The logistical wonders of the fresh fish market
Fish stores are the last of the specialty food markets in the North Carolina Piedmont, a lone holdout against the consolidated food production system. It’s a niche that survives on the strength of its customers’ rarefied tastes and the magical fact that within three hours of the time a catch is unloaded from the boat on the Atlantic it can be iced down and ready for sale in the store.
One of the most iconic of the Greensboro fish markets is Tri-City Fresh Seafood Mart, whose faded painted mermaid billboard beckons customers in this no-man’s land of warehouses and vacant storefronts that straddles the central business and light industrial zones at the intersection of Elm and Lee streets.
Owner Maze Dames has been in the seafood business for about 20 years. He ran a fish market down on Randleman Road for awhile, and then when Tri-City’s previous owner decided to get out of the business about year ago Dames snapped it up. The store opened in 1976 to the best of Dames knowledge. The original owner was John, whom the current owner describes as a ‘“white man, always had a cigar in his mouth, had a big beer belly.’”
‘“I like seafood,’” says the 38-year-old Dames. ‘“I was one of the big fish eaters in Greensboro. I wasn’t too happy with the way fish were done. You go home and the fish isn’t even scaled, so I thought I’d open a fish market of my own.’”
Today, an overcast Tuesday morning, the cases in the spare-looking store are stocked with whole fish on ice: smallish and light-colored croakers, spots and pan trout, the dark flounder, blue fish mullets with pronounced eyes and red spots, and blue fish. Around the corner are the fillets: flounder, tilapia, cat, trout and whiting. Beside those are shrimp, oysters and a bucket of scallops.
‘“Tomorrow we got black bass, red snapper and mackerel coming in,’” Dames announces. ‘“That’s what they’re fishing for anyway. We’ll see what they get. Three trucks will be here. Each one’s got something different on it.’”
Dames deals with about five fishing companies that ply the Atlantic off the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia. He calls in to let the fishing companies know what he needs in the evenings, and the fishers hit the water at night. By about three or four in the morning they’re unloading the catch, icing it down and putting it on the truck. It takes about three hours for a truck originating in the Wilmington area to reach Greensboro.
‘“Whatever they catch they’ll call me and tell me what they caught,’” he says.
At 7 a.m. the previous night’s catch is delivered to Tri-City.
The ocean beyond the Virginia-Carolina bulge is prime fishing territory, Dames says.
‘“We have some of the best seafood in the country,’” he says. ‘“In Florida you get fresh fish but it’s soft because the water’s so hot.’”
Dames gets most of his fillets, which are de-boned and frozen on the ship, from Argentina through a broker. Being frozen and partially processed, the fillets are of course also well stocked by large-scale grocers like Harris-Teeter, Wal-Mart and Food Lion.
It’s with fresh fish that Tri-City and the other small markets ‘— most of which in Greensboro are Asian owned ‘— thrive.
‘“They don’t want to mess with scaling, gutting and cleaning ’em,’” Dames says of the big grocers. ‘“It’s a lot of work. Fish has got a very short lifespan. You carry it two days and you got to get rid of it.’”
The Asian fish markets in Greensboro, which are scattered in an arc along Florida Street, High Point Road, Spring Garden Street and West Market Street, thrive because large grocers have yet to catch up with ethnic tastes, Dames says.
‘“They eat different fish: a lot of sushi, salmon and snails ‘— anything that grows in the ocean,’” he says.
Today is slow at Tri-City. It’s the beginning of the cycle after the store closes on Monday. The deliveries will come in every morning at seven until Friday, when the trucks roll through anywhere between noon and 4 p.m. to accommodate peak demand on the weekend.
‘“The fish business is really a Friday and Saturday business,’” he says. ‘“I don’t know about you, but we always ate fish on Friday. I don’t know why Friday, but thank God for Friday.’”
Tri-City’s supply depends both on the migratory patterns of the fish and self-imposed regulations by the industry that require fish under certain lengths to be thrown back to ensure species are able to reproduce.
The market accommodates a lot of different income levels and tastes.
‘“People love to buy our whiting fillets and trout fillets by the block,’” Dames says. ‘“Ten pounds for twenty dollars is what most people use. We try to give churches and non-profits a good price. Because they raise money for a good cause we don’t try to make money off them.
‘“You may like red snapper,’” he adds. ‘“You weigh it up and it comes to eight or nine dollars per pound. You might get seven or eight fish for the same price. Especially if you have a big family you can’t afford to spend fifty dollars for one meal.’”
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