Inside Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip District, a fishmonger wearing orange rubber overalls guided a customer to West Coast halibut for its clean, mild flavor.
At the back wall, a woman ladled a quart of Boston clam chowder for takeout. Clear-eyed fish with iridescent skin lured onlookers to a display blanketed with ice. Customers watched fishmongers like actors on a stage as they carved filets.
The crowds at this retail shop, among the most bustling businesses on this stretch of Penn Avenue, show that Pittsburgh is hungry for fish.
So much so that after nearly a decade in decline because of changes in the global fish market, wholesale fish is coming back to the neighborhood.
The company has purchased the building next door at 2210 Penn Ave., which will allow partners Henry Dewey and Angela Earley to sell fish wholesale and expand the retail shop and restaurant.
"I hadn't wanted to get into that end of the business, but selling wholesale brings down the cost for retail and builds my buying power," said Mr. Dewey. He and his staff have built momentum since Penn Avenue Fish Co. debuted in the Strip in 2007, followed by the 35-seat restaurant Downtown in 2011.
Mr. Dewey is not the only one who's paying attention to Pittsburgh's growing appetite for seafood.
This spring, three seafood restaurants will have opened in the region: Rumfish Grille in Bridgeville launched in April with an extensive raw bar stocked with lobster, clams, mussels, crab and 10 types of oysters a day. Alabama-based Wintzell's Oyster House arrived in Pleasant Hills in mid-May, its 12th location in the country and first in Pennsylvania. And within the month, Off the Hook will open in Warrendale.
Globalization and the local market
Changes in import and export laws, as well as how fish is transported around the world, pummeled local wholesalers beginning in the 1990s.
Vendors have had to navigate the results of these changes. Competition in the international market meant giant wholesalers had more buying power than local companies. And fish from abroad flooded the market.
These days, 91 percent of the fish consumed in the U.S. is from abroad, according to a 2011 study from NOAA Fisheries. Meanwhile, the U.S. exports 2.7 billion pounds of seafood to overseas markets.
Wholey's scaled back its wholesale business in 2007, selling off delivery trucks to focus on retail. Around the same time, Wholey's sold its whiting processing company in Vancouver, where the company processed 300,000 pounds of fish a day between May and October.
"We wanted to concentrate on what we do best," said president Jim Wholey. "The timing was right."
Though Wholey's still offers wholesale, it's only for pickup by local businesses.
The other big fish wholesaler was Benkovitz Seafood on Smallman. It sold its wholesale arm, Nordic Fisheries, in 2006 and other business transactions that followed changed how the company was managed.
It was the beginning of the end for the 100-year-old institution. Founder Bernard Benkovitz died in 2009 and Benkovitz Seafood closed in March of this year.
Filling the gap
As local wholesalers fell, national companies answered the region's demand for seafood. One of them is Walmart. When it moved into the Pittsburgh market, Mr. Wholey said his sales were hard hit.
Walmart Supercenters located in West Mifflin and North Versailles sell fish imported from around the world at rock-bottom prices.
At the West Mifflin Supercenter store earlier this week, for example, wild salmon goes for $4.98 for 2 pounds while tilapia is $11.94 for 4 pounds. For 2 pounds at Wholey's, farmed salmon costs $20; Scottish salmon costs $26; wild king salmon costs $46 and Steelhead costs $20. Four pounds of tilapia costs $32.
Walmart's low prices don't come without problems. In June, Walmart dropped one of its suppliers, C.J.'s Seafoods, for inhumane labor practices, which included forcing immigrant employees to work 16- to 24-hour days and locking workers in a Breaux Bridge, La., plant.
Though Mr. Wholey questions the origin and quality of seafood sold at Walmart, he was empathetic to the consumer.
"When you have a family of five and you're living on the edge," said Mr. Wholey, "price is the issue if you've got to feed those mouths."
In the meantime, Philadelphia-based Samuels & Son Seafood addressed the fine- and casual-dining gaps in the region. The nationwide distribution company entered the Pittsburgh market seven years ago.
