Early this spring, the world was Ryan Speckman’s oyster. He and business partner Lin Peterson were set to open their second oyster bar in the Triangle area. Their business, Locals Seafood, was going great, as they found a booming inland market for fresh North Carolina seafood.
On March 1st, the annual NC Catch Summit, typically held on the coast, made its debut in Raleigh. Speckman, a board member of NC Catch, had secured a downtown venue at Transfer Company Food Hall, a historic building repurposed into a trendy eatery that housed several food outlets including Locals Seafood Oyster Bar.
Hip young couples sampled Korean barbeque, Mumbai curry, or Argentinian empanadas, washed down with fresh-squeezed lemonade or craft beer. The longest line was at the oyster bar, and some of those who enjoyed Stump Sound or Core Sound oysters were inspired to follow the signs downstairs to learn more about North Carolina seafood at the Catch Summit.
The day before, the Associated Press reported the first death from the coronavirus in the United States – a man in Washington State. Judging by the crowd at Transfer Hall in Raleigh, folks weren’t too worried. The place was packed.
But one week later, Ryan Speckman reported a 20% drop in retail sales. In the space of seven days – a full week before Governor Cooper suspended dining in at restaurants – the coronavirus had upended the restaurant and seafood industries.
“We noticed a dip in wholesale too – people were paying attention to the news and avoiding public places,” Speckman noted.
Reports poured in that showed the U.S. global food supply chain was on the ropes. The “local is best” seafood message became more relevant than ever: shorter supply chains from boat to consumer make for a more sustainable food system.
“The fact that I couldn’t find a diverse selection of North Carolina seafood in Raleigh inspired me and Lin to start Locals Seafood in the first place,” Ryan recalled. “We started driving to the coast in 2010 and bringing fresh seafood back to Raleigh to sell out of our truck. It took right off!”
Locals Seafood grew fast, setting up at the Raleigh State Farmer’s Market, selling to Triangle-area restaurants, and providing “shares” of seafood for subscribers to pick up at a designated site, their version of a Community Supported Fishery. Locals Seafood opened the oyster bar at Transfer Hall over a year ago and were set to open another one in Durham – until the world turned upside down.
“Demand for oysters dropped like a rock,” said Speckman. “The mariculture oyster market depends on restaurants and all the restaurants closed.”
Locals Seafood lost 80% of their gross revenue with the loss of restaurant sales, as restaurants were the company’s bread and butter. They were forced to lay off half their employees, reducing ranks from fifteen to seven.
“We were in a bad spot, so we started brainstorming. How are we going to navigate this? We knew there had to be a way to survive – we are in the food business, after all, and people have to eat.”
Speckman and Peterson read articles about the soaring popularity of seafood home deliveries in New York and Chicago as people stayed home and social-distanced. That gave them an idea.
“We had been selling weekly, two-pound seafood shares for people to prepay and pick up at the Farmer’s Market. We decided to advertise that as home delivery, and it took off like wildfire. Went from 30, 40 shares a week to 150 deliveries – we had to cut it off at 150.”
Home deliveries were all prepaid, providing Locals Seafood with a badly needed infusion of cash. Demand for seafood protein – especially fish — went up some 20% per customer, Speckman estimated. Locals Seafood began delivering mostly fillets and some whole fish, gutted and scaled, for folks to cook at home.
“Bee liners, pink snappers, tilefish, black sea bass, trout, drum, mahi, tuna, swordfish, mullet, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, rockfish, trawl flounder – the price of flounder was depressed but now it’s selling like hotcakes.”
Lin and Ryan have had no trouble sourcing fresh fish.
“People were caught off guard at the start of COVID-19, but recovered fast,” Speckman reflected. “We were concerned that fishermen would go on unemployment and sit the season out, but that didn’t happen. Fishermen are in their own world in Stumpy Point, Wanchese, Down East – all they want to do is fish.”
By mid-May, farmers markets were back in full swing.
“Like someone flipped a switch!” Speckman noted. “People are more comfortable shopping in an open-air environment. Last couple of weekends we were slammed like a holiday.”
Speckman said other seafood retail businesses across the state noted upticks as well.
“We were able to hire back our staff and we’re back to fifteen employees. But our retail sales have pretty much replaced restaurant wholesale.”
The Locals Seafood crew, seeing consumer demand for fish that can be stored in home freezers, began developing an inventory of individually-quick-frozen (IQF) fish.
“IQF seafood tastes and feels just like fresh,” Speckman emphasized. “We’ve been preaching to consumers that fresh is best, but quick-frozen fish is every bit as good. And it keeps in your freezer, so we’re adding value for the consumer.”
The economic advantage of IQF seafood is that fish and shrimp can be stored by wholesalers to ride out gluts of too much product and swings in market prices.
“Flounder, for example, can range from being too expensive for consumers to too cheap for fishermen to bother catching. By having frozen inventory, we’re hoping to establish a niche market with consistent prices, helping out both ends of the supply chain from the fisherman to the consumer.”
Locals Seafood is also ramping up the traceability of fish so that consumers can track every step in the supply chain.
“We want to tell the whole story behind that fish with a QR code that people can scan with their cellphone – who caught that trout? Where was it caught? Where was it every step of the way from the boat to your plate?”
Creating a supply chain with frozen product is almost like starting a whole new business, according to Speckman.
“Up until three months ago, all the fish we sold was fresh.” The coronavirus provided the urgency for them to take a chance on something new.
“We’ll be able to ship, and people like the convenience of seafood delivered to their home. Who knows how long coronavirus will last? The popularity of home deliveries will probably last beyond COVID-19.”
Speckman credits the survival of Locals Seafood to their relatively small size, enabling them to pivot and adapt to challenges – even a global pandemic.
“The coronavirus is a reset button to make us think about new ways of doing things,” Speckman reflected. “We knew we had to reinvent ourselves. And we’ll get through it. We’ll all get through it.”