Food for Thought: South End Grocery

Food for Thought: South End Grocery

Dody and Steve Hiller are “mom and pop” of a small grocery store in Rockland, Maine, a fishing village turned tourist town. Fishermen still live and work there, but a few decades ago the town looked toward its art community for income and began shedding its image as a working waterfront.

South End Grocery has endured these changes, competing with modern mega-markets and maintaining a close connection with its community. The store thrives in a city whose 7,000 year-round residents have an annual median income of just $30,000, despite its new persona as an arty destination.

On a steamy summer day, customers form a long line at the lone cash register. The Hillers’ store is the third-largest grocery store in Rockland behind Shaw’s and Hannaford’s, two big supermarket chains. Despite its competitors’ being so large, South End seems to carry much of what they do — and more. You can find baseball memorabilia in one case, aisles lined with beer-packed coolers that share space with bananas and a bustling deli at the back of the store.

A bright blue runner leads customers through its single doorway, in which one often finds a community volunteer, raising funds for the animal shelter or a bereaved family that just lost a child to cancer. Sharing their space is one way the Hillers maintain a connection with their customers, about 75 percent of whom are fishermen. When the economy crashed in 2008, the Hillers saw fishermen struggle to make ends meet and decided to address their needs, seeking lower-priced products whenever possible.

Dody runs the deli area, which is responsible for 60 percent of their revenue, preparing meatball sandwiches and breakfast sausages. Son Shawn manages the bookkeeping and tech side of the business and boasts an impressive knowledge of local craft beers, which may be the reason South End is the top seller of beer kegs in the region.

Steve is the logistics guy, always calculating how much to order and when, then figuring out where to store it. He’s always on hand to meet vendors and distributors who pull up outside. In fact, if truck drivers roll into town too early to deliver their loads at Shaw’s, they rumble down to South End, where Doty greets them with hot coffee.

When a Walmart store came to the area a few years ago, the Hillers thought their store might be threatened. But their business recovered and carried on as usual, holding steady every year since then. Their biggest fear is the arrival of a Dollar General Store. Chances are, though, it won’t come with its own mom and pop.

Dody Hiller (center) at South End Grocery, the small supermarket in Rockland, Maine, that she owns with her husband, Steve (left), pictured with their son, Shawn (right). For more than 20 years, the Hillers have served their waterfront community, weathering the changes that have seen Rockland transform from a fishing village to an arty destination.

GoGo Chickens: Watch Them Grow from Egg to Dinner

GoGo Chickens: Watch Them Grow from Egg to Dinner

If you live in a city but still want to look deep into the eyes of your dinner, you’re in luck. Thanks to blockchain technology being developed by Chinese insurance tech company ZhongAn Online, people will soon be able to use facial-recognition technology to track organically farmed chickens they’ve pre-purchased. They will also be able to monitor their bird’s movement in real-time through GPS tracking bracelets attached to birds’ legs. Welcome to the brave new world of farm-to-table eating in the 21st century.

ZhongAn is billing the program — called “GoGo Chicken” — as a way for health-conscious city slickers to follow the life cycle of their food, giving them an illusory experience of being just a little less displaced from a food system that is increasingly out of sight of most. Right now only 100,000 birds have been outfitted with GPS bracelets, but the Shanghai-based company plans to incorporate about 23 million birds into project over the next three years, pushing the Internet of Things onto Chinese farms, according to the South China Morning Post.

Once inducted into the GoGo Chicken system, the free-range birds will be attached to devices that track their movement and what kind of food they ate. Because these chickens are slow-grown, they’ll live for four to six months, as opposed to the 45 days most factory-farmed chickens live before slaughter. The facial-recognition technology will ensure that anyone who buys one of these birds will be able to actually see chicken from their smartphones. Technology that can recognize an animal’s face is not new; Google has used it to identify pets in people’s photos.

