In Western New York, independent fish markets are often a family thing. Even though the fishing business has changed radically in recent years -- with the industry turning global and more supermarkets entering the field -- local markets are still viable.
And grandsons, sons and cousins are remaining at the helm.
What do the markets have to offer? Service is key, say the folks who run the stores. And quality. Because the independent fish dealer does not have to sell in volume, he can concentrate on getting the very finest fish. Admittedly that often means it's more expensive as well.
Bob Jaus of Hayes Fish Co. on Harlem Road, Snyder, says he sells fish for as much as $12.99 a pound; at a supermarket $6.99 would be tops.
Enter his store and there's a definite feeling of time warp. Hayes was established in 1877, and the Jaus family took over in 1917; Robert and Richard Jaus are the grandsons of the original owner, Louis Steven Jaus.
The market has moved from its original downtown location and there's no sawdust on the floor anymore, but the one-on-one relationship between merchant and customer remains a strong one.
Bob Jaus is perfectly happy to clean, remove bones, cook and give handling instructions to his customers. He'll even tell you what your fish will taste like.
Usually the fish has made the trip from vessel to store within three days. And his customers appreciate that fact.
"I never buy supermarket fish," says Betty A., a city dweller who stops in at Hayes whenever she's in the neighborhood. "It just doesn't taste that good to me."
Up in Niagara County, Butch Mang's, on Mang Avenue in Niagara Falls, is famous. The business was founded by Butch Mang's uncle, Raymond Mang, in 1928, and old-time photos of Niagara River fishing parties adorn the shop's walls. His son Patrick Jr. works at the market two days a week.
And on a Friday afternoon in Lent, the place is crowded. Everyone from denim-clad kids to a friendly priest is waiting in line. There's even a little smokehouse outside the back door with logs piled neatly next to it. Butch Mang smokes salmon and whitefish there.
"My uncle worked in this store until he was 83," he says. "He never took a day off, and my father, Louis, was here to help him. And I worked in this store since I was a kid."
On Genesee Street in Buffalo, there's the Baltimore Fish and Oyster Corp., which began life in 1949 as Queen City Seafood, owned by the late Robert Heims. His son, Jerome, is now the owner and even came back from California to take over the place.
Jerry Heims' son, Joshua, is also involved. "He does everything from work in sales to drive the trucks," Jerry Heims says. "Just like I used to do."
The voyage hasn't always been calm for independent fish dealers.
"When supermarkets put in fresh fish departments a few years ago, they took a toll for a while," admits Bob Jaus. "Once there were many more fish markets in this area, at least 20, I'd say." But now many are gone.
Some markets have consolidated. Hayes itself bought out Kenmore Seafood and still operates it under the name of Hayes on Delaware Avenue. The company bought out and closed Jerry's Fish Market on Hertel Avenue as well.
Even the variety of fish for sale has changed through the years.
"In the old days, it was all lake fish, blue pike especially," Jaus says. "There was a huge fishing industry in Buffalo," he adds, until the St. Lawrence Seaway opened and the lampreys came in and devoured the lake's whitefish. The blue pike got fished out as well.
"There used to be so many blue pike, they couldn't handle them all. They'd have to keep them in cold storage," Jaus recalls.
"Then we moved over to yellow pike, which we still bring in from Canada. But haddock is now the biggest thing for fish fry."
Fish is sent to retailers in several forms. Haddock, for instance, is often shipped in fillet form, using a process called "refreshing." The whole fish are gutted and frozen while the ships are at sea. Then they are shipped to "filleters," who cut them up and ship them in brine to wholesalers and some retailers. Supposedly, these fish are frozen only once.
But plenty of other fish come in whole. Fish markets offer an enormous amount of variety, selling many of the more exotic fish to restaurants as well as at retail.
"Fresh fish are being flown in worldwide," Heims points out. "We get cockles out of New Zealand; salmon are farmed and can come from any place. Tilapia also is farmed. And catfish. They're even farming clams and mussels now."
Chilean Sea Bass, Tuna and Arctic Char are trendy as well.
Heims still loves the business he's in. "Last week we brought in this 5-foot-long swordfish and put it on the scale -- it weighed 125 pounds," he says with enthusiasm. "There's still a lot of fun and glamour in the industry," he adds.
Fun and glamour there may be, but even with the current interest in eating healthfully, fish consumption has not increased significantly in recent years.
Statistics from the National Fisheries Institute show that Americans consumed no more than about 15 pounds of fish per capita from 1990 to 1996. (Canadians eat an average of 15.6 pounds; Japan 45.7 pounds. In Iceland, they eat a whopping 62 pounds per year.)
Why are we behind? Notwithstanding the Friday fish fry, fish often costs a lot.
"From being the least expensive form of protein, fish and seafood have become the most expensive form of protein," Jerry Heims points out.
"The big thing is to bring the price down somehow," he says. "And at the same time, make people aware of how to handle it and cook it."
Butch Mang agrees. Fish may be the ultimate convenience food, he says, but people still don't know what to do with it.
"It's better undercooked than overcooked," he suggests. "A full 95 percent of people overcook fish."
Some folks don't like to cook fish at home because they think it's smelly. (Actually, fresh fish is relatively odorless; a good way to determine freshness is to use your nose.)
For these reasons, most fish markets now have takeout.
Many offer fish fries every day of the week. "We'll clean, scale and cook any fish for a customer," says Marsha Calabrese, retail manager at Baltimore Fish and Oyster Corp.
Markets offer salads and other side dishes. At Hayes, they sell Lobster Bisque, which they're famous for. And at Butch Mang's you can even get Macaroni and Cheese if you ask for it.
"That's for the kids in the family, who may not even like fish," the owner grins.