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SAN FRANCISCO (FNS) -- In a city where a major tourist attraction is Fisherman's Wharf, where seafood restaurants pack the waterfront and where the Pacific Ocean creates the climate, fresh seafood is a strong seller at many supermarkets in the San Francisco metropolitan area.Fresh-fish brokers and wholesalers described the Bay area as a huge market for seafood, and noted that supermarkets here do

SAN FRANCISCO (FNS) -- In a city where a major tourist attraction is Fisherman's Wharf, where seafood restaurants pack the waterfront and where the Pacific Ocean creates the climate, fresh seafood is a strong seller at many supermarkets in the San Francisco metropolitan area.

Fresh-fish brokers and wholesalers described the Bay area as a huge market for seafood, and noted that supermarkets here do better than most chains around the country in displaying and selling fresh fish.

Retail executives indicated service seafood departments here are showing strong sales gains, particularly at the smaller independents, which target middle- to upper-income customers.

Seafood counters in the San Francisco area focus on fillets and steaks more than the whole fish selection offered in other parts of the country. A recent visit to supermarkets on the peninsula south of San Francisco showed very little whole fish available -- most of it being rainbow trout -- despite a preference among the city's significant Asian population for whole, often live, fish, as evidenced by specialty shops in the Chinatown area.

Many of the specialty stores have closed, according to seafood industry executives, so that most of the fresh seafood sales are now done through supermarkets.

The San Francisco retail market is dominated by the two huge chains based in the area -- Safeway Stores, Pleasanton, Calif., and Lucky Stores, Dublin, Calif. Both declined to discuss their seafood operations.

There are also several strong regional independents, most of which have thriving seafood departments with an emphasis on service, including Lunardi's Supermarket, San Bruno, Calif.; Andronico's Market, Albany, Calif.; and Nob Hill Foods, Gilroy, Calif.

Safeway, noted industry sources, does a good job merchandising fresh seafood in the stores with service counters, but the chain is cutting back on the number of stores featuring service seafood.

A Safeway executive commented that in the division that includes California, Nevada and Hawaii, 125 out of 250 stores have service counters for seafood. "Safeway has dramatically downsized its seafood departments," and is cutting them to between 8 and 12 feet, with another 8 feet of prepackaged fresh fish and shellfish, the executive added.

This was in evidence during visits to smaller Safeway stores in suburbs on the peninsula, which carried prepackaged fresh seafood in 3-foot cases at the end of the meat cases, and generally had signs or dry-erase boards near the section highlighting the week's ad specials, plus a few staples such as cooked and raw shrimp. The sections also carried jars of herring and shrimp cocktail, packaged lox and other smoked fish.

In contrast are the larger Safeway stores, such as a Safeway Marketplace in Redwood City, where a 16-foot service seafood section runs along the center of the back wall.

Set off with deep blue-green tile and a "Catch of the Day" logo in blue neon, the department features a rolling bin with a gray rope-and-pilings dockside motif, containing clams and fish on ice. Also on hand is a tank of live lobsters.

The adjacent service counter features a mix of fresh and previously-frozen fish displayed in pans on ice, along with shellfish and the huge Dungeness crabs popular in this market. Several value-added items are also on display, including marinated catfish in garlic-butter and Cajun varieties, and crab and scallop cakes.

Across the aisle from the service counter is a reach-in refrigerated self-service case with packages of many of the items available at the service counter, including Dover sole, shrimp and salmon steaks, imitation crab meat, packaged smoked fish and jars of seafood items. On the opposite side of this refrigerated case is another reach-in case with about 12 feet of frozen seafood, and an endcap case filled with bags of Contessa frozen seafood.

One retailer noted that this is perhaps the single largest seafood department of any of Safeway's northern California stores.

"Overall, Safeway does a better job than Lucky, but there are some excellent Lucky stores," commented one seafood industry executive.

Of Lucky's 111 stores in the greater San Francisco metropolitan area, all of the larger units have fresh seafood departments, noted a spokesperson for the chain.

