Gathering gifts from far and wide, our Seafood Center partners bring more than a refreshing perspective to their fresh and saltwater selections. Since joining Willy Street Co-op in 1999, owners of the Seafood Center have been responsive to and enthusiastic about our wishes for sustainable seafood choices.

While still in the design-stages of our new location at 1221 Williamson Street, the Seafood Center was then preparing to leave their retail location in Camelot Square on Madison’s eastside. After establishing their original westside location on Whitney Way, the Seafood Center had been seeking a home for an eastside storefront to better serve their customers. It was then that Dick Gardipee of the Seafood Center contacted the managers of the Willy Street Co-op about a possible collaboration. General Manager Anya Firszt remembers, “It was an opportunity that fell into our lap—to have an opportunity to work with a company that could provide this kind of expertise and they were very eager to work with us.”

Dick (though semi-retired now), Louise Werndli, Tom Toniolo, and Scott Kennedy co-own the company and work in one or both of their two locations. With a total staff of 16, several employees are long-timers who were hired either in high school or college, including Tom and Scott. Bob Crowe, another long-time employee (21 years), is frequently tending the seafood counter at the Willy Street Co-op, ready to offer the same skill and information that Seafood Center customers have come to expect over the years.

In 1974, while Tom Toniolo was still in graduate school, he began working for the Seafood Center. After completing a Master’s in developmental psychology, Tom remained so intrigued by the seafood industry that he chose to become a partner in 1976. “I decided that hands-on was far more satisfying to me than the mental part of it. I’ve never gotten tired of seafood,” Tom says. “In fact, it’s probably three meals a week in my life. I’ve always been fascinated by what’s going on with the seafood business—from the farm end of it to how they catch them in the wild.”

Supporting responsible farming methods

Early in our association, management of the Co-op requested that the Seafood Center follow the safe seafood practices outlined by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in their Seafood Watch initiative. Designed to create awareness for chefs and consumers, website and wallet-sized guides provide regional and national information and updates regarding over-fished or endangered species.

Recently we received a letter from one of our Co-op owners who was inquiring about buying practices at the Seafood Center in light of the unsustainable farming practices of one multinational Norwegian company. In and around the isolated fjords of British Columbia, open-water salmon “farms” are infecting and threatening wild salmon populations that thrive in the area. Discussing the video, Tom expressed his shared concern with the practice, “Our salmon buying is very selective. There’s a lot of salmon on the market out there and the demand for it is so incredible. Some producers just think, ‘Hey let’s raise a lot of fish and we’ll make a lot of money without regard to anything other than that.’ It’s poor management, poor fish husbandry. Those systems aren’t doing any of us any good.

“I know people have a lot of concerns about that as well as we do, but there are quite a lot of amazing things going on out there. Because [companies] can spend the money to create systems that protect the environment that they’re in, that don’t denigrate their surroundings at all and their fish is top quality. Some places are taking everything from hatching the egg itself all the way through final production in terms of control. Some places are doing closed-loop systems so they control everything, and these are the kind of places we’re trying to align ourselves with.

“It’s sort of like what I tell people,” Tom continued, “there’s good farmers; there’s bad farmers. The reason why you shop here [at Willy Street Co-op] for instance, is because you believe in how people are producing stuff here. We feel the same way about how we approach the people that we deal with, and whenever possible, if we find something that we think is better than before; we definitely step in that direction to try to take advantage of that to be able to offer it to our customers.

“Seafood buying has changed over the years, but basically we’ve been with the same people or suppliers that we’ve been doing business with for over 25 to 30 years. A lot of our east coast stuff comes out of Boston and we work with a company that’s been there for over four generations and they work in cooperation with sustainability issues and buy direct from the boats themselves.”

Tom explained that after inspecting a boat’s catch, their suppliers will purchase only “top of the catch,” or those fish which were caught on the last day at sea. “As a result, they give us better quality and longer shelf life when we get it here,” he says.

‘Tis the season

Seasonal demands for seafood is a part of the ebb and flow for a seafood counter and Tom says that over the years they’ve acquired a fairly good sense about which items are in higher demand and can adjust their orders to accommodate those changes. The Seafood Center receives fresh deliveries every day of the week except Sunday and an emphasis is made to order smaller amounts, to ensure a fresh catch for their customers.

During December and January there are routinely more special orders for cooked shrimp trays, lobster and oysters, so Tom advises his customers to call ahead by about a week before planning to pick up your order. This, they tell us, will give them ample time to arrange delivery and receive the freshest catch available. Tom also reminded us that once you get your fresh fish home, keep the fish/seafood away from water and resist the urge to put it directly on ice or the meat will become mushy.

Lastly, Tom finished our conversation with more thoughts about food and sustainability, “I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do this for as long as I have and I’ve gotten to meet a lot of great people and personalities. For me, it’s been a good run. It’s not always been easy, but I think it’s amazing. Just the raising of the issues that are concerning all of us, both in the water, on land, in the air, it’s got to be a global thing. We’re all here; we’re all interconnected and it’s the only way it’s going to work. Aquaculture just happens to be a part of that. It’s part of the puzzle.”