THE TURNING TIDE

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. -- Every Friday, old-time New England fish stores used to fry up fish and chips and sell tons of brown paper bags filled with the fragrant booty, especially to the many thousands of Catholic families who abstained from meat on that day.This custom has gone the way of the fish stores themselves and the Catholic meat ban, but several new concepts that sometimes include fish and chips

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. -- Every Friday, old-time New England fish stores used to fry up fish and chips and sell tons of brown paper bags filled with the fragrant booty, especially to the many thousands of Catholic families who abstained from meat on that day.

This custom has gone the way of the fish stores themselves and the Catholic meat ban, but several new concepts that sometimes include fish and chips are emerging to take its place -- and not just on Friday.

An increasing number of retail seafood managers around the country, eager to participate in the fresh-meals market, are starting to offer ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products that were available raw from service cases.

With items ranging from fish and chips to salmon burgers, seafood soups to cooked, chilled, crab legs and shrimp, retailers are discovering the value-added products are adding a new dimension to the segment.

Fish and chips are becoming a staple in many of the Price Chopper Supermarkets' 92 units, based here. Chips are still deep-fried potatoes, but the retailer will fry any seafood item the customer wishes to create the other half of the dish.

"We feature different fish or shellfish regularly," explained Joanne Gage, vice president for consumer and marketing services. "Many people buy the feature, so it's hard to say which product is the most popular."

Besides the usual cod, "we will fry anything -- steaks, fillets, catfish, crab balls, shrimp, clams, oysters," she said.

Unlike some retailers, Price Chopper has been preparing seafood in this manner for the past 10 years though, at first, it was only for takeout, and only fish.

"We always sold fresh fish, but a lot of it was prepackaged," Gage explained. "Then we hired a seafood specialist and took it to the next level."

Mike Kennally, vice president for seafood, helped launch the new fresh-fish counters, then the fried-fish phenomenon. When it proved to be spectacularly popular, the chain notched it up another level five years ago with the fish and chips concept.

"All our fried fish were sold in the seafood department. If you wanted cole slaw, you went to the deli to get it," said Gage. "Now the fish and chips departments are separate, next to the seafood department, and the customer will find everything there -- tartar sauce, etc. It's absolutely one of our most popular takeout items."

At least 60 Price Chopper stores in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Pennsylvania offer fresh-seafood departments with fried fish. They also sell chilled, precooked whole crab, crab legs and shrimp. Also, any seafood item will be steamed for the customer free of charge.

Taking prepared seafood in a slightly different direction is West Point Market in Akron, Ohio. Owner, president and chief executive officer Russ Vernon describes his 30,000-square-foot retail business as "a value-added food store," not a supermarket.

"We're in an upscale market here, with high-end, senior urban professionals," said Vernon. "People over 50 control 60% of the nation's wealth, and our customers are thin and health-conscious. They belong to the country club and the health club. That's where seafood comes in."

West Point set up a kitchen 20 years ago, after Vernon took a trip to Manhattan ("the greatest retail lab in the world") and saw Zabar's. Since then, the store has employed three Culinary Institute of America graduate chefs on staff at all times. One is a full-time pastry chef while the other two generate the rest of the store's food-service products, many of which are signature, branded, private-label products.

Four years ago, the prepared specialty items were expanded to include seafood, when Vernon found reliable methods for buying fresh seafood directly from the docks in Boston. Such items include flounder stuffed with spinach, and crab and fish fillets sauteed in the store's signature "compound butters," which include flavors such as cilantro, or Baltimore's bay seasoning or lemon with cracked pepper.

"We've developed a whole series of dishes that take just minutes in the oven," said Vernon. "Most people overcook fish. We did a customer survey and women admitted they don't know how to cook seafood, so we help them."

Weekends at West Point, chefs now perform seafood-cooking demonstrations and offer customers samples, recipes and the ready-to-heat entrees.

Since its founding 60 years ago by Vernon's father, the store has been expanded seven times and remodeled 24 times. The last of the store's remodelings extended the seafood counter, from 12 to 24 feet, and added a ceramic-tiled seafood kitchen area where associates fillet, bone and skin whole fish.

"Seafood is our differentiator. It's a real leader for us," said Vernon. "Last month we posted an 18.5% increase in seafood sales."

Larry Daerr, a longtime seafood and specialty buyer with Supervalu in Pittsburgh, agrees that people admit they still don't know how to cook seafood. He tries to make it easier for them by offering a variety of prepackaged marinated fish steaks, such as tuna, shark and swordfish -- sometimes even salmon.

Most of the stores have tumblers, since "we can marinate the steaks or fillets such as catfish more thoroughly in a tumbler," said Daerr. "We offer three flavors regularly: Cajun, lemon butter dill and lemon herb."

Supervalu executes the marinade program at store level because it found it is more cost-effective than purchasing premarinated product, which requires minimum orders, said Daerr.

