Florida Seafood Is Sold at Steak-House Prices. Why?

Since I arrived in August, I've been struck by how much seafood on menus is from up north, whether it's swordfish, oysters, or lobster. I've also been curious at the pricing of local that's often higher than what's caught in the Caribbean and New England. What's the story?

I've been asking around -- line cooks, recreational fishermen, and chefs -- to find out more about this market. I thought Dean Max's assessment of how Florida seafood is selling at 3030 Ocean was especially interesting.

"Despite that 3030 Ocean is a seafood restaurant, we sell 48% beef. That's a pretty high percentage for a seafood restaurant," he said. "I'm not serving mahi sandwiches for under $20 here, so I think a lot of people don't want to commit to a plate that they're not familiar with."

Max said that at 3030 Ocean, year-round residents are less likely to order Florida seafood than visitors. "Visitors are all about local wahoo, pompano, and tuna," he said, though he's selling fewer stone crabs because they're so much more expensive than fish.

Red snapper, Ahi tuni, and mahi-mahi, are bestsellers, though when it's on the menu, black grouper sells out

fastest. "People know black grouper. It's the hottest fish and the most

flavorful grouper. That said, I can't sell it at my restaurants in

Cleveland and Columbus, where most of the menu is under $20. Or if I do,

I have to be more creative in the presentation."

Max says he buys black grouper wholesale for $16 to $18 a pound. He

serves it filleted, with a vegetable and likely a sauce, which brings

the restaurant cost to $13 a plate. "For me to build in cost of

ingredients and labor, I'm charging $34 a plate for black grouper," he said.

"Seafood has become steak-house pricing."

What about other varieties of the fish? "All grouper is expensive now," he

said, because of catch limits and limited supply. "The days of the $8

grouper sandwich are done." Part of why it's so expensive is because it's the third year that grouper fishing is closed -- right in the middle of the season, which runs from January through April.

Pompano is making a modest regional

comeback, of which Florida has "a small supply," he said. "You're not

going to see Pompano out in California." Max describes it as an oily fish

that's less gamey than bluefish from up north. He likes to pair it with

something tangy, like a passion fruit vinaigrette with an

arugula salad. "It contrasts really well with the bitterness of the

salad." he said.

Do bigger name restaurants drive up the price of seafood? "It's not like ten or 15 years ago, when people ate beef, chicken, or salmon," he said. "I know

people who eat fish three and four times a week. The demand is really

high, and we just can't find enough product."

And while fish prices will fluctuate with the market, he doesn't see any significant relief from high prices. "Fish farming

needs to improve. How will we do it in a healthy way that doesn't harm the environment?"

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Food Critic
Contact: Melissa McCart