Gleaming, low-slung, mostly open cases artfully filled with a sweeping array of fabulous fishes: That's the display ideal for upscale markets with strong full-service seafood departments.
But given today's heightened concerns about food safety, these shiny eye-grabbers must do more than show off their high-quality, low-fat, heart-healthy contents to maximum advantage.
"I was visiting a store in another state recently and the seafood in the case was in styrofoam trays, wrapped in plastic, sitting on top of the ice," said Steve Lange of Harry's Farmer's Markets in Atlanta.
"I told the manager I would buy him a beer if the surface of the fish was within 10 degrees of 40 degrees Fahrenheit," Lange said, noting that 41 F is the maximum recommended temperature for fresh seafood, under specific conditions for a brief period. "We took a thermometer and measured. The fish was 52 degrees."
Like many other people in seafood departments throughout the country, this manager believed that simply having his fish on ice guaranteed a safe temperature.
"He was shocked. He thought he was doing it right. I pointed out to him that styrofoam is insulating the product from the cold of the ice," Lange explained. "It sounds crazy, but many people don't realize that wet ice is not enough. You need refrigeration, humidity and cold air moving around the product."
Lange showed the manager how to dig a trench in the ice, put the seafood in a stainless steel container and bury the container in the ice to lower the temperature drastically.
This information about ice cases has been around for quite a while, but somehow has not managed to reach everyone. Maine's Department of Marine Resources launched a "Maine Certified Fresh" seafood program more than a decade ago, with a manual developed over an eight-year period, which specified:
Cold air will not flow up and over the product. A flat bed of ice with only an atomizer or ice-retarding coil will not keep product cold enough. These types of cases require some version of an ice ridge.
The ice ridge must be at the highest point in the case because air will not flow over product stacked higher than the ridge.
Cases today must keep expensive seafood products cool enough to retard spoilage and moist enough to avoid dryout, thereby reducing risk for the consumer and shrink for the retailer, and help stores meet their state's regulations.
Lange has a reason to know the fine points of seafood temperature control. The three Harry's stores instituted a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system six years ago, before the Food and Drug Administration mandated HACCP for seafood purveyors and made HACCP-based guidelines part of its model food code.
"We had to switch a few cases when we first started," Lange recalled. "Some of our cases still have refrigeration coils only on the bottom, under the ice. Those coils just keep the ice cold, they do nothing for the product. But they all have fans to circulate cold air over the seafood. One case has 84 fans and we keep them going at all times."
Good seafood cases cost between $500 and $3,000 per linear foot, depending on the bells and whistles, with an average of about $1,000 a foot for the European look with curved glass, according to retailers and manufacturers. At those prices, retailers really want cases to look good enough to draw customers and to perform well enough to keep a temperature-sensitive product in top-notch condition.
Russ Vernon, president of West Point Market, Akron, Ohio, is proud of his seafood department, which he upgraded from 18 feet to 24 feet and "divorced" from the meat department to its own area.
"We serve the high-income carriage trade, the Suppies and the Opals [Senior Urban Professionals and Older People With Active Lifestyles]," said Vernon. "They are willing to pay extra for seafood, for freshness and quality. The style and quality of our [Tyler] case has served us well."
Vernon has worked hard to create theatrical effects in the seafood department. By aiming light through an aerated, bubbling water tank and bouncing the light off a mirror onto the back wall of the department, "we get a greenish, wavy light like the waterfront, like it's bouncing off the ocean."
Vernon admits he stole the idea "from a restaurant in Florida" the way retailers are borrowing many ideas from the food-service segment. Vernon's even hiring his seafood staff from the restaurant and hospitality industries now.
While seafood managers are rethinking their cases, many must also consider a whole new array of other gadgets. Departments newly competing in the meals market are now turning to food-service equipment suppliers for less traditional equipment such as steamers, fryers, marinating machines and more. The West Point seafood department has a kitchen area stocked with food-service equipment to prepare the store's fresh-meals program.
The display case is still the most crucial item. The Top 2 manufacturers of ready-made, but modifiable cases are Hussmann of Chico, Calif., and Tyler of Niles, Mich., according to seafood experts.
"Custom cases are expensive, but you get what you pay for," explained Mike Bavota, now a seafood specialist with Florida Food Marketing, Tampa, Fla. Bavota spent more than 20 years in retail before serving as a retail HACCP expert with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"Too many retailers end up getting sold on modified cheese or deli cases that are less expensive, [but] seldom do the job effectively. The question is this: When you go out to eat, would you rather eat in a place that has fancy decor, but smells dirty, or eat in a place where the attention toward good sanitation is impeccable and easy to notice?"
