Farm to Table, now Fish to Fork

04 Jun 2021

Off the dock: Locals brings coastal catch inland

By  Christine Hall

Blue crab dipped in butter, steamed snapper with asparagus, fried flounder nestled in hush puppies and cocktail sauce – these are among the seaside delights you might find along North Carolina’s docks and coastal diners.

When you live inland, however, local seafood selections can often be less delectable. If you are like me and my family, you might question the origin, how it was caught, how fresh it is, and how safe it is to consume.

I learned to love ‘fresh catch’ as a child growing up visiting the North Carolina coast, and can tell local from import, mackerel from mullet, and I have been known to manage a crab pot or two. I guess you can say I was ruined at an early age and have come to expect the same taste and freshness at any restaurant or dining table. Sadly, when living inland it is much harder to experience true fresh catch.

With so many nutritional benefits like healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, and memories of savoring the fresh bounty of our coast, it became my mission to seek wild catch and incorporate it into our family’s diet. And what better way to start than through a “Fish to Fork” operation.

I met the folks of Locals Seafood pre-COVID when they partnered with Sandhills Farm to Table to sell boxes of wild catch to Sandhills residents in conjunction with Sandhills produce. I was charmed by their story and passion and wanted to learn more. Fast-forward through COVID and they have weathered the storm, still are delivering inland, and picking up speed.

“To eat a wild fish from near where you live is an incredible experience,” says Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based chef and author, Andrea Reusing. “It should be one of the most basic eating experiences that we can have. Unfortunately, it is increasingly rare.”

From a global perspective, 90 percent of the seafood we eat in the United States is imported. And a majority of that is not regulated from an environmental standpoint.

Navigating Markets

In the past 10 years, more than 40 percent of the state’s fish houses have closed due to increases in imports. During this time, the business of moving seafood from the North Carolina coast to the Triangle, Piedmont, Sandhills, and other parts of the state greatly diminished. Imported seafood undercut markets, and became familiar, cheap, often frozen, and caught or harvested using unregulated methods. What used to be plates of steaming fresh catch from local coastal fishing families has become an imported commodity that first travels through New York or Atlanta once in the United States before finally being distributed to grocery stores and restaurants.

“A good piece of fresh fish is hard to beat,” says Ryan Speckman, founder of Locals Seafood based in Raleigh. “That’s our niche — focusing 100 percent on the fish that the guys at our coast are catching right now.”

Setting Up Shop

Speckman was a young N.C. State University graduate living on the Outer Banks when he took note of this marketable sea change in the commercial seafood industry. His fishermen friends were bringing home freshly caught fish every night for supper. They would feast on pan-seared fresh catch, crispy soft-shell crabs, and boiled shrimp. “Having spent much of my life in the Piedmont, I wondered why folks further inland didn’t have better access to this resource,” explains Speckman. “After moving back inland myself, I called my buddy Lin Peterson with an idea.”

The big business question was if they transported wild-caught, less commercially known fish, such as sheepshead, monkfish, mullet, and mackerel, to inland community chefs, grocery stores, and consumers, would people buy it?

The answer was yes, but not without a lot of hustle. Locals Seafood began selling shrimp out of a tailgate cooler on the side of the road in Raleigh. It was not long thereafter that the bounty grew, and Locals Seafood was formed.

Brendon Greene joined the crew in 2012, cutting and cleaning fish while getting an environmental science degree at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. By the next year there were 10 employees. Today there are 20.

“We have to teach people about all these species of fish that are being caught that they never see in a grocery store,” says Greene. “Why shouldn’t we have very fresh seafood on our tables that was caught the day before?”
adds Speckman.

One hundred and eighty-four miles from the Outer Banks inland, Locals Seafood is still dedicated to its original idea today. Their crew drives to the coast up to four times a week to buy fresh seafood straight from the sources — local fisherfolk. “We bring this product back to Raleigh where we cut, pack, and sell it,” says Peterson. “We believe everyone in the state should have access to our coastal bounty. After all, it’s a public trust resource.”

If you are up for a food-inspired day trip, Locals Seafood sells fresh seafood every weekend at Triangle farmers markets. Their staff is happy to share knowledge about how a certain fish tastes, the best way to cook it, and how it was caught or harvested. Locals Seafood is available weekly in Raleigh at the State Farmers Market, Transfer Co. Food Hall, Western Wake Farmers Market, Durham Food Hall, and Chapel Hill Farmers Market. It also is available via home delivery and at multiple grocers and restaurants around the Triangle. They even have two Locals Oyster Bars, one in Raleigh and the other in Durham, that offer oyster kits, cooked-to-order specials, and ready-to-prepare meals, such as shrimp sausages and tuna burgers.

The company has updated my definition and expectations of “fresh catch”, and it is bringing the taste of the North Carolina coast a little closer to home for us inlanders.

Locals Seafood is located at 1032 S. Saunders St, Raleigh.

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