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SNIFFING OUT OIL: William Mahan of the University of Florida moves air across a bowl of shrimp to check for taint. NOAA's Fisheries Service and the International Food Protection Training Institute are providing seafood sensory training to help inspectors detect seafood exposed to oil. (Photo: Bill Haber)

Diners grilling restaurants over seafood

Distance doesn’t seem to matter. No matter how far they are from the Gulf, waiters and waitresses around the nation are getting the same grilling by diners. Is your seafood clean?

After months of watching news coverage of tar balls washing up on beaches and oil-soaked wildlife, customers are asking questions about where their food was fished from, especially items closely associated with the Gulf, like shrimp and oysters. “We have two oyster dishes on our menu and people want to know where they are from,” said Bryce Statham owner of the Blue Moon Fish Co., in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla.

For some restaurants, the solution has been to add new items to the menu (alligator at one New Orleans eatery). Others have sought out the same seafood with a different geography (New Zealand grouper over Gulf Coast, for example). Still others take a more blunt approach. While Dallas-area restaurants hung up “God Bless the Gulf” signs, another in upstate New York tweeted that they do NOT serve Gulf seafood.

The Associated Press contacted more than a dozen restaurants nationwide and many said the increased curiosity from customers hasn’t necessarily cost them business. Rather, restaurateurs say a portion of their customers seek reassurance before ordering. It’s the same sort of squeamishness lampooned recently in Doonesbury when Zonker, working as a waiter, assured a customer the crabs are “petroleum-free” and points out the latest satellite image of the spill on the man’s placemat. In reality, waiters and waitresses around the nation are getting pointers on ways to assure customers that their seafood is coming from either clean waters in the Gulf or from another part of the world.

This can be a balancing act. Restaurants typically want to support the devastated Gulf fishing industry but also want to make clear they’re steering clear of product from polluted water. Ken Vaughan, director of operations for Flying Fish restaurants, said his restaurants in the Dallas area and in Little Rock, Ark., and Memphis, Tenn., put up “God Bless the Gulf” signs, but they also tell customers who ask that their shrimp comes from reputable suppliers.

Jack’s Oyster House in Albany, N.Y., recently told customers on Twitter and Facebook that “Jack’s is NOT sourced from the Gulf.” In Florida, Stratham said staff members checks tags on the oysters so they can tell customers where they are from. Brad Lomax, owner of Water Street Restaurants in Corpus Christi, Texas, said they’re training servers to explain that the shrimp is safe. In Miami, the River Oyster Bar changed the look of its menu to show customers specifically where the oysters are coming from, said David Bracha, chef and owner. He also tells his staff to assure customers that the restaurant tries to buy fish locally when possible.

“I try to educate them on where the fish comes from,” he said. “If a guest asks them or is concerned, they can speak about it intelligently.” Gulf seafood accounts for a bit more than 2 percent of the seafood consumed by Americans, according to industry estimates. Chefs tend to promote local products — think Maine lobsters or Seattle salmon — meaning restaurants beyond the South may serve few or no menu items from Gulf.

For instance, Mike Earp of Saltwater Seafood Market and Fry Shack in Raleigh says 95 percent of his product is from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. The Baltimore-based Phillips Seafood chain relies on crabmeat from a plant in Maryland as well as facilities overseas, a spokeswoman said.

For Gulf items that have become hard to come by — or too costly — many restaurants have replaced them with new items. Faced with a shortage of oysters, Cafe Adelaide in New Orleans started serving alligator sope (a traditional Mexican dish) and “it’s selling pretty good” said sous chef Orlando Harris.

The Hillstone Restaurant Group, which runs Gulfstream restaurants in Los Angeles and Orange County, replaced its Florida black grouper Gulf sandwich with the newly named Crispy Fish Fillet made with New Zealand grouper.

Miami’s River Oyster Bar switched to oysters from Seattle after prices for Gulf oysters “went through the roof,” Bracha said. Similarly, Denver’s Max Gill & Grill, said the restaurant stopped buying oysters from the Gulf soon after the spill and now only buys oysters from the west and northeast coasts, said general manager Eric Tittmann. “A lot of people definitely ask about it,” he said.

It’s still not clear if that customer concern has translated into a nationwide drop in seafood restaurant business. Some Gulf state businesses are clearly affected. Vaughan of Flying Fish said the effects of the oil spill have cost them about 15 percent of their profits. A New Orleans restaurant, Bayona, filed a class action lawsuit against the companies involved with the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig for the loss of customers and revenue. But other restaurants around the country say business is fine. Tittman also said his Denver restaurant has actually gotten busier in the last eight months. Bracha in Miami said business has yet to be affected, though that could change with the currents.

“If the oil comes to Florida … if it comes to the Keys … people are going to be just freaked out,” Bracha said. “You are going to see a lot less tourism and less people interested in eating seafood.”

(Contributing were Sue Manning in Los Angeles, Jamie Stengle in Dallas, Lisa Orkin Emmanuel in Miami, Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, Alex Dominguez in Baltimore and Ivan Moreno in Denver.) Copyright 2010  AP News – ENN