The seafood department has undergone profound changes in the past 50 years, especially considering that few supermarkets even had fresh seafood until the late 1970s. Until then, retailers mostly sold fish in the frozen case or in a corner of the meat case.
"In the beginning, in Pittsburgh supermarkets, all the seafood was frozen," said Larry Daerr, regional seafood manager for the Pittsburgh division of Supervalu, Minneapolis. "If you wanted fresh fish, you had to go to the fish market."
Daerr has seen all the changes and participated in most. He started as a clean-up boy in a Pittsburgh supermarket in 1954. At age 19, he began working in a full-service seafood store. At 21, he was running it.
"We bought all whole fish then. We went through 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of fish a week. Most stores don't move that much seafood today," said Daerr.
The clientele served by his fish market back then was a seafood-loving ethnic one, and many varieties of fish popular there -- porgies, mullets and spots -- were cheap, maybe 29 cents a pound. "We cleaned and filleted all the fish in the store. But wages and labor costs were cheaper then, too."
Eventually, around the early 1960s, supermarkets began offering fresh fish displayed in tray packs. In the mid-1970s, they installed limited-service counters, said Daerr.
"We did really nice things in the mid-'80s with seafood. In the '90s, we began offering more products ready to be just taken home and heated as retail moved into home-meal replacement," said Daerr. "As we moved into 2000, we started going back into self-service because of the labor situation."
The full-service case is not disappearing altogether, just being taken out of stores where it's proven not to work. Daerr says Supervalu's seafood departments are 50-50, self-serve/full-serve, throughout the corporation. "We just opened two new stores with full-service counters."
When the new seafood departments arrived on the scene in the late '70s and early '80s, the products found in them were somewhat different from what's present today. In the East, cod, haddock and flounder were always the fresh staples. Farmed product didn't exist, and shrimp came either from the Gulf of Mexico or Maine, in season.
Since then, wild fluctuations in regional stocks, especially cod, forced retailers to find other varieties to replace the traditional species. Orange roughy was one replacement species that quickly proved popular with consumers. The spread of aquaculture caused inexpensive salmon to become ubiquitous and catfish to go from a strictly local, Southern fish to a worldwide favorite.
And, most shrimp sold in the United States is farmed now, imported from countries all around the world, including India, Thailand, China, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
When Pittsburgh was a mill town, the popular standard fresh fish was haddock, then perch and cod. "Everything was breaded. When I was a kid, I thought all fish was breaded and brown," said Daerr.
"Now the popular fish are salmon and tilapia," he continued. "We're dealing with a different customer today -- they're more educated, smarter and have more money. They're more aware of things like farm-raising and the nutritional value of seafood. We have a better opportunity to sell a lot of product to consumers now."
More knowledgeable customers is not necessarily a new development, however. Some retailers have always had seafood as part of their selection.
"There was a lot of whole fish sold in Maryland because it is a big seafood state," said Mike Bavota, who started in Maryland retail stores, but is now director of seafood sales in the Tampa, Fla., division of Surf & Turf Sales and Marketing.
In the old days, seafood was tucked in the corner of a meat counter. Even after the stand-alone counter was installed, the product was still counted in with meat sales, Bavota recalled. Early departments were not profitable.
"Some companies were very fortunate," Bavota explained. "They had a good sales base and did quite well with seafood." Harry's Farmers Markets, H.E. Butt, Hannaford Bros. and others did well, in part because they had high-volume stores, said Bavota. "Others around the industry were struggling to pay the debt, so people made the decision to take them out or go to self-serve."
"It's only in recent years that seafood has been merchandised by itself," said Kenelm Coons, former executive director of the New England Fisheries Development Association. "Supermarkets are taking pains now to see that seafood is rung in on the seafood key."
"The evolution has been good. Supermarkets are on their way to being real leaders in increasing consumption of seafood in the United States," said Bavota, noting the growth of educational initiatives held in stores today. "They're getting better and better as they learn more."
Before stand-alone departments, Supervalu sold only frozen seafood, "but it was high-quality frozen. We paid a little more for it," said Daerr. Not so with many supermarkets back then, said Bavota.
"Frozen wasn't much, usually stuff that didn't sell right away and got wrapped and stuck in the freezer," Bavota recalled. "It created a stigma that stores are just overcoming now, but are overcoming nicely."