"This way, in stores that don't sell as much, they can marinate 2 or 3 pounds, or whatever they need, and there's no shrink," he said.

Customers can also opt to match a marinade with their own choice of seafood. In these instances, the fish is placed in a plastic bag with the marinade, and then weighed.

"Our 'marinade to go' does really well. It costs no extra per pound for the weigh-up with the marinade in the package," Daerr said. "When they get it home, it's ready to cook."

For a year now, Supervalu has sold "meals to go," which incorporate seafood meals, in a case located near the deli at the front of the store.

"This way buyers can see different kinds of meals. If one wants chicken and the other wants fish, they can buy both without going to two departments."

Is the program working? "The jury's still out," he said, though he has high hopes.

"People learn to cook at mom's elbow, and mom's at work now," said Daerr. "My daughter doesn't make anything unless it comes in a box or a bag. This is the first generation to make Thanksgiving dinner from a box."

With more than 1,000 units throughout North America, A&P, Montvale, N.J., has highlighted its myriad seafood departments, in part, by catering to regional tastes. For example, in New Orleans, counter personnel cook crawfish, in season, "in a huge pot you could take a bath in," explained Joe Hoffman, vice president of meat and seafood.

There, a big winch and pulley raise a basket full of crawfish above the steaming pot and lower it into the well-seasoned water. When cooked, hot crawfish are removed to display counters in front of the seafood department.

"People stand around and wait till the crawfish come out, then buy 4 or 5 pounds at a time," said Hoffman. "Obviously, the same things don't sell everywhere. We have widely different markets and the products vary by stores."

Some A&P stores offer sushi bars, but they are concessions within the store run by sushi specialists. The stores provide the space and the case, then receive a percentage of sales. "Some of our stores sell up to $5,000 a week in sushi," Hoffman reported.

The biggest seller, dollar-wise, is peeled and deveined cooked shrimp, "but we buy those," said Hoffman. "Cooked king crab legs are a huge seller, too, because king crab prices have been reasonable." Hoffman said they buy the precooked legs and sell them at between $6 and $8 a pound.

Other value-added products A&P is testing, in its Food Emporium division, include hot soups such as clam or seafood chowder, seafood bisque and crab soup, sold in the seafood department.

Nearly three years ago, a few stores set out a special section with cooked seafood products such as seasoned swordfish steaks, or marinated or stuffed fillets, including baked, steamed or poached dishes. The meals are cooked in the store, then immediately cooled and displayed in a refrigerated case.

"Their popularity led to another experiment," a little more than a year ago, said Hoffman: "A hot buffet cart."

Two or three stores, such as the Food Emporium unit in Fort Lee, N.J., cook six or eight different seafood meals and display them hot in a buffet cart where customers can help themselves.

"We're still testing, learning if it will work in other stores," Hoffman said. "Sometimes you can't look at the dollars, but at the overall draw for the store itself."

While retailers like A&P cover the spectrum of value-added seafood, others have been successful by keeping it simple. Richie Hayashida, nicknamed "Freshness," has been a seafood associate or, as he says, "Fish Guy" at Queen Anne Thriftway in Seattle for 10 years. The store offers ready-to-cook salmon burgers and crab cakes, and plans to offer stuffed sole. But the big seller is cioppino, a pot of tomato-based "fisherman's stew" that contains different seafood daily, depending partly on what's being cut in the department.

"It's a byproduct of cutting fish," said Hayashida. Bits of fish such as cod, too small to be sold as fillets, go into the pot, along with scallops and shrimp, chopped clams, the liquid base, carrots, celery, garlic and other spices.

"It smells up the whole store. It's very popular. People come from all over to buy it to go," Hayashida said. The department uses 500 ounces of base daily, enough to fill five large pots of cioppino a day.

Still other stores, like Kulpsville, Pa.-based Clemens Markets, are taking an entirely different approach to the value-added seafood segment, by investing personnel -- not the fish -- with value, according to Al Kober, meat and seafood merchandising manager.

"We recently hired a chef with a lot of seafood-cooking experience and a lot of enthusiasm for seafood," he explained. "For instance, he uses real flair when he fillets a fish. That will make a great presentation to the consumer. We hired him for his culinary experience, but he won't be cooking. He'll be selling seafood."

This focus seeks to "change the backroom mentality from 'selling fish' to selling meal components," he added. "We want our chef to teach the consumer how to cook, to give people recipes and tips with confidence. He'll do presentations and offer help as well as add marinades."

Clemens will test a new "concept store" within one of its stores around Thanksgiving, using its new chef/seafood manager. Then in January, Clemens plans to open a separate new "concept store" "like DeLuca's," said Clemens, referring to the New York-based specialty retailer, Dean & DeLuca.

The new Clemens store, in the upscale Main Line Philadelphia area, will offer 20 feet of seafood service case, as well as hundreds of kinds of cheese sold by a "cheesemonger," 30 feet of meat, a sit-down counter and many other amenities.