ZhongAn is trying to take advantage of the growing “farm-based tourism” trend in China, where city-dwellers take weekend trips out to farms where they can interact with food animals. The company has said its technology is a tool for members of China’s surging middle class who are also concerned about food safety and want to keep closer tabs on the sources of what they eat. Those anxieties spread rapidly in China after a 2014 crisis in which a supplier for McDonald’s and KFC was caught selling rotting and expired meats to the fast-food chains.

This article originally appeared in Quartz.

From Sea to Table: The Logistics of Sushi

From Sea to Table: The Logistics of Sushi

These days serious locavores can enjoy an array of restaurants serving up regionally grown ingredients. But if you’ve got a hankering for sushi, not even proximity to an ocean will ensure that you’ll be dining on local fish. So how does all that fish get to us in time to safely eat raw?

Only a few decades ago sushi was considered an exotic cuisine, with many Americans afraid to try raw fish. Fast forward to 2016: Sushi restaurants are the norm across the country — even in most landlocked areas — and it’s not uncommon to see prepackaged sushi in the cold grocery cases, if not a dedicated chef on site making it to order.

The increase in interest has driven a rise in demand for getting fresh seafood from the sea to plate as quickly as possible. Fish, like humans, travels fastest by airplane if going a great distance. Throughout the country vendors like International Marine Products Inc., have hubs in coastal and landlocked cities, which provide those areas with daily shipments of fresh fish within hours of being caught and flash-frozen, or ship them to other places.

Now that vendors receive fish via airfreight and deliver them right to restaurants, gone are the days that restaurant staff must retrieve fish from the airport. Kaz Edwards, Chef de Cuisine at Uchi in Houston (a sister restaurant to Austin’s Uchi and Uchiko), recalls his biweekly trips to the airport years ago where he would pick up fish from the shipping area and have to deal with all the red tape associated with international shipping.

“If they hold it for any reason, it’s done. It’s over. You basically have to waste that whole box,” he says.

Uchi’s chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards. Image courtesy Uchi Houston.

Cobia crudo at Uchi. Image by Rebecca Fondren.

Now the vendors take the hit when sushi fish is delayed, rather than the restaurants.

When fish travels by plane, the two most important details are time and how it is packaged. That gap between ocean and plate should be as small as possible, and, while there are some variances, less than 24 hours is the goal. 

For sushi, extra care must be taken in how the fish is packed. The weight of regular ice results in bruising and degradation of the flesh, while dry ice is too extreme to keep fish at a consistent temperature. Edwards says that slicing through ice-packed fish causes it to break apart and gives it a shredded appearance, so whole fish carefully arranged with insulated ice packs is standard.

When it comes to fresh seafood, how it’s packaged for travel is just one piece of the puzzle. Read how a coalition of conservationists and seafood industry folks is working to give consumers a complete backstory of their catch of the day.

Sushi-grade is a term that indicates a higher quality and is the reassurance many consumers look for when ingesting raw seafood. Sushi-grade can also be used to describe the way a fish is killed and bleeds out — and the traditional iki jime practice is used on the U.S. east and west coasts but not in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The FDA addresses all facets of seafood handling in the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) Fish and Fishery Products Hazards and Controls Guidance report, but the reality is that there is no grading system to determine whether fish can be consumed raw. So one must assume a certain level of risk when eating sushi — there are no guarantees. 

But the reputation of a restaurant hinges on the quality of their food, and most sushi chefs go to great lengths to ensure the freshest of fish for their customers.

Uchi’s policy is to remove items from the menu if the fish isn’t up to their standards, rather than try to procure it elsewhere at the last minute. The integrity of fish and how it is packaged is always important, but Edwards says that for sushi in particular it’s a key factor in determining whether or not it makes it onto the plate at all. 

“It’s just the reality of what we do,” Edwards says.

Oroshi hocho tuna knife at the Tsukiji fishmarket. Image by Chris 73 via Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.