“We sell the most expensive salmon to the most expensive restaurants in the US, for the highest price”

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The Honolulu Fish Company has long been a gourmet fresh fish supplier to the USA’s top chefs.

Getting fish back and forth to the most isolated population centre on Earth would be a challenge at the best of times. For Wayne Samiere, president and CEO of Honolulu Fish Company in Hawai, the coronavirus will force the industry to radically rethink distribution.

Marine biologist
Samiere, who runs the top seafood distributor has a distinct advantage that he’s not just a seafood guy, he’s a trained marine biologist. It’s with this in mind, that he’s been able to offer more than 30 varieties of eco-friendly Pacific water fish to over 3,000 customers across the USA since 1995.

PHOTO: Honolulu Fish Company

“Our core business is selling to restaurants across the country (US), every state, every city. We target the upscale restaurants, resorts, hotels, casinos,” Samiere told SalmonBusiness. This was until the second week in March when all the restaurants across the country closed.

Offset
Based on the capital and largest city of Hawaii, 2,000 miles away from the nearest continent, the CEO explained that business then dropped 95 per cent. But 50 per cent of its fish destined to restaurants was offset to customers such as grocery stores and restaurants started doing take out. “Online retail sales direct to consumers shot up 1000% in one week,” he said. The volcanic paradise is the most remote, yet the most visited archipelago in the world.

The company is the only direct distributor in the United States that offers more than 14 species of sashimi-grade fish. “Our core business is about 2000 high-end restaurants all over the country. USD 45 entree and up, white table cloth, upscale dining where fine ingredients are important,” he said.

Most expensive salmon
“We sell the most expensive salmon to the most expensive restaurants in the US for the highest price,” explained Samiere.

That fish is NZ King Salmon’s “wagyu beef” of the seafood world, Ora King salmon, which has won plaudits from chefs.

“We are one of the original distributors of this salmon for the US market,” he explained.

“In order to sell salmon to the US mainland market from Hawaii, we needed to promote something unique. Not only that but, New Zealand has direct flights to Hawaii so, the route is natural”.

Normally the sashimi-grade fish is FedExed overnight directly from the Island to five-star chefs such as Jean Georges, La Bernardin, Chanterelle and ESCA in New York, Tru in Chicago, the Phoenician Resort in Arizona, and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

However, recently New Zealand cut its flights to Hawaii as part of its plans to tighten border controls due to COVID-19. “We are getting the same fish in a roundabout way through Los Angeles,” he said.

Mid-century
Hawaii was the last state to admitted to the United States in 1959, which was also a time that the pink fish came onto its shores.

Boxes of fish fresh are auctioned then sent straight to kitchens acorss the USA. PHOTO: Honolulu Fish Company

“Locally and culturally, salmon came into popularity mid-century, a few decades ago but in canned and salted form”. Typical island usages include a popular dish called Lomi salmon, made with a relish of salted salmon, onions and tomatoes.

How has being a trained marine biologist affect your approach to work?

Samiere at a Honolulu Fish Auction. “I view products from a sense of the natural animal we are harvesting”. PHOTO: Honolulu Fish Company

“I view products from a sense of the natural animal we are harvesting, where it lives, why the fat content is that way, why the flesh is firm or soft how it’s hunted or raised then translate that to marketing that a consumer or chef can comprehend” he refected.  “To me, each fish species is vastly unique and should not be considered a commodity. The tendency in this industry is to lump all things in one basket”.

Strange kind of luxury
Samiere was philosophical in regards to the future of the gourmet fish industry post-pandemic. “Wild-caught fish will become a strange kind of luxury,” he said. “Farm-raised fish will become the staple accepted like cow and chicken. Distribution and marketing will all be forced to radically change. Consumers demand will be like what we are seeing now with our retail business. Consumers will want a personalised experience instead of a herd experience”.