Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group began using North Coast exclusively about a year and a half ago at its 10 US locations. The chain decided to consolidate purchasing to better control safety and quality, according to Kim Giguere-Lapine, a spokeswoman for Smith & Wollensky. So company officials were surprised to learn from the Globe’s round of DNA testing that they were not serving red snapper as listed on the menu that day, but a less-expensive spotted rose snapper.
“We wouldn’t have put red snapper if it wasn’t red snapper,” Giguere-Lapine said. “Obviously, this [testing] has shed some light, and we are digging a little deeper.”
Stavis said invoices given to Smith & Wollensky simply said “snapper” and that North Coast’s sales staff did not misrepresent the fish it was selling. But there are dozens of species of snapper, and the restaurant chain said it specifically agreed to buy red snapper. Smith & Wollensky took the fish off the menu in October because, after learning of the DNA results, it was unclear what the chain was serving and snapper had become too costly.
North Coast executives said they purchase most fish directly from boats. It arrives whole at their plants, and lot codes are assigned to catches to ensure traceability, they said.
During a tour of the headquarters, North Coast executives proudly talked at length about the company’s participation in a voluntary food safety program run by federal inspectors. They also showed off a lab North Coast maintains on site to test for freshness, pathogens, and other contaminants.
“This is an unregulated industry,’’ Polins said. “Reputation is everything.”
The right deals, at a cost
It was a pitch North Coast made to many restaurants: Dependable deliveries and consistent prices for quality New England seafood staples.
Brothers John and Karl O’Hara, who own Paddy’s Pub in Newton, went for the deal. About two years ago, they parted ways with their longtime fish monger, Captain Marden’s Seafoods in Wellesley, to buy haddock from North Coast.
But according to the Globe’s testing, Pacific cod turned up in Paddy’s fish and chips instead of the more expensive haddock advertised. When the O’Haras asked North Coast what had happened, asalesman for the wholesaler said cod was delivered that one time only. North Coast executives said that Paddy’s must have mistakenly ordered cod instead of haddock and that the invoice correctly indicated what the restaurant received.
The O’Haras acknowledged the invoice listed cod, but said they order only haddock. To back that assertion, they produced dozens of other daily invoices from North Coast showing haddock deliveries.
“Is it our dumb luck that the one day the Globe tested we got cod delivered?” Karl O’Hara said.
Kim Marden, of Captain Marden’s, said he enjoyed working with the O’Haras for more than a decade, but could not compete with North Coast’s prices.
“We couldn’t come close, and when things don’t make sense and it’s that far off, there is nothing we can do,” Marden said.
When North Coast found out more than two years ago that the Hilltop restaurant was buying frozen haddock from another company, North Coast offered to sell it fresh haddock for about 20 cents a pound less, according to Hilltop manager Donald Doward. There was one caveat, he said — instead of fillets, the restaurant would get haddock pieces left over from processing. A North Coast salesman assured Hilltop the quality would be good enough for broiled, baked, and fried entrees at the Saugus restaurant, according to Doward.
But DNA testing by the Globe found the haddock was really Pacific cod, which is almost always previously frozen. North Coast officials said Hilltop knew it was getting chowderfish — a mix of boneless cod and haddock scraps, which are similar-looking white fish. Any chef would immediately recognize it as such, the executives said, and the cheaper price should have tipped off the restaurant’s buyer.
Hilltop’s chef said he wasn’t suspicious of the fish because it arrived in relatively large white pieces, not small chunks.
“We thought it was a good deal,” Doward said.
East Bay Grille in Plymouth said North Coast has been a reliable supplier for years. But after a dish the restaurant sold as grouper — an expensive, flaky white fish found in southern waters — was found in the Globe test to be more pedestrian Pacific cod, general manager Erik Daigle was perplexed.
“It’s unlikely that a mistake was made in the kitchen, and it’s more likely a supplier issue,” he said, noting that the invoices from North Coast list grouper. “This raises a bit of a red flag. You just want to believe people are supplying you with the product they say they are giving you.”Continued...