WORDS BY ANDREA PYENSON / PHOTGRAPHS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
Growing up in Newton, Jared Auerbach, founder of Red’s Best, loved nothing more than fishing for large-mouth bass in Crystal Lake with his buddies. The natural pond is tucked away in its affluent residential neighborhood, surrounded by mature trees and stately Victorian homes. Depending on the season and time of day, locals flock to the lake to walk, jog, skate, swim and fish—idyllic suburban scenes playing out to the not-so-gentle rumble of the T, as the MBTA Green Line passes right by. At first glance, the setting hardly seems like the inspiration for a life at, or near, the sea. But to Auerbach, that’s just what it was.
Red’s Best is a Boston-based seafood distributor that works with local small-boat fishermen. Founded four years ago, Auerbach’s 15-person company is the new kid on the Boston Fish Pier, distinguished both by its focus on independently owned and operated boats and sophisticated technology that enables them all to be profitable in a market dominated by bigger vessels that bring in proportionally larger catches.
While Red’s Best works with roughly 200 boats a day, each delivering an average of 200 pounds of fish, his competitors have to deal with only one boat, carrying 20,000 to 60,000 pounds of fish, in the same period. For Auerbach’s business to be viable, “On the back end, we needed to be super-efficient,” he says. So they built a proprietary software system that allows them to do in about a half hour what used to take several days or more.
When Red’s Best gets its seafood, the company has to record which fisherman delivered how many pounds of each type of fish, and where it all came from—for example, 150 pounds of fluke from Captain F in Sandwich—and how much they sold it for. Auerbach’s original record-keeping system was slips of paper that would mount into piles of paper. Then he and his wife, Kate, an attorney at a small Boston law firm, would stay up until 2 o’clock many mornings sorting through them so they could pay the fishermen.
Now Red’s Best drivers record the information on wireless tablet devices at the docks where they pick up the fish. When they sell it the next day, they enter the price in the system. Auerbach pays the fishermen based on a formula that takes into account the price he got for their fish and “the smallest margin I can work on and still be profitable.” He believes his company pays more than other distributors, “because we’re so efficient, so our overhead is lower,” he explains.
The fishermen each have a login and password, so they have access to all the information in the system, “for transparency… so they know there is no funny business,” Auerbach says.
“Traditionally fishermen and [distributors can] have some animosity. We want to change that.”
Pricing seafood “is such an inexact science,” the distributor continues. So, for example, when you see “Market Price” on a restaurant menu next to a seafood offering, the restaurant is not being coy. Prices can and do change daily depending on a host of factors, including supply-and-demand and geographical desirability, among others. Auerbach explains that, for example, different varieties of fluke sell well in different parts of the country, depending on local tastes and, sometimes, the ethnicity of people living there. He has learned through experience what sells where.
Sitting at a table in his upstairs corner office, which is bright and spacious but looks more recent-college-grad than CEO, the blue-eyed, boyish-looking 31-year-old practically buzzes with energy when he talks about his business. “We come in and it’s early [5:30am]. It’s fun and exciting,” he says. “Everything we’ve created from scratch because there’s no book on how to do this. You can’t take a college course.”
You can, however, educate yourself. After he graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder in 2003, Auerbach got in his car and headed to the West Coast. “I got it in my head that I wanted to go to Alaska,” he says. “I wanted to fish.” A friend of a friend had been working on a commercial salmon fishing boat, the Sea Gem, out of Gig Harbor, Washington, and introduced Auerbach to the 76-year-old captain. With the rest of the five-person crew, he worked on the boat for two weeks, sanding the decks and getting it ready for sea.
Then they left for Alaska. “At that point, I didn’t know the difference between farmed and wild-caught salmon,” he says. He learned pretty quickly. The boat was out for two to three months, alternating roughly a week at sea with a day in the port town of Petersburg, Alaska, to sell their catch, work on the boat and get a little time off. “It was amazing,” Auerbach says of the experience. “That’s where I got the work ethic.” But he also admits that during that first summer he was “miserable.”
Auerbach spent two more summers on the Sea Gem and the Tradition, owned by the same family, ultimately working his way up to crew boss. He returned to New England and worked on a lobster boat in Sandwich and gill-net fishing boats in Scituate and Port Judith, Rhode Island. He knew he didn’t want to work on boats forever but started thinking “[seafood] would make a cool career.” He says he began to look into where trucks went after they unloaded the boats, and how seafood got to supermarkets. He took a receiving job with a seafood wholesaler, then a retail sales job in the industry. All the while, he continued to fish in Crystal Lake.
Four years ago Auerbach was ready to start his own company. “The demand is there for local, traceable, low-impact fish,” he says. “People want to know where their seafood came from.” At the same time, he believes people want to support small fishing communities and the environment. “And they want quality,” he maintains. All of the seafood Red’s Best sells can be traced along every step of its journey from the ocean to the table through QR codes (bar codes) the company creates. Data in the code includes the name of the fisherman who caught it, his vessel, species, gear used to catch it and port of origin.
