On the Job, with Paul Babineau: Seafood Sales

Question: how on earth does fish from Newfoundland wind up in Montreal, being fresher than what is available locally?

The entire notion of a commodity is a necessary oversimplification. No two products are exactly alike, so variations in quality are accounted for in the price of similar products as a stand-in: one may assume Grey Goose vodka tastes better than Smirnoff while knowing only the price.

In fish markets however, one word rules over even price: “fresh.”

Paul Babineau got himself into the high-end seafood business after he moved to Bonavista 8 years ago. After a string of different careers, he partnered with a friend to convert the shed in his home into a tourist-based seafood shop: it’s called Saltbox Specialty Market.

Looking to keep the short season going into the fall, Paul took a road-trip to New Brunswick with several tonnes of seafood and set up shop, roadside fishmonger style, ala Churchill Square. The success of this venture got Paul thinking.

Paul boxed up some cod, flew to Montreal, and gave out some samples to the best and brightest in the restaurant scene. After a few follow-up calls, Paul gained his first accounts. What began as a one-off sale has grown into a weekly shipment.

Question: how on earth does fish from Newfoundland wind up in Montreal, being fresher than what is available locally?

Answer: “How do I beat ‘em? I gotta bust my butt. I gotta be at the wharf when the boats are coming in – boom – pack it. I have my flight booked in St. John’s. I get the best flight and I got my courier service on the other end. Some of my shipments are 24 hrs – so I’m beating whoever they are buying from on quality and freshness.”

How much better can one piece of cod be than another, really?

That is the real question – one that chefs seem to be asking obsessively. Paul explains that demand for his product has been spreading primarily through word of mouth. “The last thing a chef wants to do on a night off is cook – so when they go out to eat at a place carrying our product, it has to be so good that they stop and say, “Whoa – where is this from?!”

This newfound appreciation for quality acts as a double-edged knife.

On one hand: demand for higher-quality products requires more careful processing which leads to more sustainable harvesting. On the other: higher demand incentivises fraudulent copy-catting.

Paul’s dream for the Bonavista Bay is to introduce practices which meet international accreditation standards for companies like MSC, allowing access to even more exclusive markets. But on the production end, what really matters at the end of the day is the price.

“The 80 cents per pound the fisherman get here – you gotta guarantee them $1.20. Money talks, not ‘save the planet.’”

But the “save the planet” routine is what sells the fish.

Paul occupies the gap between the cost-conscious producer and the environmentally-conscious consumer. When he does his job well, they can both get what they want.

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