Domestic retail and foodservice buyers are still eager to offer fresh Bristol Bay salmon to customers, but some are wary of committing to specific volumes in a season already off to a rocky start, and a spike in coronavirus cases across the country.
"The foodservice sector is a bit of a moving target right now," Matthew Davis, a buyer with Santa Monica Seafood, told IntraFish.
The uncertainty over US restaurants once again shuttering dine-in service could be bad news for buyers who speculated and took on inventory expecting those sales, according to Davis.
"Especially for those who are heavy in foodservice and don’t have retail outlets," he added. "Those of us who are a bit more diversified are still being cautious because if foodservice dries up early next week, we will be able to buy up inventories at reduced prices."
Davis doesn't expect things to go much smoother anytime soon. The harvest in Bristol Bay has been particularly slow, with production down about 80 percent from 2019. Whether the price for sockeye will be go above last year's also remains uncertain, with early indicators showing a soft retail market for Copper River salmon, dismal foodservice sales worldwide and ongoing issues with outbreaks at major processing facilities.
"Between the catch lagging up until this week or so, and the uncertainty of foodservice, I think this is probably the normal state of buying for the next couple of weeks until clear responses from states experiencing covid spikes are in place," Davis said.
Mac Paranto, the sustainability manager and buyer with Colorado-based Seattle Fish, told IntraFish the company is closely watching what US states do in reaction to rising cases.
"I think everyone is wishing they had a crystal ball during these trying times," he said. "We as buyers have just as little idea on volume needs as producers."
Paranto pointed out that in Colorado this week the state's governor took a step back in reopening, and ordered bars and nightclubs to close again. Paranto said there is concern this ramp-up of cases could once again hinder restaurants, which are the largest purchasers of fresh salmon from Bristol Bay.
"Everyone is trying to wait as long as possible to place orders, as no one wants to get caught with an overstock of fresh inventory like what happened in March," he said.
Retail to the rescue?
For some buyers, the closing of US restaurants has intensified consumer interest in purchasing fresh product from stores.
Adam Branin, a meat and seafood merchandiser with Kroger-owned QFC, told IntraFish sales on meat and seafood in general are greater than last year due to more people cooking at home versus going out to eat.
"Particularly with items such as this that you could consider on the higher-end that people would normally consume at a restaurant in years past," he said of the Alaska sockeye salmon. "My stance is that I will increase my order on sockeye for the year. I could easily rationalize a 10 to 20-percent increase in my needs."
With the season starting slow, QFC promotions are likely to happen next week, or even the following week, according to Branin.
The size of the fish -- which are being reported small this year by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) -- should also not affect QFC's ability to sell it as frozen or fresh.
"I will sell fresh as long as I can and as long as the size and quality is good before getting into frozen," Branin said, noting the Bristol Bay salmon are "typically small."
Jim Kostka, marketing director with Copper River Seafoods, told IntraFish he is also seeing demand increase, despite some US states slowing down reopening plans.
"We have not slowed down. In fact, we continually have been selling out as soon as the new harvest comes from the docks to our Anchorage plant," Kostka said. "We have also seen an uptick demand from our big box clients."
Steve Phillips, a group manager of seafood with retail chain Wegmans, confirmed with IntraFish the US retailer will also be selling sockeye salmon this summer. The retailer declined, however, to go into further detail about its plans.
For Izetta Chambers, who runs Naknek Family Fisheries and sells to restaurants in Arizona as well as to consumer's doorsteps in the state, things are still operating normally despite an alarming growth in coronavirus cases there. Arizona this week reported a record single-day high of 4,900 cases, according to the state's health department.
"The restaurants we sell to have a good local following," she said. "Same with the guy who buys from us for farmers markets. They're doing business as usual. So far, we haven't seen any disruption."