on the bay

The Local Catch

By John Lee / Photography By John Lee | June 09, 2016
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Yellowtail flounder.

How Captain Rich Cook Traded in His Grundens and Headed to the Farmers’ Market

As Richard Cook looks out across the Hope Street Farmers’ Market, the people with shopping bags and steaming cups of coffee, the bearded man playing his guitar, the general vibe, are all old hat to him now. The atmosphere, the pace and interplay of people, have become second-nature to Cook, owner of The Local Catch.

But that wasn’t always the case. He and his wife, Ann, who has been instrumental with the business from the beginning, had to learn a few things to make selling fish at area farmers’ markets work for their business.

The Local Catch started as a husband-wife effort at one farmers’ market and has grown to as many as 12 markets each week in Rhode Island and Connecticut. They also offer a community-supported fishery (CSF), which allows customers to pay a lump sum in advance and receive a discount.

A Different Education

“When we started out doing this six years ago I never thought that I’d turn into an educator,” says Cook. “But that is what I do: I tell people about local fish."

In his usual spot, Cook stands off to the side of the pop-up tent. His wife plus a crew of four work behind the stand handling sales. Cook likes his vantage point because it better enables him to handle questions and assist customers.

Some customers know exactly what they want: “Swordfish, please.” “I’ll take the flounder.” “How are the scallops?”

“This group [at the Hope Street Farmers’ Market],” says Cook, is his largest customer base. “They have been buying fish from us for years now."

Other customers, however, especially the ones new to seafood, have more specific questions:

What’s the difference between cod and haddock?

Is blackfish the same as tautog?

Why don’t you carry salmon?

What’s the story with sea robins?

Is the halibut local?

Cooks handles these questions politely, skillfully, not a trace of annoyance in his voice.

“Salmon isn’t local … the halibut was caught off Massachusetts and it’s excellent grilled … cod and haddock are very similar, haddock is less expensive than cod and is highly sustainable … sea robins, we mostly carry in May and June but sometimes see them in the fall, people love the tail meat and the roe."

But then there is another kind of customer. They approach the stand with an air of culinary confidence. They come every week and they know Cook.

“Anything interesting?” they’ll ask.

Cooks says, “Halibut belly. Bluefish cheeks. Fluke liver."

“Wonderful,” they say. “I’ll take the fluke liver."

The rhythm of the market increases. Students arrive. Families with children. Another customer approaches. Then another. Soon it’s three deep in front of the stand.

Rich seems to be a natural at customer service. Half the people seem to know him. There are handshakes and greetings. Smiles. A sense of honesty hangs over him, what he calls diplomacy.

“This job has taught me how to be diplomatic. I want no confrontation. If someone doesn’t like fish, that’s fine; I don’t try to convert them. But if they offer an interest, then I am there to educate them."

And the curriculum, the quintessence, is all about what fish is local, here and now.

“What people are buying,” Cook says, “is local seafood, seafood that hasn’t been processed, seafood that is available through the seasons. The fish is the highest quality. If the customer wants to know the story behind how, and in many cases where, the fish was caught, I can deliver that. I don’t know everything but I do know a lot about fish."

The lineup of the different kinds of fish and shellfish that The Local Catch carries is impressive for any fish market, big or small. Almost all of the fish have been landed by boats out of Point Judith, New Bedford, Boston or Stonington. The fish are then transported to the shop, which happens to be one of the smallest fully-licensed seafood processors in Rhode Island. Here the fish can be filleted and packaged. Outside the windows of The Local Catch headquarters sits Point Judith Harbor.

“People ask me, ‘Is New Bedford local?’ ‘Stonington?’ I tell them that I can practically see these ports from the roof of my shop in Point Judith."

