Raleigh entrepreneurs bring fresh NC seafood to the Triangle

aweigl@newsobserver.com August 24, 2013 

  • Where to buy

    Locals Seafood sells at a number of farmers markets across the Triangle throughout the week:

    3-6 p.m. Tuesdays: Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market

    10 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesdays: Raleigh Downtown Farmers’ Market

    10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays: State Farmer’s Market in the Market Shoppes building.

    8 a.m.-noon Saturdays: Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market, Western Wake Farmers’ Market, Midtown Farmers’ Market and Wake Forest Farmers’ Market.

    Locals Seafood’s fish is sold also on the LoMo Market truck that sells local food all over the Triangle: lomomarket.com.

    You can also preorder seafood for pick-up at the various farmers markets. Info: localsseafood.com.

— Ryan Speckman faced a long day of driving on a recent Tuesday. At 6:47 a.m., he got behind the wheel of a white Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van with a Locals Seafood logo on the side. As a co-owner of Locals Seafood, Speckman was about to drive three hours to Wanchese, as he does twice a week, to buy fresh seafood caught by the state’s fishermen, and then drive three hours back to Raleigh.

“Lin will already have a lot of this fish sold before I get back,” Speckman said.

Lin is Lin Peterson, Speckman’s business partner, college buddy and the other harebrained schemer who has transformed an idea – “Let’s sell seafood from the back of our pickups on the side of Six Forks Road” – into a thriving business that has sold more than $1 million worth of North Carolina seafood over the past three years.

The two men saw an opportunity in Triangle consumers’ hunger to eat local food. One thing there wasn’t much of in the marketplace was North Carolina seafood. Most of the seafood caught off North Carolina heads north on Interstate 95 and doesn’t come inland. The few entrepreneurs ferrying seafood from the coast typically either sell directly to consumers or sell only to restaurants. Speckman and Peterson chose a different path.

Locals Seafood sells about two-thirds of its seafood wholesale to restaurants, such as Vinnie’s Steakhouse, Capital Club 16 and NOFO at the Pig. It sells the remaining third directly to the public at half a dozen farmers markets across the Triangle, including a prime location at the State Farmer’s Market on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. These multiple outlets mean Locals Seafood regularly sells out, which is what you want when selling a perishable product.

“We try to move everything within 48 hours,” Peterson said.

The business model also offers the men an attractive sales pitch to consumers: Two days ago, this fish was in the water. By comparison, most seafood sold at grocery stores was previously frozen. And if it is North Carolina seafood, it likely was shipped to a large seafood broker in Boston or New York, and then shipped back to grocery stores in North Carolina. As Speckman said, “A lot of people don’t understand how old the seafood is they are buying at the grocery store.”

‘Wives with good jobs’

Very few folks connected to the seafood industry have experienced the success and growth that Locals Seafood has. Officials with N.C. Sea Grant, a marketing and research entity that helps the state’s seafood industry, asked Speckman and Peterson a year ago how they have succeeded where many others have failed.

Their reply: “Wives with good jobs.”

Peterson, 33, and Speckman, 35, both had full-time jobs before launching their seafood business in summer 2010. Peterson did marketing for Great Outdoor Provision Co. Speckman worked as a wildlife biologist and had spent several years living in Columbia, a fishing community on the Albemarle Sound. The idea sprung from Speckman’s experience there as opposed to the Triangle.

“I took it for granted getting really fresh seafood,” he said. “Here in Raleigh, I couldn’t get it.”

The men started the business as a part-time venture and sold $15,000 worth of seafood that first half year out of the back of their trucks on the weekend. Eventually, they quit their jobs, Speckman in June 2011 and Peterson six months later. They didn’t take a paycheck until January, instead reinvesting any profits into the business. They relied on their wives’ stable jobs. Peterson’s wife does marketing for Cotton Inc., and Speckman’s wife works for the federal General Services Administration.

The only business debt the men took on was a loan to buy one of three delivery vans – the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. On that trip, Speckman would buy seafood from three fish houses in Wanchese – O’Neal’s Sea Harvest, Etheridge Seafood and Wanchese Fish Co. When the pair first started Locals Seafood, Speckman thought he would buy directly from his fishermen friends, cutting out the middlemen at the fish houses. “But then we realized they are integral,” Speckman said.

