How Some Dallas Seafood Restaurants are Coping With The Gulf Oil Spill

Going, going…

Hannah Boen, a senior at Texas Tech and an intern at D Magazine, files this report.

As the oil continues to spill in the Gulf, the cost of seafood from the area continues to rise. Last Friday, the Baltimore Business Journal reported that the price of crabs in the city has never been higher. Restaurants all over the country are also feeling the pinch. I checked with some local seafood restaurants to get a feel for what is happening in Dallas.

The market for shrimp and oysters harvested from the Gulf has been hit the hardest.
Lucky for Chamberlain’s Fish Market Grill, they weren’t using much Gulf product before the oil spill. Executive Chef Valentin Echeverria said the only seafood product they sell from the Gulf is the shrimp, and prices have definitely increased there.  “Normally, I pay about $11 a pound,” says the chef. “Now, it’s up to $12.50.” Echeverria expects a 50 cent per week increase for the rest of the year. The shrimp they’re buying now comes from a stock that has been frozen, but as that supply diminishes over the next year, the prices will continue to increase.

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He doesn’t foresee cutting off Gulf shrimp service as a whole, or increasing prices. However, in order for the restaurant to make up for the price jump, he may have to serve a smaller shrimp than what is on the menu now.

The story is quite different for S&D Oyster Company. The McKinney Avenue restaurant serves a variety of seafood, almost all of which is caught in the Gulf. Hence, they have experienced a price increase from suppliers on almost every menu item served, especially raw oysters and fresh fish.

“We’ve always been a Gulf seafood place and that’s what we’d like to continue,” says Herb Story, the owner. “But if we have to be a burger and beer joint, we’ll adapt.”

S&D’s suppliers have increased oyster prices 50 percent since the spill and shrimp prices have gone up 35 to 40 percent. The restaurant is coping by introducing a few new menu items featuring fish caught outside the Gulf, something they have never tried before, but crab-loving patrons will be sure to get excited about. To supplement the oyster shortage, Story said he is looking to add more crab dishes, possibly even Crab St. Charles, made from a wild-caught devil crab imported from Asia.

Story isn’t the only man trying to adapt. Nate Peck, owner of Nate’s Seafood and Steakhouse, has been making a living off the Gulf since 1970, when he was a snapper fisherman. Today, he says he’s got to find a new way to make a living since the spill.

The oyster company Peck used for more than a decade recently closed. His Gulf shrimp prices have gone up a dollar a pound and his Gulf oysters have more than doubled in price. Peck says he’s blessed, however, to be good at more than just seafood. The barbecue champion claims to serve the best rib in town. He also plans to add some Mexican dishes and several varieties of smoked fish.

“Times are changing,” Peck says. “It’s adapt or perish. For the Louisiana oyster, I have a feeling it’ll be a long time before things get back to normal.” He plans to transform his business model in order to continue making a profit, but what saddens him the most is the loss of a quality product.

“I’ll find ways to adapt,” he says. “But you just can’t replace that good, beautiful Gulf crab meat, the shrimp, the oysters. You can get that stuff from all over the world. It just doesn’t taste as good.”

Regardless of taste, some local seafood restaurants are determined to stay away from price increases through the effects of the oil spill.

For now, the Flying Fish is looking to the West Coast to bail them out of the price jump. Gustavo Santana, the restaurant’s general manager, says they’ve stopped ordering seafood product from the Gulf and are getting oysters from Washington and Oregon. For shrimp, he orders from non-Gulf waters in Mexico, and says he’ll continue to do so until the supply runs low there. He hopes he won’t have to increase menu prices, but says he will know more about seafood shortages and price increases in the next three or four weeks.

TJ’s Fresh Seafood Market imports a variety of seafood from around the world, making Gulf prices a fairly small issue for the establishment. Co-owner Jon Alexis said the market seems to be having more of a problem with consumer confidence than price increases.

The market currently stocks 35 species of fresh fish, three of them come from the Gulf. Prices have increased for only one product he sells, cocktail shrimp. However, he said consumers are having a difficult time trusting the quality of seafood since the spill. “Our most popular items aren’t from the Gulf,” he said, “but even the ones that are, they’re perfectly safe.”

“If there were ever a time to eat Gulf seafood, it’s now,” says Alexis. “Product is tested more thoroughly than ever.” Any seafood making it into Dallas has passed the strictest tests set by the fisherman, the FDA, wholesalers, and retailers.

While other seafood joints in town may run low on Gulf shrimp, or even turn to Asia to import tiger shrimp, TJ’s Market has no intention to ever serve an imported shrimp product, no matter what happens in the Gulf.

From price increase to the decrease  in consumer confidence, the oil spill in the Gulf has tweaked the way Dallas restaurants are serving seafood. So when will things return to normal for local fish and shrimp sales?

For the Gulf oyster industry, Alexis said maybe never. For Gulf shrimp, Echeverria foresees price increases for at least the next year. However, as a whole, local prices and availability of product has not fluctuated as much as many restaurant owners expected since the spill. If anything, the tightened supply is giving restaurants reason to expand their menu and bring new products into the Dallas market.