Red's Best Brand: Local fish
By Doreen Leggett
Jared Auerbach sails into a meeting room and plunks down in a chair with his back to a view of the Boston Fish Pier.
He just finished making a video, which Auerbach, owner and chief executive officer of Red’s Best, explains is all about the glory of the skate species and why people should eat it.
“It’s very affordable and versatile. It’s served at the fanciest restaurants in New York and France,” Auerbach continues, adding that people should be cooking it at home as well. He put a few recipes into the video, reminding people they could order it frozen from Red’s and have it shipped to their door.
He talks in rapid fire about how sustainable and abundant skate is, how local captains are bringing it in. He has said this before, but it’s more passion than pitch. He likes skate, and all fish that come through his doors. He is equally sold on bluefin tuna, bluefish, scallops, hake, clams -- and don’t get him started on different kinds of flounder.
But at that moment it is skate and it is personal.
“I don’t like being preachy,” Auerbach says, slowing down and leaning back. “I don’t like being confrontational; I don’t have time for that. I try to be really positive.”
But he had recently read several news articles about seafood being too expensive, difficult to source, taken off menus. He was astounded.
There may be one or two species that have supply chain issues, but there are plenty of fish in the sea. He would have told the story’s reporters that if they called.
“My phone wasn’t ringing,” he grumbles. “It’s not like I’m hiding.”
Auerbach likes to talk. He has tried to be transparent with prices and the way he does business. He is trying to revolutionize the market, be a middle man beyond compare.
He sees skate as an example, an emblem, a puzzle. Five or so years ago the species he focused on was dogfish. It worked to a degree, dogfish now being sold as lunches in schools, prices are up some, but now attention has shifted.
“The large idea is we need a resilient food system,” Auerbach says.
The sea is always changing, we need to understand that five years from now it may not be skate or dogfish. Narratives about a specific species are doomed to be outdated.
“That is why it is really important to create a brand, so you don’t need to read the daily fishing reports,” says Auerbach.
He wants people to look to Red’s to find out what they should be buying right now, trust the brand instead of chasing a fish that maybe no one caught, or too few caught, that day.
“That empowers fishermen to catch what is local, within the rules, and we’ll find a market,” he said.
Captain Eric Hesse, who has sold his fish to Red’s for close to a decade, sees the strategy.
“If you look out at the landscape of potential fish dealers there aren’t a lot like Jared, and that is to his credit,” Hesse said.
Growing up in Newton in the late 80s, early 90s, there was nothing in Auerbach’s childhood that pointed to the fisheries, though he used to go to the town’s Crystal Lake. He didn’t know anyone with a boat, so he begged his dad to go charter fishing.
“I really romanticized the whole idea of catching fish. Those charters were my only time on the ocean. I didn’t know anything, but I was really captivated,” Auerbach says.
He went to University of Colorado to get a liberal arts degree, did a lot of fly fishing and read “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer.
“I got obsessed with going up to Alaska,” he says, in a tone half derisive, half proud.
He tried to get a job on a boat. He knew virtually nothing beyond what he had read and this was in the days before you could Google every shred of information.
When he heard he may have a job on a purse seiner fishing for salmon out of Gig Harbor, he went.
An interview meant “sand the deck for the day,” he said with a laugh. He got yelled at a lot, the job was tough, but he was determined to enjoy it.
“The captain didn’t say anything nicely, but he was always right,” Auerbach remembers, adding that it was a bit of culture shock.
He did enjoy fishing, but what he discovered was that he really loved going into port, seeing the canneries, processors, the world onshore.
“My brain was really firing,” Auerbach says.
So he started taking different jobs in the supply chain, making it a point to load and unload trucks, handle wholesale and retail and also coming back east and fishing on a few gillnetters and offshore lobstering.
It became clear he couldn’t be a commercial fisherman, he says. There were too many skills – welding, plumbing, electrical – that he just didn’t have.
“It’s one thing to catch fish, but growing up we weren’t taking apart engines,” he says.
He was also on track to become a math teacher, but the fishing business kept sucking him back and after being a personal shopper for various chefs, then bringing in fresh Alaskan salmon in 2006 and 2007, he made a decision.
“I quit everything and in 2008 went all in on a business of unloading boats,” he says.
He didn’t have a brick and mortar place, but did have a name: Red’s, a nickname he got in college – and by the way no relation to the famous Celtics coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach.
