Three speckled trout, wrapped in paper like loaves of French bread, were carried into the cutting room with instructions to fillet them and wrap up the bones. The customer wanted to use them for stock.
Nat Taylor, bundled up against the chill of the refrigerated space, put down the long slab of mahi-mahi he was working on and gave the trout a few swift, precise swoops of the knife. Then they were brought back outside and handed to the customer over an iced counter stocked with a rainbow of other fish and seafood types.
This is how things go all day at American Seafood, a seafood wholesale and processing house in New Orleans that now runs its own retail seafood market. Along the way, it’s giving a bustling example of the potential to get more Louisiana seafood into the hands of more local home cooks.
American Seafood runs its own walk-up, open-air seafood market three days a week, Thursday through Saturday. On any given one of those days, it might have eight or 10 types of finfish for customers to inspect, alongside crabmeat and oyster sacks, fresh shrimp, live crabs and boiled crawfish and shrimp.
Regulars know they can ask for anything that might be on hand in the fish house a few steps away, specifying what size cut they want from the whole swordfish or tuna sitting on ice within.
“We have some people come up with a toothpick, saying ‘here, that’s how thick I want the steaks,’” said Jay Meeuwenberg, who helps run the market.
It started as an emergency measure during the pandemic when this family-run company’s business model had to change abruptly. Today it continues, stepping into the role of neighborhood fishmonger.
American Seafood is doing something that seems extraordinary by doing something that many feel should be the norm — making a greater spectrum of Louisiana’s seafood harvest immediately available for dinner at home that night.
Seeking Joe Patti’s
As a food writer in a place that produces so much seafood, and where the local catch is tied to so many traditions, I hear the question all the time: why is it hard to find teeming retail marketplaces for it?
More specifically, what I often hear is: Why we don’t have a Louisiana version of Joe Patti’s? That’s a busy seafood market on the waterfront in Pensacola, Florida, which has become a tourist attraction in its own right and is familiar to many Louisianans from Panhandle beach trips.
Back home, at many of the small markets that still dot neighborhoods across the state, local shrimp, crab and crawfish are well-represented and easily at hand. This product dominates supply and feeds a healthy demand.
But when it comes to finfish — the type that thrives in great variety in local waters and contributes to Louisiana’s enormous seafood haul — the home cook will often find slim pickings, or fish imported from other waters.
There are other exceptions to this rule at some better-stocked markets, of course, but the disconnect is real, and it’s one advocates for sustainable fisheries and restaurant chefs have decried. One factor is the distance between the docks and the final destination for fresh fish, since the Louisiana seafood industry is still largely composed of small players based down the bayous, their docks many miles from the cities.
Others point to the generational decline in home cooking, especially for seafood, which Americans in general are far more likely to consume in restaurants now.
But the story of how American Seafood started and has maintained its seafood market shows how that can change.
Survival strategy works
American Seafood opened 50 years ago as an oyster processing plant. Today it is all but hidden within its Gentilly neighborhood, near the center of New Orleans. A grid of side streets leads to its loading docks, which face a berm topped by railroad tracks.
It’s an industrial setting without much street presence, and as a wholesale supplier that’s usually not a problem. American Seafood keeps restaurants supplied with the fish it buys from a network of local fishermen. Its trucks are more visible on their rounds around town than its homebase.
When the pandemic emerged in 2020, however, that business came to a screeching halt as dining rooms were ordered closed. Their return was marked by a slow, often up-and-down progression.
But people were still eating, of course, and company owners Liane and Wayne Hess figured many would like some of their erstwhile restaurant supply to cook at home. It started with neighbors, who would drop by looking for a fish or some shrimp. When American Seafood set up an iced counter under a tailgating-style tent, the market was born.
“People like being able to pick it out, they like being able to look at the product,” said Liane Hess.
Wayne Hess said he’d considered opening a stand-alone retail market in the past but was discouraged by the task of keeping this highly perishable supply consistent for customers.
“The difference with wholesale customers is that I can tell the chefs ‘well, the guys can’t go out fishing for snapper because of the weather, but we have drum,’ and they’re going to work with their menus and change it up,” said Hess. “But the retail customers are coming because they want to cook snapper, and if you don’t have it they’re going to be disappointed.”
But with a market serving as a sideline to his wholesale business, his product is always moving through and there’s little concern with getting stuck with unsold fish, Hess said. That means the retail counter can show off an impressive variety.
As life and the restaurant wholesale business has normalized, Hess has maintained his retail market. Restaurant chefs and home cooks now stand in line together. Many people found that they liked shopping this way, and for some, it rekindled the old ways and restored old habits.
“Some of the people who are regulars now, before their only exposure to seafood was catfish, and boiled crawfish and shrimp; now they’re asking for pompano and sheepshead and speckled trout when a few years ago they wouldn’t think of something like that on their plate,” said Meeuwenberg.
“But they see what other people are buying, and they start talking right there at the counter, they’re exchanging recipes between themselves. It’s really cool to see.”
The business of the market takes place by the fence fronting the street, but from there, customers get a view of the inner workings and daily life of a Louisiana seafood house. That includes Hess taking his daily sample of oysters, shucked in hand for a bit of quality control.
“I get oysters from three different guys working two different areas. When people ask me how they taste, I want to be able to tell them,” Hess said. “I try them every morning, I have my coffee and some oysters.”
3034 George “Nick” Connor Drive, (504) 822-3983
Market hours: Thu. 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Fri. 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sat. 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. (2 p.m. during Lent)
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