Coastal Seafoods has been hit by another tidal-wave-size change.
Last year, founder and owner Suzanne Weinstein sold her groundbreaking wholesale and retail fish operation to Chicago-based Fortune Fish & Gourmet.
The latest? On Aug. 31, after 32 years in the business, general manager Tim Lauer retired.
Coastal is a key player in the local food scene. Along with its Minneapolis and St. Paul retail stores (coastalseafoods.com), the multimillion-dollar company provides fresh fish and seafood to 300-plus restaurants, supermarkets and natural foods co-ops across the Midwest.
Lauer was certainly a key player in the company’s growth, which has paralleled the Twin Cities’ burgeoning restaurant scene. When Weinstein recruited him to join the company in 1985, he managed a staff of eight; on his last day, that number was 40.
On the first morning of his retirement, Lauer talked about the value of a well-located airport, the world’s best salmon and Minnesotans’ ever-expanding seafood palate.
Q: OK, it’s 1985. How is it that you landed at Coastal?
A: I was a chef, working at Nigel’s in downtown Minneapolis, and Suzanne sold fish to me. Suzanne, as a great and true entrepreneur, really loves starting things, but doesn’t like the day-to-day operations as much. She talked to me about a job. It didn’t seem all that interesting. I told her I’d come and stay two years, then I’d move on to something else. I really didn’t think it would be permanent, but it became a lot more interesting and, 32 years later, here I am.
Q: How much did your role change over the years?
A: In some ways it never did, although it changed in the sense that we grew. What didn’t change was the variety. With meat, there’s a handful of flavors. Beef tastes like beef, and lamb tastes like lamb. But what I’ve always loved about fish is that there’s a near-infinite number of options, from all over the world. So many different flavors, and textures, and types. It’s affected by seasons, by legal issues, by sustainability issues, and it’s the most perishable thing that you can sell. In the long term, that’s what has made it all so challenging, and so interesting. Another aspect of this business is that you’re learning, all the time, every day. Everybody I talk to teaches me something. It could be the weird minutiae of the biology of oysters, whatever. That’s fun.
Q: What was the seafood of choice among Minnesotans back in those culinary dark ages?
A: There was really nothing here in terms of fish. Literally, nothing. People knew walleye, they knew trout, and to a certain extent they knew salmon — and it wasn’t even about the species of salmon — and that was it. We put in a kitchen right away when I got there, and I started teaching cooking classes. I mean, you can’t sell opah if people don’t know what it is. Today, the cases in our retail stores are filled with 40 kinds of fresh fish from all over the world. Back then, no one asked, “How was the fish caught?” and the further away that something came from, the better it was. Today it’s about the quality, no matter where it’s from.
Q: Your job took you places, yes?
A: Three years ago, the Yupik tribe in Alaska invited us to fish. Their salmon is the greatest salmon in the world. The Yukon River is 2,000 miles long, which is five times longer than the Copper River. But the region is very remote. It takes three plane rides to get there, and you land in this tiny dirt patch. They create these fish camps along the river, where they stay for the summer and they fish. They’ve been doing this for 10,000 years, and it’s amazing to see people who make a living that way. It’s an easy product to recommend because, when you buy it, you’re supporting this group of people that desperately need that support.
Q: At its inception, Coastal was such a visionary business concept, and today it has plenty of competition. Logistically, why did it work?
A: One of the first trips that Suzanne sent me on was to visit a guy in Tampa. His facilities were on the grounds of the Tampa airport, and not on the water, and that shocked me. “Why aren’t you on the water?” I asked. And he said, “The trick to fish is getting it on a plane.” Here, early on, even before Northwest and Delta, the airport was a crossroads — we could get whatever we wanted from the West Coast and the East Coast. We’re an ideal geographic location for that. I also think that people here are pretty open to change when it comes to the restaurant culture, which is why it happened here more easily than, say, Omaha.
Q: What, if anything, will you miss about working?
A: It’s funny. I don’t go to the airport anymore. I rarely lift all the boxes. But I’m still with the fish, all the time, and I really love that. Sometimes you’ll just see things. This week we had some bluefin tuna toro, the belly, and it was just beautiful. I just couldn’t stop showing it to people. It’s that feeling of, here we are in Minneapolis, and we have this beautiful fish from 5,000 miles away. I’ll miss that, for sure.
Q: How did a kid from Pittsburgh end up in Minneapolis?
A: My mother worked for the University of Pittsburgh, so college cost me something like $12 for the first year. I was studying physics, but I wanted to get out of Pittsburgh. Back then, we never visited schools. I just picked up a book, saw something about Macalester and applied. They gave me money, so I went to Macalester. From there I just started cooking. I spent about 10 years working in restaurants. There was a period where I wanted to be a great chef. It took a little while for my ego to think, first, I don’t know if I can do that, and second, I don’t know if I want to do that. I had a young family and I realized that my goal to be a great chef was incompatible with the rest of my life. What I realized was important was the relationships I had with the people I was working with. I’ll miss that.
Q: At Coastal, you helped make other people’s dreams of becoming great chefs come true, right?
A: Paul Berglund of the Bachelor Farmer left the restaurant on the same day that I retired. He said to me, “Wow, you’ve fed tens of thousands of people, how lucky you are.” And I thought, “Yeah, I really am lucky.” That’s neat.