“On June 10, fluke season, I showed up on the dock in Woods Hole and that was the beginning of Red’s Best,” Auerbach says.
He began living the supply and demand dichotomy:
“I loved the puzzle side of supply and demand, of matching supply and demand. What you do with a medium fluke on Tuesday and a jumbo fluke on Wednesday are totally different conversations.”
He started thinking about how to reduce costs and increase peace of mind for himself and fishermen. One problem was keeping up with paperwork and compliance, dealing with hundreds of boats a day.
Auerbach says he wanted to work with small boats because he believes they are best for the environment and keep coastal communities strong “economically and emotionally.” But that means a lot of individual transactions.
So after many nights up until 2 a.m. he developed and improved software from 2010 to 2015. It changed his business.
When a Red’s Best truck arrives at a port, the loaded catch is electronically recorded.
Software helps a human team match fish with buyers nationally and internationally.
Catch information also is instantly available to staff and customers. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, that traceability allowed him to showcase stories of fishermen.
“We had done it for a different reason. We were ahead of the curve, this data is actually a very compelling story,” says Auerbach; if consumers know the stories they are more likely to follow the boat, not the specific species.
Captain Kurt Martin, who has sold fish to Red’s for close to seven years, says Auerbach tries to work with fishermen in small, everyday ways, like accommodating where to pick up the catch.
Bigger picture, Martin is pleased Auerbach has pushed hard to get local fish served at universities and secondary schools.
Same thing with championing fish that others shy away from, such as scup, caught locally and great-tasting, but you would be hard pressed to find someone making it for dinner.
“People are so unwilling to try new things,” Martin says.
Martin catches scup and Auerbach set up a fishing trip for a few chefs at influential restaurants in Boston to come on Martin’s boat.
“He is an idea factory,” says Martin.
Captain Hesse, out of Barnstable, feels the same way.
Hesse and another captain approached Auerbach about building a more stable market for tuna when traditional buyers in Japan, the mainstay of the fleet, began buying from other sources. That helped create a vibrant domestic market.
“They have been solid partners,” Hesse says. “He is earnest and he seems to have the long view.”
“The best tuna sushi in the world you can have at your house. Tell me I’m wrong. I know I am not wrong,” Auerbach said on another video, which he puts out on social media.
Hesse also complimented Auerbach on his online platform. By corralling small businesses there is enough volume to help match demand, so buyers don’t need to look elsewhere.
Red’s Best will also ship individual orders, package fish for fishermen to sell at farmers markets, and sell fish at the Boston Public Market.
“They got the consumer excited about fresh fish from the Cape,” Hesse says.
Hesse says he knows some fish buyers who, if you start selling somewhere else, will not only freeze you out but tell others to do the same. Auerbach doesn’t do that, he adds.
Hesse has been in the business for close to 40 years. He gives Auerbach a lot of credit for running his processing facility in New Bedford, headquarters in Boston and packing bay in Chatham. And he does it all with three children under 10.
“There is stuff to complain about, it’s a tough business, I don’t want to complain,” says Auerbach, half laughing, half sighing. He adds that he doesn’t want to hit a home run one year, he wants to hit singles year after year:
“I have to make a 100 decisions a day. Are they all right? No.”
On a summer Sunday, he worked a full day in Chatham, where lately they have been short staffed. The operation is seven days a week; three scales, two hoists, three trucks (each truck also has refrigeration), two ice machines, two booms on each truck, fork lift, two pallet jacks, the list goes on.
“And that is just to open the doors without your day being ruined,” Auerbach says.
He calls Chatham a mini-aggregator, because a lot of catch moves through there, but Red’s handles dozens of ports. In addition to black sea bass, haddock, cusk, flounders, hake, scallops, whiting, mackerel, squid, Auerbach sells periwinkles, bay scallops, surf clams, and lobsters.
“I can’t think of a species of fish or shellfish that wasn’t in that truck that is legal to harvest,” he said of a delivery. “We are selling to every nook and cranny of the country.”
As Auerbach walks around his 18,000-square-foot space at the Boston Fish Pier, he scans a bar code on some black sea bass; Carl Howard out of Chatham.
“Cape Cod is feeding the world,” he says.
Customers can see that information too. Auerbach tells the story of an older woman from the middle of the country who bought scallops from Captain Beau Gribbin, a big Provincetown fisherman. She tracked him down through Facebook to say hello and thanks. Gribbin sent her a picture of his boat.
“It’s become really obvious that consumers care where their food comes from,” Auerbach says.