News & Politics

River Falls Seafood Company: Interview With Jeff Grolig

How to tell if seafood is fresh, the best-tasting fish you can buy, why some cost so much, and other trade secrets

National editor Ken Adelman ( has been conducting What I've Learned interviews since 1988.

When the River Falls Seafood Company in Potomac gets in a 100-pound swordfish with a great color, owner Jeff Grolig, his three chefs, and 11 other employees celebrate. "Look at that!" Grolig says. "It thrills me to this day."

Grolig, 37, began his love affair with seafood as a boy when his father took him fishing on the Chesapeake Bay. They lived in Rockville, where his dad was a fireman turned real-estate agent, his mother a homemaker.

While attending Rockville High School, Grolig wanted a job. "But no place was willing to hire a 15-year-old after school," he says. "One day, my best friend said he was selling fish out of a truck on weekends and that his boss would hire me. I went to see him that weekend, and he hired me."

Grolig worked part-time for that outfit, Fisherman's Marketing Company, in Glen Echo for the next year and a half, learning how to handle and sell seafood as well as work with the public.

Still in high school, Grolig then began working full-time in Sutton Place Gourmet's seafood department. Six months later, he became assistant seafood manager for the Bethesda store. After graduating, he became seafood manager and, at 18, corporate seafood buyer, merchandiser, and department head for the chain.

In 1992, Grolig and Mark Berey, former Sutton Place co-owner and president, opened the Clearwater Market in McLean. "Mr. Berey was my most important mentor in business," Grolig says. While managing partner of Clearwater Market, Grolig continued as head of seafood at Sutton Place.

In 1999, he set out on his own with River Falls Seafood Company. He and his father-in-law, Joseph Wood, leased space in the Potomac Place Shopping Center and equipped it with display cases and two kitchens.

Grolig lives in Darnestown with his wife, Ashley–a community volunteer and administrative aide in the store–and their daughter, Amanda, seven, who attends Bethesda's Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart.

On the patio outside the store, we discussed what he's learned.

What's so hard about selling fish?

It's a hands-on business. Let's be honest, not many people would find it fun to get up at 3:30 AM to go see a bunch of fish. The market outside Baltimore opens at 4:30 AM. You need to be there then to get the best selection.

In New York, they get started at 2 AM to be out of the fish market by 5 AM to avoid traffic. The market is cold, wet, and smelly. In midsummer, few places smell worse than a fish market.

Is there a big taste difference between really good fish and ordinary fish?

It's unbelievable. If you've just caught any species of saltwater fish, put on a little salt, pepper, and lemon juice and cook it–it'll taste great. Lighter, whiter, less oily fish can reach fantastic.

So the fresher the better?

Right, but it's hard to get that fresher fish. A wholesaler needs to sell his oldest product first. These guys buy thousands of pounds of fish to last them four or five days. So if you just order fish, you'll get the oldest fish.

A buyer needs to develop close relationships with vendors and learn the tricks. When I approach 1,000 pounds of red snapper in that market, I'll shove 950 pounds of it aside. I'm looking for the stuff arriving that morning. I can tell the freshness by examining the condition of the fish, the carton, and the smell.

Is fish hard to cook?

Definitely not, though most people order fish in restaurants because they think it's hard to cook at home–or that cooking it will smell up their house. But fresh fish doesn't smell at all.

What should I look for when buying fish?

If you're shopping for whole fish, look for a shiny, glistening surface with eyes clear and bulging–really pronounced. The gills should be bright red, the scales not falling off, and there should be virtually no smell. Many of our regular customers ask to smell the fish. That's fine. We like that.

Hold the fish by its head–it should be stiff as a board. Or take your finger and press on the body. It should be firm and spring back. If your finger sinks in, the fish isn't fresh.

With filets, look for a similar glisten and a firm texture. The piece must never be breaking apart, called flaking. The best test for any filet is to smell it.

Some customers ask what fish we got in today. Who cares if we bought the fish today? The guy we got it from could have had it sitting around for weeks. Customers should ask, "When was this fish caught?" Out of the 20 pieces in the display case over there, I can tell you when 18 were harvested.

What's your favorite fish to eat?

I love white-fleshed fish. The best-tasting fish on earth is fresh North Carolina American red snapper. There are many varieties called red snapper, but this is the only true one. They're caught from North Carolina down through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. When they come in from North Carolina, we get them the next day. That's a piece of fish you can put salt and pepper on and it'll melt in your mouth.

Second is European turbot. In recent years, they've started farm-raising them, so they're easier to get. We get them in occasionally, but they're very expensive. Skinless filet will cost you $30 to $40 a pound, while even the best snapper is $15 to $20 a pound. That's mainly because half a snapper gives great meat, but only a third of the turbot is edible.

Third, we're back to the East Coast for black sea bass. It's a smaller fish, again with white flesh. It's caught from New England down through the Carolinas, primarily along the Mid-Atlantic states. Again, we get them within 24 hours of being harvested. They're moist and light. They have a flake to them but a fairly large flake.

I'm a big swordfish fan. I especially love grilled swordfish. It's very firm, so it cooks great on the grill, like a steak. It holds up well to a marinade. It has a lot of oil in it, so it stays moist.

Your least favorite?

I'm not a big fan of freshwater fish. I don't like lake whitefish, Canadian pike, yellow pike, or catfish. Catfish, which is all farm-raised nowadays, has a stale-water taste to it.

Are there good Mid-Atlantic fish?

Sure, lots of them. The most popular is rockfish, which has made a strong comeback since the mid-1980s. There was a four-year moratorium on harvesting rockfish, since people feared their extinction. That moratorium might have messed up nature, since the sea's now overflowing with rockfish–which may be why we have many fewer crabs.