Red’s Best seafood (the company sells primarily finfish, with some oysters and scallops) is distinguished by its freshness, which translates to superior taste. Auerbach explains that the key to delicious fish is the way it’s caught, the way it is kept on ice and how fresh it is. Well-handled fish that is kept at the right temperature lasts longer than most people would think, he says, assuming no bacteria are present. Company drivers meet fishermen at their docks and transport the fish, on ice, to the company’s Boston warehouse. The fish is stored in a roughly 10- by 20-foot refrigerator room overnight. When the staff arrives in the morning, they begin processing the fish, breaking it down and dividing it up for distribution to customers all over the country. Some fish that goes to wholesalers or high-end restaurants is shipped whole. The rest is ready to cook on arrival.
“Everything gets used,” Auerbach emphasizes. “We take the whole fish off the bone and break it down into portions. Aside from cooking [the fish], the way to add value is to portion it and make it end-user-ready.” Scraps are used as lobster bait, cat food or fertilizer.
Auerbach’s phone rings fairly frequently during a two-hour interview and he excuses himself to take every call from a fisherman. One, about a tuna catch, raises an interesting question: Does Red’s Best sell endangered species?
“The company outlook on sustainability is we’re out to sustain jobs and the livelihood of the fishermen we work for. We’ll provide all the traceability we can. We’ll educate our consumers as much as we can and say, ‘Let the consumer decide.’ If fishermen are fishing responsibly and legally, we’ll sell the fish,” he says. The company only works with licensed fishermen, and they trust them to adhere to catch limits.
Auerbach feels a strong sense of responsibility toward his suppliers. “We work for the boats,” he says. “We’re almost like an agent for the boat. Our job is to aid them in any way possible. We take every pound of fish they catch. We have no contracts. It’s just a trust relationship. They’re our bread and butter. They give us their entire catch, and they trust us to get the most value out of it the next day and return them a fair price or better.”
Right now the bulk of Auerbach’s business is high-end wholesalers throughout the United States. Fish is trucked to all locations east of the Rockies and flown further west. Trucked fish is packed in wax-saturated boxes on ice.
Locally, Red’s Best has begun to sell to Northeastern University and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, both representative of what Auerbach describes as a movement among institutions toward providing healthier, more sustainable food to the populations they feed.
This summer, Red’s Best seafood will be available at six Boston farmers markets—the first time Mayor Menino has allowed seafood to be sold in the city’s outdoor markets. All of the fish sold at these markets will be from boats docked in Massachusetts. The company had a successful pilot run at the Codman Square winter market, which paved the way to more. City officials had been reluctant to let fish into the markets because, “Fish is often perceived as a potentially hazardous food source” that can spoil easily if not kept at the right temperature, explains Edith Murnane, director of food initiatives for the City of Boston. But, she says, there are enough positive reasons to sell it at farmers markets—it is an inexpensive source of protein, it’s ethnically adaptable and farmers market shoppers always ask for it—that after a successful pilot in Dorchester they felt it was worth expanding the pilot to the summer markets.
“The beauty of farmers markets is we’ll be able to sway what people eat,” Auerbach says. “The biggest thing consumers can do to help is be flexible.” Many seafood eaters are locked into familiar varieties like swordfish, cod and halibut. Each of these has been, is or may be overfished (there are ongoing questions about Atlantic cod supplies). There really are lots of other delicious fish in the sea. Often fishermen or their distributors bring less familiar species to markets and customers discover that they like them after all. A win-win.
Auerbach has also made his company’s software platform available to some fishermen with whom he works and would like to continue to expand that service. All over the United States, there are small, disenfranchised boats that are struggling, he maintains. “Overnight we can add efficiencies. Bigger picture, they’re plugged into our national platform. We can show them how to sell to their local hospitals, universities, farmers markets and CSAs.” In Menemsha, a fishing community on Martha’s Vineyard, a group of fishermen used to consolidate their catches and bring them across the sound to Cape Cod, selling none of their fish on the island. Now, using the Red’s Best software platform, they are able not only to sell their fish off-island, but on the Vineyard as well.
Looking ahead, Auerbach also plans to implement a feature that will enable customers to shop for seafood on his company’s website and have it delivered to their homes. “We’re working to put the pieces in place to be able to do that efficiently,” he says. He hopes to have the online shop up and running in the not too distant future.
Auerbach, who lives in Natick with his wife (and a child due within days of this issue’s publication), is anchored to his homeport. He still fishes on Crystal Lake with his buddies when he can. And he is committed to keeping alive the industry that is such an integral part of what makes our part of the world so special.
“It’s better for the communities, the environment and the quality of fish to have these small-boat fisheries,” Auerbach maintains. “How do we preserve these small-boat fleets, which are so great in New England?” Buying their fish is a good way to start.
Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel. Her work has appeared inseveral print and online publications, including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Edible Cape Cod, Fine Cooking, msn.com and oneforthetable.com. Her first cookbook, Wicked Good Barbecue, written with local chef Andy Husbands and Chris Hart, was published in March. Andrea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.