West Point's Vernon is a Tyler fan. Larry Daerr of Supervalu in Pittsburgh favors the new Hussmann DSF line.
"We just ordered a 16-foot DSF case for a new store," Daerr said. This fully refrigerated "pedestal" case has a 3-foot-high sneeze guard with a "retarder coil" under the ice and another refrigerated coil to supply cold air to the product.
All Supervalu seafood counters are full service. The majority have enclosed cases with doors to maintain a temperature of 34 degrees F.
"We have five stores with ice cases, but we watch them very closely," said Daerr. "We put an ice ridge on the back of the case to get a convection flow across the product. Otherwise, at about 1 inch above the seafood, you're almost at room temperature. That's the drawback of an ice pan or ice case. It makes the shrink factor very high."
It's very easy for the seafood to dry out, so the visual appearance of the product needs to be maintained, he added. "If you test it with a probe thermometer, you might find 50 degrees. You don't sell that product. That goes on the 'known loss report,' so you know exactly what you've thrown away."
Roland Teed, general manager of the Hussmann Corp. division in Chino, Calif., points out that for years Eastern Seaboard supermarkets have merchandised seafood in "wide, beautiful displays on ice. It's been acceptable since the 1950s."
Since the FDA mandated a maximum case temperature of 41 degrees, -- at the warmest spot in the case and only at the end of defrost -- retailers have put pressure on manufacturers to do better, said Teed.
"For years, our West Coast customers were under more rigid health regulations," he added. One client, Andronico's Market, Albany, Calif., urged Hussmann to design a case that could carry an East Coast-style display but meet West Coast regulations.
"We couldn't go any deeper than 4 feet," said Teed. "Finally, we designed a 48-foot-deep case with a refrigerated coil in it. It was tall, with a nice angle display, but you couldn't reach all the way into the front. So we built small modules, not as deep on the inside, with little inlets from the back so counter personnel can reach the deep display from the back and have easier customer contact."
The case was finished with nonglare, hinged glass. Teed said tests showed the case never reached a temperature higher than 37.6 degrees F, even at the end of the defrost cycle.
"By trying to design a deep case, we accidentally designed a 'communication alley,' " said Teed. Hussmann has made many different configurations of this case, with a stainless steel bottom and autoflush system to wash out fish oils and melted ice, for customers such as Supervalu; Fresh Fields, Rockville, Md.; and Whole Foods Market Inc., Austin, Texas.
The FDA's model food code provides guidelines, not regulations, for state health departments. "Some [states] ignore them, some make them tougher. Chicago lowered the maximum to 40 degrees F," said Teed. "It's a good guideline because it recommends steps all along the way for the product."
Today, it's not what a store would lose in the courts through liability for food-borne illness. "It's what they would lose in reputation, that they might never get back," he added.
The two Stew Leonard's stores in Connecticut have "huge seafood departments," said Dave Zavarelli, seafood department director.
For safety's sake, he replaced an old open case in Norwalk that had a 12-inch sneeze guard with a new case that has a much larger sneeze guard. "It doesn't have quite the same look as the old one. We loved the open-market look of the old one." But he also wanted additional refrigeration, because the old one had only a bottom coil.
The Danbury department was expanded last spring from 32 feet to 40 feet. The new case is a full, sneeze-guard closed case. But for the 8 new feet, Zavarelli wanted something "a little different." He went to a boatyard and bought an 8-foot plastic rowboat.
"We have a good maintenance and construction crew on staff. They built stilts for it and created a dock-like effect. We liked it so well, we decorated the other 32 feet with the dock look, including pylons and rope," Zavarelli said. "It looks like a first-class, up-to-date fish market within a supermarket."
They extended the dock motif to enclose the three-tier, custom-built, 5,000-pound-capacity live tank for lobsters and other such beasts. The well-iced boat displays shrimp. "The customers love it."
Stew Leonard's will upgrade the other 32 feet soon. "The curved plexiglass sneeze guard gets scratched up. We'll keep the dockside look, but we'll go to glass [on the case] for a better appearance," Zavarelli said. "We'll have it open back and front though, because we want the market look. Also, cases with the window in back don't work for high-volume stores. The case has to be functional for the employees as well as the customer."
The dock theme has proven so popular with customers, Zavarelli thinks they'll use it again when the new Stew Leonard's opens in Yonkers, N.Y., next year.
If you want to attract customers to the seafood department, don't let them smell it before they see it, said Bavota. Don't buy the case for looks, but for how well it works.
"It is not the parts that the customers see that are important, it is what happens after closing that makes the difference," Bavota explained.