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In the landlocked Midwest, seafood may not be thought of as traditional holiday fare. But this holiday season, when families in the heartland gather around the Christmas dinner table or ring in the New Year with friends, it’s more likely than ever that fresh seafood will be on the menu.
Kenan Judge, assistant VP of meat and seafood operations for Hy-Vee Inc., said fresh seafood has been gaining favor with consumers in recent years, with sales peaking during the holidays. “Seventy-five percent of the crab we sell each year is sold from December through New Year’s,” Judge said. “Shrimp is huge at holiday time, and our fresh oyster sales triple at this time of year.”
Lobster and salmon are also big sellers during the holiday season, Judge said. He attributes the rise in seafood sales in the Midwest to growing consumer familiarity, thanks in part to television cooking shows and the Discovery Channel reality series “Deadliest Catch,” which follows the adventures of crews fishing for crab in the Bering Sea.
“The popularity of fresh seafood has exploded in recent years,” Judge said. “We’re now catering to a generation of customers who are more adventurous and willing to try something new.”
Celebrity chefs have helped take some of the mystery out of cooking seafood, said John Rohrs, seafood sales merchandiser for Perishable Distributors of Iowa, a Hy-Vee subsidiary that supplies the grocery chain with fresh meat and seafood.
“People are discovering that cooking seafood is no more difficult that cooking a steak,” Rohrs said. "Seafood is incredibly versatile – you can include it in pasta, casseroles or salads, and make enough so you have leftovers for lunch the next day.”
Seafood also is a hit with health-conscious consumers, says Julie McMillin, a registered dietitian and Hy-Vee’s director of health and wellness. “Most seafood is high in protein, low in calories and fat and rich in vitamins and minerals,” McMillin said. “The USDA’s new My Plate nutrition guidelines recommend making fish or shellfish the main protein on your plate a couple times a week.”
To meet the growing demand for seafood this holiday season, Hy-Vee has gone straight to the source – north, to the frigid waters of the Bering Sea for Alaskan king crab, and south, to the balmy Gulf of Mexico for wild Louisiana shrimp.
The company has partnered with Trident Seafood and its flagship boat, the Billikin, to purchase some 200,000 pounds of Alaskan king crab legs and snow crabs. The Billikin, which was featured on the first season of “Deadliest Catch,” is the first modern catcher-processor vessel capable of harvesting, processing and freezing crab on board.
“Alaskan kin[g] crab is the tastiest, the meatiest, the most natural and the most sustainable crab available in the world," Rohrs said. "By making such a large buy directly from Alaska, we’re able to bring it to customers this season at a very affordable price.”
From the opposite end of the continent, Hy-Vee has purchased two truckloads of Louisiana Gulf wild shrimp, a favorite of seafood connoisseurs.
“There’s a difference in flavor and texture between wild and farm-raised shrimp,” Judge said. “Wild shrimp have a sweeter, more robust flavor. The conditions that produce these shrimp are unique to the Louisiana Gulf region.”
Although many people wouldn’t think of the Midwest as a place to get great seafood, Judge said that perception is starting to change.
“The quality and variety of fresh seafood available in the Midwest is probably one of our region’s best-kept secrets,” he said. “When you live near the coast, most of what you have available is the seafood of that particular area. Here, we bring in the best seafood from all over the globe. Every day, we have as many as 30 different species of fish and shellfish available in our stores.”
Several years ago, Hy-Vee became the first retailer in the nation to hire its own U.S. Department of Commerce Lot inspector to ensure the quality, safety and integrity of the fresh seafood it buys. The USDC inspector is stationed onsite at the PDI distribution facility in Ankeny, Iowa, where he routinely checks incoming shipments of fresh seafood and rejects those that do not meet Hy-Vee’s standards.
“When customers buy fresh seafood, they want to be able to trust that they’re getting what they pay for,” Judge said. “Our USDC Lot Inspection program gives them that extra measure of security, and we think that’s one reason our seafood sales continue to grow.”
West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee Inc. operates 234 retail stores in eight Midwestern states.