Step 5: Eating California Market Squid in California

Interview with Mitch Conniff of Mitch’s Seafood in San Diego

Fast Facts:

  • Mitch’s Seafood serves 30-70 pounds of calamari a day
  • They initially served only California-caught market squid, but have had to expand to any US-caught market squid since the California fishery dried up

Mitch’s Seafood

Mitch’s Seafood was established in 2008 by three fishing families in the San Diego Area. Located on San Diego’s working waterfront, Mitch’s Seafood provides consumers with fresh, local, sustainable seafood. I recently spoke with Mitch Conniff, who told me a little more about the challenges of serving local CA market squid.

When Mitch and his team started the restaurant, the goal was to use as many local San Diego and California products as possible. “So of course, one of the first things we wanted to get was squid,” he said. But it wasn’t that easy.

Serving California Market Squid

Mitch’s Seafood has struggled with sourcing squid since day one. Though squid was abundant in California when they started up about eight years ago, it still wasn’t easy to get squid that had never left the U.S.

Even though the team was willing to pay a premium for local squid, “it took probably two years to find [a processor],” Mitch said, but eventually they did. They started working with a processor in San Pedro and “were able to use it for about two and a half years.” 

“If we didn’t really care where we sourced [our squid] from and just bought the cheapest stuff, it would probably be around $3.00 per pound. They stuff we were buying was about $5.50 per pound.” 

I asked Mitch if it was worth the higher price and he answered with a resounding “yes.” 

“Not only was the quality better, but what we’re concerned with is traceability. Fish processing in China and Asia in general is rife with humanitarian issues...From a moral or ethical standpoint, I want to provide something that’s processed in the United States.”

Unfortunately, due to poor squid fishing lately, that processing facility has temporarily shut down, and Mitch’s Seafood can no longer get any CA squid that was processed in the U.S. 

“We stopped being able to get it about four months ago,” he said.

In order to stick with the local and sustainable theme, they started purchasing market squid that comes from Oregon and Washington. Though, it’s nearly impossible to know exactly where that squid was caught or if it is indeed 100% American. 

Processing at home?

In order to ensure that the product they’re selling, Mitch’s Seafood has considered the idea of processing the squid themselves. If only it were that easy…

“The processing of squid is a nightmare,” Mitch explained. It’s not as easy as just setting a person up at the sink and having them clean and cut each individual squid.

“We go through anywhere from 30 to 70 pounds of squid in a day, so to have someone processing that amount of squid is virtually impossible. And we’d have to hire a cleaning company to come in a clean up after.” 

In addition to being messy and slow, you also need to have a place to store the squid. Processing that much would take up a lot of freezer space. To meet all these needs, “you specifically have to be set up to process squid.” 

Processing it nearby?

At one point, Mitch and his team were looking at getting a co-op of restaurants and seafood dealers together to purchase their own squid directly from local boats and process it themselves in a temporary facility. But it turns out that’s not so easy, either. 

“It would involve a lot,” Mitch said. They would have to find a facility nearby that’s already HAACP-certified - that’s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, a management system designed to address food security - and rent it. That would be a much simpler plan than building a facility from scratch, getting the HACCP certification, and running the facility full time, which would be much more expensive.

Though, building a place from scratch isn’t out of the question. 

“It’s always possible, but when you start running the numbers you understand why it’s so difficult to process here.”

Ditching calamari altogether?

If local California market squid is so hard to find, it might just be simpler to stop selling it. But that’s not really an option. 

“What it really comes down to, and why it’s so difficult for restaurant owners, is there are certain things that people just demand. And they demand them at a certain price. You can’t be a seafood restaurant in San Diego or Southern California and not serve calamari. It’s just part of the business.”

Though, perhaps this is an area where we, as consumers, have the power. 

“There’s a discussion that the American public needs to be having with regards to sustainability. Everybody says they’re concerned about the emptying of the oceans, traceability of fish, slave labor, and all those things, but when it comes down to it, they’re not really willing to pay the price,” Mitch said.

“In addition to the cost, the consumer needs to get used to the fact idea that you might not be able to have calamari every time you go into your favorite seafood restaurant. You definitely won’t be able to always have salmon. They need to embrace the idea of seasonality.”

For now, Mitch’s seafood will continue to meet the demand for calamari and source American-caught squid, even if it’s not from California. Hopefully, squid fishing will pick up again and they’ll be able to reconsidered the idea of opening their own temporary local processing facility.

“Squid is already starting to show up pretty well this year so it looks like it might be back."