Fishermen want to be out on the water fishing. They don’t want to be finding restaurants and retail shops to buy their fish, or doing all the paperwork required for selling seafood. Commercial fishing is heavily regulated. There are limits to how many of specific species can be caught, so it is carefully tracked. “Everything that comes across the dock has paper attached to it,” Peterson said.

Most often when Speckman makes his twice-weekly runs to the coast, what he can buy depends on the weather and what is being caught. Both of those factors are unpredictable. For example, colder temperatures this past spring led to later crab and shrimp seasons.

200 pounds of trout

On his recent trip to Wanchese, Speckman had a very specific need that he wasn’t sure he would be able to fulfill: 200 pounds of speckled trout for a chef at one of SAS’ cafeterias.

By 10 a.m., Speckman had parked the van outside O’Neal’s Sea Harvest, which operates not only a wholesale fish house but also a retail shop and small restaurant. Tuesday is always a big buying day. Speckman likely will spend about $5,000 among the three fish houses, most of it at O’Neal’s.

Benny O’Neal and his son, Colby, oversee what seafood is coming in off the boats via a short conveyor belt from the dock. The fish is sorted into large plastic baskets. Workers pack whole fish on ice in laminated cardboard boxes, which are stored in walk-in coolers. One worker drove a small front-end loader, ferrying ice to boats. Speckman inspected the gills and eyes and even squeezed the fish to check the firmness. If fish sat in the water for a long time, the meat can be mushy. “I want a firm fish,” Speckman said. He then checked to see what was available in the walk-in cooler.

The negotiation with O’Neal and his son typically lasts for a couple of hours. Speckman will see what they have, check prices, and then start by asking about what he can buy that hasn’t already been promised to a larger East Coast fish house or earmarked for O’Neal’s own retail store.

Speckman finally handed a “wish list” to Colby O’Neal, who said, “I don’t think we have that many trout.”

‘We’re in a huge growth phase’

On this day there was plenty of tilefish, red drum, flounder, swordfish and blue fish, and some mahi-mahi. The workers put together Speckman’s order, including 119 pounds of speckled trout, far less than what he needs. “It’s early enough, you could see a few more specks,” Colby O’Neal told him.

Speckman then drove to the other two fish houses to pick up scallops and tuna. As opposed to O’Neal’s, Speckman stayed only long enough to drop off a check and pick up the seafood. When he arrived back at O’Neal’s, maybe 20 minutes later, he headed straight to the baskets to see what fish had come in. Luckily for him, there was an additional 48 pounds of speckled trout. The men loaded the fish into the back of Speckman’s van. He wrote a check for $3,392. And then Benny O’Neal handed him an invoice with not only the amount of seafood he’d bought but the name of every fishermen who’d caught it.

After lunch at O’Neal’s restaurant, Speckman got back on the road to Raleigh. When he arrived back at the office at 4:40 p.m., three employees helped unload the van, and then started cutting up the fish to create fillets. Most restaurant chefs don’t have the time or manpower to break down the fish themselves.

Among Locals Seafood’s most regular customers is Tom Armstrong, chef and general manager at Vinnie’s Steakhouse in North Raleigh, who buys about 30 pounds of seafood each week. Customers have come to expect this fresh seafood from the coast. Armstrong said they ask him, “What’s your Locals Seafood feature this week?”

Speckman and Peterson’s operation has grown from just themselves to a dozen employees who cut fish, deliver it or sell it. They recently hired Amanda Miller, who used to run Dock to Door Seafood, a similar business that sold to restaurants in Chapel Hill. “We’re in a huge growth phase,” Speckman said.

Of the seafood that Speckman ferried from the coast, 55 pounds of flounder ended up at Chapel Hill’s Lantern restaurant to be fried whole, the 167 pounds of speckled trout went to SAS to be cooked in brown butter, and 5 pounds each of grey trout and bluefish went to Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham to be spice griddled or fried.

Two days later, Speckman did it all over again.

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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