Coastal Seafoods Turns 30: Chef Chat, part 1

People from the East and West Coasts pity us here in Flyoverland for many reasons: our backwards, primitive culture; the dearth of music and theater; and of course, our lack of access to decent seafood, being so far from coastal civilization. Doesn't it sometimes make you think that people from the coasts are blithering idiots?

Just for the record, coast people, we have all that culture stuff in droves, and for the past 30 years we've had seafood that's probably fresher than yours, thanks to the plucky single-mindedness of Coastal Seafoods' founder, Suzanne Weinstein, general manager Tim Lauer, and their crew of dedicated fishmongers. In this three-part series, we'll talk to Weinstein and Lauer about what's kept them in this aromatic business for the past three decades. Today, a chat with Weinstein.

So, it's the 30th anniversary of Coastal Seafoods. Really? If you say so. It doesn't seem like 30 years.

How did life land you in the fish business?

I grew up in Skokie, Illinois. After college, I worked for a bank, doing data processing and training, and I ended up in Minneapolis. I'd always been interested in the food business, and other artsy things as well -- I hung out with potters and glassblowers, I made hats, things like that. These were the hippie days, you know. A glassblower friend told me about someone with a small fish business, which sounded interesting. I quit my banking job and started working with the fish company. I did that for about six weeks, then decided to start my own business.

Six weeks? That took some chutzpah, to go it alone with so little experience. I always figured that if things went bad, I could go find another job. And I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My dad had a window shade business in Chicago. My aunt was in trucking and real estate--pretty rare for a woman in those days. It never occurred to me that I couldn't just start my own business.

The thing that made me actually get started was a picture I saw on the cover of Savvy magazine. It was a man and a woman holding up a tilefish. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to sell those here. So I called them up and asked if they would ship me some tilefish.

Weren't they like, who are you? Well...I'm persistent. And resourceful. So, they sent me some tilefish. I started selling to the same customers I'd worked with at the other fish company. I called restaurants and persuaded them to buy. The Radisson South, 510 Groveland, Sofitel--white tablecloth restaurants. I sold other fish, too, like salmon and rockfish.

So were you just driving fish around town by yourself? I hired delivery people early on. I always had lots of people helping me. I kept trying to find a place to rent, but when owners found out what my business was, they'd say no. Then in 1984, I think it was, I found this building (2330 Minnehaha in Minneapolis). When I saw that the building had floor drains, I was so excited! First I rented it, and eventually we bought it.

Weren't you kind of a rare bird as a woman in the fish biz? I just felt like I was a person with a business, not a woman with a business. Well, there were some people who tried to discourage me. One guy who ran a herring company tried to talk me out of it, because it's a hard business to be in, but eventually he was really proud of me and even sponsored me for a National Fisheries Institute membership. When I first went to an NFI convention, they kept trying to send me to the spouse's table, and I had to explain that I wasn't a spouse, I was a member.

Another strange challenge was that there was a large meat and seafood broker in town called Weinstein International, and people assumed that I was succeeding because I was a part of their family business. But I'm no relation to them.

What's your favorite fish? I never get tired of any fish. We have a kitchen here in the store, and usually one of the employees cooks lunch. I encourage people to take home fish and cook it. Our employees stay with us a long time. They say they want to have fish stories to tell to their grandchildren some day.

How did you start working with your general manager, Tim Lauer? I was delivering to (the now-defunct) Nigel's, where Tim was head chef. He read an article about me in the Star Tribune, and he called me up to talk about working together. I hired him as general manager. By the way, it was Tim who introduced me to my husband, Danny Levey, when Danny was delivering cheesecake to Nigel's.

Favorite restaurants? Danny is a really good cook. We don't eat out much.

How do you feel about the word "fishmonger"? Because I guess you are one, right? My employees always like to put "fishmonger" on their resumes. I think it's cute.

You can't get 'em any fresher.
You can't get 'em any fresher.

Next, we chat with Tim Lauer about the sea changes he's seen in the past few decades.

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