August 2011


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I’m just going to shop at Whole Foods for Seafood from now on. I should have known better. Sometimes, I just don’t want to spend the money for fresh fish, but you get what you pay for.

Anyhow, I wrote this letter to the Trader Joe’s feedback hotline. I’ll keep you posted as to what happens. In any case, this will be a good study on how to handle a customer who is extremely dissatisfied with their product.

I should point out- I’m not mad, but disappointed. It could happen where I work, and I’m interested to figure out how it’s handled. Good or bad, you’ll know the outcome. Here’s the letter:

***

Hi,

I was recently in your Chicago store, and I picked up a package of your Mahi Mahi Pieces. We were having family visit from out of town, and I wanted something light and summery, so I picked out fish tacos using your Mahi. I was in a rush, and the deal, for $3.49/lb seemed like a great deal. The package said “Product of Peru”. I bought one, brought it home, and threw it in the freezer. We didn’t get to eat it with family, but I’m lucky we didn’t.

We kept it in the freezer and thawed it out a few days later under cool running water, in the package.  When I opened the package, it smelled old. Very old. Not only that, but being that it was not IQF, the texture and the smell meant that they were frozen, thawed, and refrozen.

This is not a problem that affects only my package, because issues like this are not relegated to one package. If it were improperly handled from packaging to store, the vacuum seal would have been broken. Thank you for handling the product correctly.

My issue is the quality of the product to begin with. I’ve spent 12 years of my life in the seafood industry, and every once in a great while, I’d get emails from wholesalers saying, for example, that they had 3600 pallets of frozen mahi bits in cold storage on the docks in Los Angeles or Miami. It was usually product of a South American Country, and the price was usually between 49 to 79 cents a pound. This is where mahi pieces come from.

I never purchased them for my operation, because I had no use for them and my business never dealt in that volume. I never thought that they would be such an inferior product.

I’m fully aware of the steps to determine whether or not a product has gone bad, but this product was just bad enough to not throw away. In hindsight, I probably should have put them in the trash. The smell was poor, the texture was unacceptable, and it cooked up with an aftertaste that was thoroughly unsatisfying.

If you believe that this is an isolated incident, please let me know, as I’ll take my inquiries to the home store directly. I understand that a large part of your business is increasing basket size due to active sampling, but there is no way that your stores could comfortably sample this inferior product to customers and expect them to buy it. The smell alone, even masked with onions, garlic, and a Simmer sauce as I did at home, was only enough to realize that it was of poor quality, but not bad enough to make you sick. There may be some that are better than the package I purchased, but there are also some that are of poorer quality. If you believe differently, please have your crew sample the product in a way that makes it palatable, and I will be happy to change my tune. I am skeptical if only because I know the purchasing practices of large scale seafood operations, and this problem will not be fixed without a recall of all the product currently from that batch on the shelves.  I bought the mahi, without sampling from your staff, and I now know that I’ve made a huge mistake. Have your staff try it to make sure they don’t keep ‘selling extra low quality seafood’ as one of their best practices. The staff are so enthusiastic, I think they would not care to sell a product that they couldn’t stand behind. I know I wouldn’t.

I do like a variety of products that you carry, but I will not be purchasing seafood, and will be scaling back my excursions to your stores until I am satisfied that the quality problem has been addressed and resolved. Please let me know what steps you are taking to ensure that no mahi mahi pieces of such poor quality will go out to customers again. If you assure me that the product issues have been addressed, and I take your word, buy it and find out that it is in fact still the same D-grade fish, my business will be going elsewhere.

Thank you for listening. Please alert me to any steps being taken to fix this problem.

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As I posted on the Facebook Page the other day, I bought some really bad fish.

I didn’t mean to, but I saw an opportunity to get some frozen mahi bits, and I jumped. $3.49/lb? Sure. I know it’s the tails and trim, but how bad can it be? I just wanted to make some tacos.

Usually, for fish tacos, I’ll buy some fresh stuff (tilapia-about all it’s good for), or frozen shrimp (95% of the shrimp you buy is flash frozen anyway, so they have a good market for that going). This, however, looked too good to be true, and chances are that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

An onion is an onion. Sadly these days, a tomato is a tomato, and all the other things you put in your tacos really don’t matter if you get them from one place versus another. The filling, however, the meat of it all? It matters. It matters big time.

I purchased a 1 lb. vacuum sealed pack of Mahi Mahi pieces (product of Peru?) from an unnamed, pirate themed grocery store, and kept them in the freezer until I was ready to use them. I figured that since we had such nice weather, when the lady’s mom was in town last week, we could have some refreshing fish tacos.

We never got around to having them, because we cooked a couple of nice dinners (fresh sockeye, polenta, and steamed artichokes, and homemade pizza), and went out a couple of times (tapas and the Purple Pig), but I’m so glad that we didn’t serve the fish to her. What was so bad about it? What could possibly cause me to turn up my nose at fish, one of my favorite additions to any meal?

