What about fish? is the question Dan Donovan asked his wife Kristin about three years ago. He was proposing a business idea that would supply local and sustainably caught fish in Toronto. At first, Kristin was reluctant. However, after numerous negative experiences attempting to buy fish in Toronto she became untrusting of the available supply and chose to stop buying and eating fish. A year later, when Dan asked Kristin a second time, “what about fish?” Kristin recognized the necessity of their business venture and it was set in motion.
What about fish? is an important question to consider. Dan and Kristin address the issues surrounding sustainable seafood at Hooked, their fish shops in Leslieville and Kensington Market. Their commitment to providing fresh, quality and sustainable fish is astounding. By directly sourcing their products from processors and fishermen and being responsible for product shipments, Dan and Kristin are surely working a lot harder than the dozens of fish mongers around the city. “It’s all worth it”, says Kristin who feels great about educating and making accessible a top notch product in an unintimidating way.
Dan and Kristin are a part of a small team of people who are actively building the infrastructure that is necessary to supply Toronto’s urban market with fresh, local and sustainable food. It is no easy task. Accounting for freshness, sustainable fishing methods, and quality means bypassing all of the fish distributors in Ontario and forming personal relationships with fishermen and processors on the East and West coasts. Before Hooked opened, Kristin explains that the task of finding people who are responsible fishers and would agree to deal in small quantities directly with a small shop was extremely challenging. Moreover, Dan and Kristin have had to become experts on the ins and outs of moving air freight around the country. Up until about three months ago, Dan and Kristin were making trips to Pearson International five days a week. They now have negotiated to have their freight forwarded directly to the Leslieville shop.
Along with the two storefronts, Hooked supplies over 100 restaurants and institutions around Toronto with sustainably caught fish and seafood. After two years, Dan and Kristin have experienced a significant learning curve in the fish business. They work closely with chefs, know their menus and have become quite good at anticipating orders. They have identified the issues with balancing supply, demand and seasonality. They foresee what new relationships must be made to expand distribution in the city and offer more of a consistent supply of seasonal products.
Kristin makes the important note that her and her husband are chefs first. Before opening Hooked they both worked in different kitchens around the city, and Dan eventually became Director of Operations at the Jamie Kennedy group of restaurants. As chefs, they have always paid close attention to the quality and taste of seafood. Running their shop like a kitchen is part of their philosophy. All of their staff are chefs too, willing to offer advice and classes on how to properly and deliciously prepare fish. Hooked also offers their own house made products like hot and cold smoked fish, chowders and rillettes. Fish are not held longer than a couple of days before they are made into something delicious. Thanks to their talent in the kitchen, Dan and Kristin can operate their shops in a sustainable way. Nothing gets thrown out and waste is limited.
In a trawling industry of overfishing and pilfering, the couple hope to change the way consumers buy and eat fish. Kristin explains that she converts dozens of people every week. Her approach is simple. The staff at hooked engage their customers in dialogue about what they are thinking about cooking and provide helpful information regarding quality, freshness and portions. They receive loads of positive feedback. Everyday customers walk into Hooked to say thanks, thanks for educating them about the fish market, thanks for the great cooking advice, and thanks for being there. Next time you ask yourself what to cook for dinner, keep Hooked in mind and say “What about fish?”
Michelle Rabin is a Toronto based recipe tester, writer and server. She loves shopping at farmer’s markets, supporting local and sustainable products and of course eating delicious food. Follow her at@michellerabin and check out her blog The Art of Eating Alone.