Minneapolis isn't famous for its seafood - but maybe that's about to change.
Some of the finest restaurants on the East Coast - Dressing Room in Connecticut, Savoy and Chanterelle in New York City - are supplied by seafood experts Tobago Wild. Now Minneapolis shoppers can get the same high-quality seafood that graces those menus at the Wedge.
What does a grocery co-op in Minnesota have in common with top-shelf restaurants like those? A dedication to sustainability and good, clean food.
"We have a wonderful following with sustainable restaurants," explains Tessa Dimin, co- owners of the family-run Tobago Wild, "and the slow food chefs love us, too. We think the partnership with the Wedge is just as special."
Chefs love Tobago Wild because of the freshness. The company buys its fish at the end of the fishing day from small-boat fishermen living on the island of Tobago. The fish are placed in iceboxes and taken to a processing facility and weigh station built by Tobago Wild before being shipped out.
"When the fish are caught," says Tessa, " they're weighed by the station manager who then calls me, and I text-message my chefs and buyers immediately. Then they're overnighted by FedEx to the restaurants who want them."
From Minnesota, the Wedge "piggybacks" on these shipments, bringing in fresh, ocean fish to a market that doesn't normally see this level of freshness. "The fish has been just 24 hours out of the water by the time we get it," says Aaron Nytroe, Wedge Meat and Seafood Manager.
Nytroe says this is a very special opportunity for Twin Cities seafood lovers who might not otherwise be able to purchase such fresh fish. By eliminating middlemen, the fish is fresher.
"[A middleman] is just one more set of hands to pass through, and time is everything with seafood," says Nytroe. "Tobago Wild really sets the Wedge apart."
Even more compelling is the cleanliness, sustainability, and high quality of Tobago Wild fish. The Wedge buys four varieties of fish from Tobago Wild - amber jack, wahoo, mahi mahi, and back-fin tuna - and each has been tested for mercury at the unbelievably low .048 part per billion. That's less than one one-hundredth of the FDA limit. Nytroe says such mercury testing - let alone such clean results - aren't usually available for seafood sold in Minnesota.
"I haven't seen, in the Twin Cities, documentation [for mercury] about ANY fish," Nytroe says. "It's an attention to detail and a level of purity that's unheard of."
"The island of Tobago is pristine," Tessa says, explaining why mercury is almost non-existent in Tobago Wild fish. "There's very little industry on the island and it's home to the oldest nature preserve in the Western Hemisphere." King George set aside the island's Tobago Forest Reserve, a mountain jungle rain forest, back in 1776. "So there's very little industry run-off into the oceans around Tobago."
Furthermore, these four species of fish are very short-lived, meaning they hit sexual maturity early and can withstand even intensive fishing. But they can especially withstand small fishing industries like Tobago Wild's, which buys from about 100 independent, "day boat" fishermen who live on the island.
"Plus, the day-boaters line-fish by hand, that is, they catch one fish per line. So there's no by-catch," says Tessa, meaning that sea mammals and ocean birds are never inadvertently caught or killed caught by the fishermen. "The quality of the fish is higher, too, because it's one fish per catch. There's less damage and that's crucial for high-end seafood."
Because the fishermen are catching premium fish, the lives of the fishermen are more sustainable economically because of Tobago Wild. Tessa Dimin and her family came to Tobago on a vacation in 1996 and realized that, once a day's catch saturated the island's fish market, the fishermen didn't have anywhere else to sell their perfect seafood, and, like a farmer's bumper crop, the Tobago fishermen were losing money on days when the island's entire catch was large.
"The more fish that came in, the less day-boaters got," Tess says. "We came back in 2004 to reconnect with old friends who were still fishing, and it was the same. Beautiful fish selling for nothing, or, worse, not selling at all. That's when we decided to start the business."
The Dimins don't take advantage of this situation, though they could easily pay very little for the fish and gouge on the price in New York City. Instead, The Dimins see their fishing friends as partners and set a fixed, top dollar rate for the year. They never undercut their fishermen on price and never demand that the fishermen sell only to Tobago Wild.
"We've held to that way of doing business since the beginning, because we think it's the right thing to do," Tessa says.
"We consider ourselves a fair trade company."
Sustainability, fair prices, astonishingly low mercury levels, and top quality fish shipped to Wedge shoppers just a day out of the ocean. Tobago Wild is bringing a clean, fresh approach to seafood in Minneapolis.
VIDEO: See Tobago fishermen using hand-lines, with Nites hauling in the tuna pictured on the home page.