Like Safeway, Lucky is cutting back the size of its service counters -- from 24 feet to 16 feet -- as stores are remodeled, noted another executive. But the chain is staying with service seafood, which the seafood executive judged to be a good move. "Their quality has not gone down," he said.

A Lucky store across the street from the large Safeway Marketplace in Redwood City has a service seafood section called the "Fish Market," running about 16 feet in the right rear corner of the store. In another nearby Lucky's, the product mix includes fresh herring, calamari and mussel salads in the service cases along with an assortment of fish steaks and fillets. A combination of fresh and previously-frozen product includes orange roughy, mahi mahi and sea bass along with whole trout, catfish and other varieties. The value-added assortment is limited primarily to marinated catfish fillets.

The stores cross merchandise a number of grocery items on shelves in front of the service case and on adjacent displays, such as cocktail and tarter sauces, breading mixes, and an assortment of wines. Prepackaged fresh seafood is displayed at the end of the self-service meat cases adjacent to the seafood departments.

Turning to the independents, Nob Hill Foods, with 25 supermarkets mostly in the greater San Francisco area, gets high marks for its seafood operation from area seafood executives.

"Nob Hill runs the best full-service seafood operation of any of the large chains. They do a very, very good job," commented one retailer.

In contrast to most chains, which put service seafood next to the meat counter, Nob Hill usually locates its service seafood departments next to the deli.

The seafood department in Nob Hill's Los Gatos store is set off with deep blue tile and the word "Fish" in blue neon.

The assortment at Nob Hill is broader than at Safeway and Lucky, and there is no indication the product has been previously frozen. Nob Hill offers a wide selection of value-added fresh seafood, including ready-to-go shrimp trays with a sauce cup in the center, catfish fillets with a Cajun sauce, and several varieties of marinated filets.

Small independents make a major commitment to fresh product, observers said. Other key differences are a more knowledgeable staff and a keener eye for display.

"There are people who are fish-oriented -- who know how to handle and display it -- and there are people who aren't. A meat man can't put out fish the way a seafood man can. You have to display the product well and talk to the customer," said one supplier.

Andronico's Market has seven stores in the greater San Francisco area and another under construction. All have service seafood.

"We're putting a lot of emphasis on seafood," said Darren Horton, director of meat and seafood operations for the chain. Seafood is showing the highest sales increases of any department in the store, he told SN.

Andronico's emphasizes the service aspect of its departments with shrimp butterflying and deveining machines, with which Andronico's processes customer shrimp orders free of charge. They also have oyster-shucking machines.

The chain recently upgraded its seafood display cases, going to all open cases with glass fronts about 2.5 feet high. Fish is displayed on ice, or butcher paper over ice in the case of more delicate fillets.

"We're also doing a lot of value-added things," noted Horton, including kebob skewers, and marinated steaks and fillets, using marinades created by the store's chefs.

"We marinate a lot of different varieties and use several different marinades, so our customers see a different variety on every visit," he said.

Horton estimated Andronico's typical fish customer comes in three times a week.

"I've been working with value-added product for 15 years, and I've never seen as good a customer response as here," said Horton, a former Safeway seafood executive. "In the large chains, we missed the boat. We'd go to no end to make the product look gorgeous, but the quality wasn't there."

"The customer definitely pays more at our store," he conceded. The stores are generally located in upper-income areas.

An area broker noted that supermarkets like Andronico's "are more expensive than Safeway. There can be glaring differences in price on some items. Those [independents] are more expensive, but not staggeringly so -- and their quality justifies the price."

The five-store Lunardi's chain not only has a full-service seafood department -- the meat department is completely full service as well. One broker described Lunardi's as "as close to a specialty store as a supermarket gets."

The upscale chain offers an extensive seafood assortment in a department that runs about 15 feet and advertises fresh seafood weekly. The value-added selection is smaller than at Andronico's, and the marinades used are made in the store. There is no previously-frozen product, according to store executives.

For most of the San Francisco Bay area, the top selling varieties are Dungeness crab, salmon and swordfish.

As in many areas of the country, "the best seller is salmon, literally every week of the year," said a broker. Also popular are Pacific snapper, cooked and peeled small shrimp called shrimpmeat, and headless shell-on shrimp.