Samuels & Son's first customers here were Benihana in various locations and Mallorca on the South Side. It eventually expanded to "somewhere between 50 and 90 restaurants and markets," said regional sales manager Anthony Mendicino. Restaurants include the newly opened Rumfish Grille, Dish Osteria on the South Side and Penn Avenue Fish Co.
"Pittsburgh has come a long way," said Tom Caruso, sales manager for Samuels & Son. When the company entered the market, it supplied restaurants with the basics such as cod and flounder.
"Bill Fuller and his group have taken many varieties of fish and introduced them to the marketplace," said Mr. Caruso, citing Big Burrito Restaurant Group's introduction of wild salmon, turbot and halibut to diners. Among its restaurants are Eleven and Kaya in the Strip, Soba, Casbah and Umi in Shadyside and Mad Mex locations across the state.
"There's such a change in demand in the past seven years," said Mr. Mendicino. "Younger chefs are ordering everything and anything a New York chef would. They're really testing their clientele and pushing the envelope."
Outside of new restaurants, local and sustainable fish are especially popular in this market, he said, including soft shell crabs, walleye and trout. But more than most places, Pittsburghers eat a lot of specialty river salmon.
"Salmon, salmon and more salmon," said Mr. Dewey of the store's best seller. Driving sales are the health benefits of the fish, which include omega-3 fats, vitamin D and selenium for cancer prevention and cardiovascular health.
Wild varieties are especially desirable now that they are in season. King salmon, also known as Chinook from the Pacific Northwest, is "best of the best," he said. Sockeye is the smaller wild salmon, recognizable for its deep red color.
Mr. Wholey agreed. "July Fourth is peak time for salmon," he said. At his shop, salmon is also the year-round best seller, a departure from 20 years ago, when he sold 30,000 pounds of perch a week.
Salmon, halibut, cod and other fish are more popular in the region than shellfish because of ethnic heritage, said Kyle Houghtelin, a fishmonger at Penn Avenue Fish Co.
"You've got a lot of Central European immigrants in Pittsburgh, people from Poland, Germany and Serbia. And it's not in their traditions to eat shellfish," he said.
Oyster sales, however, are on the rise, even though spring does not contain a month that ends in "r." Fall and winter months were the old rule for eating oysters, before consumers could get them from frigid northern waters within a day.
Two weeks ago, Salt of the Earth in Garfield instituted a Tuesday oyster happy hour starting at 10 p.m. There has been a line out the door for dollar shellfish, which include Beausoleils, Kumamotos and Bluepoints.
The restaurant sold more than 300 oysters in little more than an hour, said chef de cuisine Chad Townsend.
"Oysters are trending throughout the country," said Mr. Dewey. "We sell a lot at lunch."
The restaurant reel
Aside from the three new seafood restaurants in the Pittsburgh area, several established restaurants emphasize that fish is their most popular dish.
At Avenue B in Shadyside, chef Chris Bonfili said fish and chips is the plate that defines his menu, composed of two filets of walleye, cod or striped bass and served with fingerling potatoes and Napa slaw.
Dish Osteria and Bar is a destination for adventurous diners. Chef Michele Savoia's presentation glorifies seafood, especially fish unfamiliar to Pittsburghers. Shad roe and sea urchin roe were popular spring specials; the linguini ai frutti de mare flaunts calamari, Manila clams, shrimp scallops and mussels in a white wine sauce.
Some restaurants display local fish, such as the cured Laurel Hill trout dish at Spoon in East Liberty, where chef Brian Pekarcik presents sliced fish on toasted pumpernickel, garnished with pickled red onions, caraway seeds and sliced radish.
His is one of 10 restaurants buying locally farmed trout from Lawrenceville-based Wild Purveyors, run by Cavan and Tom Patterson.
"According to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, trout is one of the most sustainable fish in the world," said Cavan Patterson. "Even better that it's raised 70 miles away."
Back at Penn Avenue Fish Co., Mr. Dewey worked through the bustle of the lunch rush. He mused over his fish market's growth.
"I tell people that running a fish business is like riding a bike. You can't do it slow. You have to go fast," he said.
"As you pick up speed, the momentum carries you right on through."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart. First Published May 26, 2013 4:00 AM