Rockfish cook up to an incredible delight. They'll go from the water to our counter in one day. You can cook them a variety of ways–all tasty. Just a great Mid-Atlantic fish.

There's also bluefish, caught off the coast between Florida and New England. They're a little oilier, not as popular, but reasonably priced.

Nowadays, swordfish, big-eye tuna, and mako shark are all caught right off Ocean City. In fact, most of the fish I sell are from the Mid-Atlantic. That's because small boats go out and bring the catch back right away. There's only one day from the sea to the counter. That makes for great eating.

Do you ever go fishing around Washington? Is there anything you catch that you'd eat?

You can catch some freshwater fish, like catfish and bass. Sure, you can eat them, but neither is considered a culinary delight. I wouldn't worry much about the safety but would be disappointed by the taste.

How safe is it to eat fish these days?

While people worry about safety with freshwater fish, they shouldn't. Anything sold commercially should be safe. The danger comes from improper handling–food-borne bacteria or undercooking, that type of thing.

For 30 years there's been a fear of mercury levels in fish. Customers still ask me about it. Over the years, the Food and Drug Administration and state safety boards have concluded that, most people would never eat enough fish to accumulate anything near a problem-causing level–even if they ate fish all day.

Some say Chilean sea bass is over-fished, so we shouldn't order it.

A nongovernmental organization launched this campaign some time ago. The fishing industry is highly regulated, so restrictions were slapped on Chilean sea bass a few years back. New reserves of these fish have been found more recently. Given heavy regulation in fishing, consumers need not worry about depleting the stocks.

No commercially sold fish is endangered. Certain wild salmon may be on the endangered list, but only if they're caught in a certain river or area or at a certain time of the year.

Are farm-raised fish preferable?

Certainly they're preferable for us in the business. There's a steady supply and reliable product, and they're relatively inexpensive. Consumers used to prefer them, too. Now that's reversed. Most consumers prefer wild-caught fish, especially since colors were added to the feed of farm-raised fish. Plus some feeds reportedly had PCBs–polychlorinated biphenyls–in them.

For the store, the only farm-raised fish I buy have been organically fed. No chemicals or colors at all–mainly salmon and tilapia.

For home, I buy only wild-caught fish. They simply taste better than anything raised artificially. Caught fish are seasonal–either because of state regulation or their spawning. Take rockfish–it's allowed by most states for much of the year and unavailable for one or two months.

Shad start to swim up from Florida in February and arrive up-coast by early spring. Otherwise, they're in the middle of the ocean, virtually impossible to catch. It's nearly the same with salmon–available from late spring to late fall when they come to the coast to spawn.

What should we look for in shellfish?

Again, buy them shiny. There should be absolutely no odor on shrimp and scallops–both smell terrible when they start to go bad–and no black spots on shrimp.

With clams, mussels, and oysters, make sure they're tightly shut. That's their natural position and indicates that they're still alive, which is how you want to buy them.

While fresh shrimp have a fantastic taste, they're hard to get. They're available only three or four months a year and are hard to bring from the water to a counter before they go bad. Most shrimp you eat have been frozen. But today's technology of freezing shrimp is revolutionary. They get frozen on the boat right after they're caught. So even they taste great on your table.

How much higher are your prices than, say, Safeway's?

Safeway doesn't carry many of the same products, but overall we're 50 to 75 percent higher.

When a customer asks, "Why am I spending $30 a pound for king-crab legs?" our salesperson can say, "Because you've never eaten a fresh king-crab leg, one that's never been frozen. You've never tasted anything like this before."

The customer will usually give it a try. Ideally, they'll come back the next day to say it was the best thing they've eaten.

That doesn't mean we're perfect. A few years ago, several customers brought back some swordfish, saying it was mushy. It so happened that my mother-in-law had bought some, and she too said it was mushy. Well, I had bought that fish from the market myself and thought it was top quality. But evidently, something in that meat made it mushy.

When that happens, we ask the customers how they treated or cooked the fish and suggest what may have gone wrong. But most people don't want to hear all that. They're unhappy that they've had to come back. They need to hear, "I'm sorry. We did the best we could, but something went wrong, and we apologize." We always offer them their money back or credit.

What have you learned about starting a business?

I learned most of my do's and don'ts from 15 years at Sutton Place. Most retail food firms are just too big. Like I said, this is a hands-on business–you must be active in procuring, handling, and displaying the product.

In most food companies, those making key decisions aren't food people. They're business people–retailers, merchandisers, or buyers. They don't know what a fish looks like when it comes out of the water.

Your lessons on running a business?

I've learned to try and handle crises calmly. Some months ago, articles came out raising safety issues on farm-raised salmon. For two or three days, I couldn't sleep. Salmon's our number-one item. Nearly a third of our customers asked about it.

This wave of articles appeared with no advance notice. It almost brought me to my knees. But we moved quickly, got as much information as we could, printed material for our customers. It showed that the sources for our product were tested every month and had absolutely no issues.

Your big lessons of life?

Surround yourself with people who want to believe in you. My wife and daughter understand the business I'm in. They don't like my working 363 days a year, 50 to 60 hours a week, but they understand why I'm here–even why I'm not at my daughter's soccer games on Saturday. They believe in what I'm doing and see the results.

Find people with an incredibly strong work ethic and attention to detail. You can't train somebody to have those. It's an instinct.

I've learned to be very independent. Even when working for Sutton Place, I always stood up for what I believed. Through three owners there, I focused on taking care of the food and the customer. Everything else was secondary.