At any given time, The Local Catch carries codfish, haddock, Block Island day boat scallops, flounder, swordfish, sea bass and fluke. But Cook also carries fish that are abundant, though generally overlooked by all but the knowing consumer—a list that includes butterfish, scup, squid and dogfish. He carries liver and roe from sea robin, striped bass, fluke and yellowtail flounder. For tuna he tries to offer a few kinds, such as bigeye tuna and yellowfin, trying to provide the much-sought-after toro cuts, the belly meat.

There is a pause in the foot traffic in front of the stand, and Cook says, “When the farmers’ markets move indoors we’ll start selling wintertime fish—fluke, cod, scallops. Things like that. But sometimes we’ll get a swordfish—guys will catch a few offshore even in January."

Lobster Pots, Clam Rakes, Fishing Nets

Rich Cook hasn’t been in the customer-service sector long. Actually, at 59, he’s still pretty new to this, coming in as he did at the age of 53. Before that he fished commercially for decades, out of Snug Harbor and Point Judith. In the parlance of the seafood industry: He’s got some salt in his socks. It works to his advantage when he stands at his booth at the farmers’ market and sells fish that he knows a good deal about.

“I guess it began when I moved down to Snug Harbor in the early ’80s, with fish on my brain."

Over the next 30 years he worked lobster pots, clam rakes, nets, fishing for just about everything that Rhode Island has to offer— monkfish, fluke, steamer clams, oysters, striped bass, skate and lobster.

“That’s what I did. I owned a 38-foot fishing boat and I worked my fingers to the bone. Fished until my knees started to give out."

He fished the famous Rhode Island fishing grounds, places that have become almost hallowed: Nebraska Shoal, East Grounds, Charlestown Pond, Coxes Ledge, Seal Ledge, the Pear. He fished down to Watch Hill, fished off Narrow River, fished 30 miles offshore.

And some of this sense of place is carried with him to the farmers’ markets. Over time all fishermen become saturated with time and place—as in tides, currents, mud, sand and shale bottom, wind, gales, season, fish migrations, lobster habits—ingrained, by some unseen osmosis, even when the fisherman gives up his Grundens (commercial fishing gear) and leaves sea for land. It’s this knowledge, at least in an unconscious way, that the customer is buying at The Local Catch.

Fisherman to Farmers’ Markets

“A friend of mine once remarked on how we should be getting more money for our fish. This comes up a lot with fishermen: How do we get paid more for our products without having to pay a middleman? My wife and I started thinking: ‘What if we sold our fish at a farmers’ market?’”

So that’s exactly what they did. Early on, Cook and his wife handled everything themselves, including becoming HACCP trained and fully licensed to sell seafood at farmers’ markets—not a simple undertaking. They caught the fish and packaged the fish and sold the fish.

“People went crazy and [the business] took off,” he says.

Pretty soon Cook was buying fish off other boats and from there he started buying from other Rhode Island fish processers. Soon enough Rhode Island alone couldn’t supply the variety of fish that his customers wanted.

“Not a lot of codfish or haddock gets landed in Rhode Island. Most of it goes into New Bedford,” Cook said.

“[Our success] is about trust,” he says. “I trust my sources—where I buy my fish. They know I need and want the best they’ve got to offer. I buy from some pretty big companies. I’m tiny. But they respect what I do—selling local fish at local markets. Tons of fish gets shipped out of Rhode Island and Massachusetts every day. I keep it here. Then my customers trust me, trust that I am selling what I say I am selling.”

To learn more about The Local Catch, the farmers’ markets they attend plus their community-supported fishery (CSF) program, visit TheLocalCatch.com.

Photo 1: Captain Richard “Rich” Cook and his wife, Ann, are a husband-wife team at the farmers’ markets.
Photo 2: Fresh codfish.
Photo 1: The lineup of the different kinds of fish and shellfish that The Local Catch carries at farmers’ markets is impressive for any fish market, big or small.
Photo 2: The Local Catch is a fully licensed seafood processor located in Point Judith, right where Rich and Ann can see boats coming in and out of the harbor.
Article from Edible Rhody at http://ediblerhody.ediblecommunities.com/shop/local-catch
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