It’s not often something good comes out of living in your parents’ basement, let alone something lucrative or environmentally conscious. So Tenafly native Eric Morris seems to have achieved the impossible, emerging in his mid-30s with not only a business, but a plan: to get seafood from Jersey boats to consumers—and especially restaurants—faster and fresher, and at a price that works for everyone involved.
According to one global fishing report, New Jersey is one of only four major fishing states on the East Coast—a huge national market, valued at $1.9 billion in 2015. To put the state’s production levels in perspective, New Jersey and Massachusetts alone brought in 82% of the entire nation’s sea scallop catch in 2016. Yet many people are still eating imported, out-of-season fish.
That’s what Morris wants to change with Local 130 Seafood, his four-year-old seafood purveyor business based in Asbury Park. “Fighting the good fight of New Jersey seafood,” as Morris puts it. “We have awesome seafood, but nobody thinks we do,” he says. New Jersey is a major player in U.S. coastal fisheries, with sea scallops, mackerel, sea robin, and quahogs just some of our yearly local catch. But “it gets lost in the logistical framework,” something Morris is fighting. With Local 130, named for New Jersey’s 130 miles of coastline, Morris aims to “give Jersey fishermen a name and support the species coming out of our water.”
The cause isn’t somber. There’s no picketing or abstaining required. If anything, the call to action in Jersey seafood is “Eat this! Here! Now!” And there’s plenty to look forward to this season alone. According to Morris, the Jet Stream pushes Gulf Shrimp up near our waters in the summertime. “We’re getting all the southern species, they land in New Jersey—Mahi Mahi out of Point Pleasant, Tuna, Wahu—we’ll get all of that right off our coast,” he says.
We should all be hogging our local catch, not ignoring it or shipping it away. “Sea Robins are prized in Europe, but we toss them back here,” Morris says. “Dogfish, or Shore Shark, we process that and send it to Europe for the fish and chip market. We have skate wings prized by the French. But at Local 130, we sell them here.”
Local 130 sells the fresh, local seafood out of a retail store in Asbury Park, as well as at 11 farmers’ markets throughout the state. Though you’re also very likely to come across some of Local 130’s catch at one of its 100-plus restaurant customers. At the moment, chefs in Morris, Monmouth, Ocean, and Hudson Counties as well as in Princeton and Philadelphia build menus around what Morris catches—restaurants like daPesca at Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown and Harvest in Farmingdale.
Part of the way Local 130 succeeds is by developing and fostering those relationships with restaurants and chefs, but also—maybe most importantly—with the fishermen themselves. Morris and his team work with local fishermen’s cooperatives and individual boats. “We commit 100 percent to the boats. We know a lot of fishermen by name, we know the vessels, we know who catches good fish.”
Relationships, as opposed to restless expansion, seem to be what’s driving Local 130’s success, which is why it’s no surprise—beyond the “where do they get the energy” factor—that the company is now investing in nonprofit outreach. “We were recently awarded a food access grant through the USDA to bring fresh seafood to urban communities,” says Morris, who will use the grant to bring seasonal catch to places like Trenton, Newark, New Brunswick and South Orange. “It’s not profitable, but the grant allows us to put staff on board, pay for a vehicle, have a mobile market truck.”
A former cook, Morris was on his way to a job interview that would have taken him deeper into restaurants, away from the shoreline. Then somebody had a heart attack on the subway train he was riding on the way to the interview. “They pulled the emergency stop. When I finally got above ground, I had five minutes to get to my interview—eight avenues away. All I did was run.” When he finally arrived, Morris was panting in a full suit. “The first guy I saw just looks at me and says ‘Mr. Morris, you’re perspiring quite profusely. Clean yourself up.’ It was the worst hour of my life,” he says. “The next day I took a job at a seafood company.”
Morris worked for two years in New York’s fish market, then moved to Massachusetts to start a seafood unloading business with a college friend out of an apartment in South Boston. The business was his first success. “We grew to 30 million pounds in five years and had 60 employees,” Morris says. “But it wasn’t home.” Home was New Jersey, where Morris returned to and not long after, founded Local 130.
Morris knows that getting good seafood to the right people at a good price isn’t quite a “sexy” calling. In fact, if he isn’t careful, it wouldn’t even be a profitable one. “People have stayed away from [local seafood] primarily because it’s not a ton of money,” he admits. “It’s really easy to buy cheap, imported product and sell it for a profit. I could take Grouper out of Mexico for four dollars and sell them for eight, or I could get American grouper at seven dollars and sell them for eight.” He’s decided to invest his life’s work in the latter, leaner, equation. “There’s enough money to spread to the fishermen across a supply chain,” he says. “And it’s better for me sleeping at night. We’re doing what’s right for the fisheries of the future.”
Local 130 Seafood, 1305 Memorial Drive, Asbury Park; 732-455-3951Click here to leave a comment