and where their fish was caught or if it was farm-raised. A previous version introduced last July went nowhere. Oceana hopes there will be hearings this session, but nothing is scheduled yet.
If it passes, the only thing you won’t know is your fish’s first name. Until then, you can just call him Colin.
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Photo of MJ Gimbar by Darrow Montgomery