I should point out that the gorgeous piece of striped bass that we had on Martha’s Vineyard was in the company of the madre, and to go from that to this as a great seafood memory would have been unacceptable. I shot my lady a text as I was getting off work, asking her to thaw out the package of mahi in the sink so that I could prepare the tacos for her upon my return.

When I got home, the mahi was under running cool water in its plastic package- So far, so good. I prepped the peppers, onions, and a good simmer sauce to flavor the fish, as I knew it wouldn’t be top quality, but would still take well to a sauce.

Helpful tip of the day: With frozen fish, you want to cook it to a degree of doneness that is almost if not fully cooked through. You have little to no idea of the process it goes through before sealing and shipping. Here’s what I found:

With the vegetables sweating in the hot pan, I opened the package. It instantly smelled like someone had left an open can of tuna out on the counter overnight. I can understand but not agree with the smell, (looking back, the fish had been frozen, partially thawed, and frozen again) and it can usually be addressed with a rinse under cool water to remove the excess liquid in which the fish has been frozen. That’s what I did.

I patted it dry, and it still had a lingering, if not overpowering fish smell. Still, not the type of smell that would automatically put it in the unsalvageable category. I threw it in the pan, put the simmer sauce on it, and let it go for a few minutes. It turned firm and opaque quickly, and still gave off the smell that puts people off of cooking fish at home. Usually, when I was working at Pike Place, I’d tell people to start with fresh fish, and combine it with flavors that would leave a reminder of a pleasantly seasoned dinner, rather than a sorrowful evening with a less than stellar fish. I should have taken my own advice.

Still, I knew it was safe, just unbearably mediocre. After cooking it for about ten minutes, we put it in the taco shells, and had ourselves a chow. Unsurprisingly, it was bad. It just tasted of commodity fish, and I imagined that this was the taste that people who live in food deserts associate with fish, the frozen, tinny, unsatisfying flavor of the leftover bounty of the sea, thus turning them off seafood for life. That was the sadness running through my brain as I ate the tacos.

I asked my lady how they were.

“They’re good.”

Oh.

***

When we were finished and cleaning up, I asked her again.

“Well, they were okay, but the fish wasn’t really that good. I didn’t want to say anything because you made them.”

Yes, I made them, but in preparation, I didn’t do anything wrong other than purchase the wrong fish. I like that I can make the distinction between bad food and bad preparation, but I don’t like it when someone feels obligated to tell me that something was good when it clearly wasn’t.

The tortilla is sad. All he wanted was a friend.

We talked a little bit about the fish, and after a while, I remembered something from my days of ordering fish in Seattle. Every other day, we’d get emails from companies that were giving deep discounts on stuff that we wouldn’t even consider. They had prices for 2600 cases of things like “Salmon for burgers (Read:scraps, trim, and scrapings from the carcass) for 49¢/lb. Mahi “Nuggets”, I think, were 99¢/lb. At any given moment, there are opportunist Fish brokers out there trying to sell companies on stuff that’s sitting in cold storage at a dock in either Miami or Los Angeles that nobody in their right minds would ever buy. Nobody except the bargain fish hunters. I can now exclude myself from that group.

With fish, my professional opinion is to stay away from the following in the grocery store:
Pink Salmon-Yes, it’s wild. Yes, Wild salmon is good for you. It is the least nutritious of the wild salmons, and what they use to make salmon loaf out of. If it says Pink salmon on the label, it’s not the most fulfilling.
“Bits/Nuggets”- See the entire post right here. It is made using the leftover tails and necks of fish that are going to be portion cut for frozen fish anyway, largely due to lack of case appeal, freshness, and ability to sell. Unless you can see the whole fillet in the package, stay away. Many times, portion cuts are taken from larger fish such as halibut and swordfish and cut into smaller pieces so you can’t tell just how spindly of an animal you’ve put in your cart. 40+ pounds on a halibut is bordering on too big, and on anything larger, your quality will go down.
Swai- Innocuous whitefish that has slipped into the scene over the last couple of years and is now being marketed to consumers. It used to be sold to Chinese restaurants as the whitefish option, and it has appeared on menus as deep fried fish. It doesn’t taste like much, but it’s no cod, halibut, sole, or even tilapia. This species of freshwater catfish comes from Southeast Asia. Nothing in the previous sentence leads me to believe that grocery stores are doing their part to ensuring that they’re selling swai as a healthy, safe fish.

***

Hey, you get what you pay for, and you learn from your mistakes. Every so often, I have a slip-up, and I buy some garbage. Please, learn from this, and don’t buy garbage fish. Sometimes at the market, you’ll see something, and they’ll try to pass it off as a good value, but more frequently these days, it’s something else entirely.