Slow economy puts squeeze on Fish Market

While some regret the move to Hunts Point, others look to a bright future based on modern facilities and water-borne deliveries

By Sarah Grieb

Photo by Mike Lee
The new Fulton Fish Market is spotless and efficient, but some merchants mourn the loss of walk-in trade, and residents ask why they arenít offered work there.

When it’s dark and most people are sleeping, inside the huge shed that is the New Fulton Fish Market it’s bright as day and forklifts whiz down the main aisle like cars on Broadway.

But the buzz of activity can be misleading, according to some of the merchants. Even though fish continues to arrive from all of all over the world, and many restaurants and hotels still buy from Hunts Point, the fish market is feeling Wall Street’s pain.

“Business is slow. People are buying more direct and going to Costco, outing the middle guy like us,” said Nina Fiorentino Rodriguez, whose family has owned C.G. Dino’s Seafood for 17 years and who met her husband working in the market. To increase revenue, Dino’s has offered to deliver to smaller customers that used to patronize the firm when the market was in Manhattan but said they couldn’t make the trip to Hunts Point.

The Fulton Fish Market moved from South Street in lower Manhattan in 2005 to an indoor, 400,000 square foot building, completing the Hunts Point food distribution center, which also includes the Hunts Point Cooperative Market, wholesaling meat, and the Hunts Point Terminal Market, selling fruits and vegetables.

Bringing the vendors in the fish market close to the food merchants in other sectors was supposed to help them all, by concentrating buying opportunities in one spot. The move brought 600 jobs and 45 businesses to Hunts Point, and it offered some merchants tax credits and other incentives from the city-funded Empire Zone Program or the Empowerment Zone Program, which encourage businesses to bring jobs and capital to neighborhoods like the South Bronx.

Not all the vendors are pleased with the way things have workd out, though. “Mondays and Tuesdays are so slow we shouldn’t even be open,” said Robert Russo of Gloucester Fish Co., Inc., who thinks the move has cost him business by being further from Manhattan where most restaurants are located. He and his coworkers miss the openness of the old, outdoor market and the restaurants and bars they would wind down in after their shifts were over. “It’s like prison,” he said of the new indoor market with all of its security.

“Certainly working in an enclosed facility is different than working under the Brooklyn Bridge and seeing sunrise, and everything else that comes with being in Manhattan,” said George Maroulis, the market’s manager. “I’m not sure we’ll ever have that in Hunts Point.”

But if the market was to stay competitive, he said, it had to modernize. On South Street, the fish were at the mercy of the elements. The move to an indoor refrigerated building maintains quality, he said.

Maroulis acknowledged that the merchants face “a difficult environment” in this period of economic turmoil. The market, he said, is trying to help by cutting back on energy and labor costs.

Herb Slavin of M. Slavin and Sons Ltd. brings perspective to the current troubles. A bit of a legend around the market, he has worked there for almost his entire life. “Sixty-eight years, since I’m 10 years old,” he said. He still personally assists customers in picking out fish. Like Russo and other merchants, he pointed to the absence of walk-in trade as one of the biggest differences between the new Bronx location and the old Manhattan market.

But M. Slavin, which has been open since the early 1900s and is one of the biggest firms at the market, has plans to expand soon, even in the bad economy. It recently obtained another stall and will bring 130 people from Brooklyn to work at it.

Plans for the future of the New Fulton Fish Market include the possibility that fishing boats will unload their catch directly at the market, replacing polluting trucks and eliminating a step in the delivery process. Cornell University has undertaken a feasibility study. “However, that’s a few years down the road,” Maroulis said.

Other planning efforts look to an expanding customer base. Seafood consumption has been increasing over the past several years according to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department. Maroulis said the market is also looking into importing more foreign and frozen seafood.

Perhaps because they look forward to future growth, other merchants are confident. Anthony Gurrera’s family owns the famous gourmet grocery chain Citarella. It has also owned Lockwood & Winant in the Fulton Fish Market for 18 years. Gurrera agrees that for the moment business has been slower, but he says, “People will always eat fish.”

He himself eats fish three times a week, he said, adding with a smile, that he likes the smell. “It smells like money,” he said.

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