flats-based fishmongers look to lake erie to boost local food production

Brothers Jim and John Catanese are self-described “fishmongers.” As owners of the Flats-based Catanese Classic Seafood they connect restaurants, retailers and fish lovers across a tri-state region to seafood from around the globe.

Now, the brothers are on the verge of increasing the volume of Lake Erie fish they buy from virtually nothing to six semi-truck trailers’ worth annually. It was an infrastructure investment the brothers made to avoid a potential disaster that made this latest expansion of their business and push into the local foods movement possible. 

The Catanese brothers recently reached agreements to purchase the entire catches of two local fishing crews that scour Lake Erie from May to November. John Catanese, vice president and co-owner, expects the arrangement to produce more than 600,000 pounds of yellow perch alone next year -- not to mention an additional 8 jobs.

“It will be a game changer for us,” he said. 

New bulkheads the brothers installed along their riverfront location are the key. The investment makes it easy for fishing boats to pull alongside the Catanese facilities, which are located on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River, just south of the Detroit-Superior Bridge. 

Although they have been in the fish business for 30 years, the Catanese brothers -- Jim is co-owner and company president -- only moved to the Cuyahoga River location in 2008, after buying an existing seafood business. The purchase included retail space and a processing facility with an adjoining 10,000-square-foot freezer. All told, the facility encompasses 32,000 square feet.

The purchase also came with a set of deteriorating bulkheads that were threatening the three-story freezer, which sat just eight feet from the water's edge. By 2011, the bulkheads were collapsing so quickly that the foundation of the freezer building began to shift.

“When we bought the complex, we knew things were shifting, but the situation got much worse in a short time span,” John explains. “We had to act quickly -- if we did not replace the bulkheads this year, we would have been in the river by next year.” 

Last winter, the brothers made a major capital investment in the facilities, replacing 125 feet of riverfront bulkheading. And by May of this year, they already began to see new business opportunities.

“We reached out to local fishermen,” adds John. “We knew Lake Erie had great fish to offer, and figured we could expand our operation by purchasing their catches.” 

This year the brothers tested the market, buying roughly 100,000 pounds of fish, including yellow perch, lake whitefish, white perch, white bass, and carp. “Things went so well this year that we set up the exclusive deal, and will be hiring additional staff."

In addition to the fresh Lake Erie catches, the brothers bring in dozens of types of seafood from Australia, Norway, Ecuador, Alaska and elsewhere. Shipments are flown in daily, with other seafood coming by truck from as far south as Louisiana and as far east as Boston. The business supplies more than 250 restaurants with fish and seafood.

“Our business supplies sushi bars, grocery stores, white tablecloth restaurants, even the casino,” says John.

The Catanese brothers also believe their business has benefited from the improved quality of Cleveland’s waters. “The river and lake are so much cleaner,” notes John. “That’s why our catches are up, and another reason it made sense for us to invest here.” 

Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman, whose ward includes the Flats, also sees the link between the Catanese brothers and Cleveland’s local foods movement. “They are a powerful and interesting hybrid of agro-industrial-commercial fishing with sustainable, local food production in a city where you couldn’t even eat a fish out of the river 45 years ago,” said Cimperman. “It’s an iconic story of a family-run business making major investments in the Flats and now reaping the rewards.” 

While the majority of their business is in Greater Cleveland, the company's customer base stretches to Columbus, Akron, Canton, Pittsburgh, and Michigan. They also own an import business that offers herbs, spices, oils and cheese, and operate three stands at the West Side Market: Chef Cube, Urban Herbs and Classic Seafood. 

The Catanese brothers are not finished investing. Next year, they plan to completely rebuild their retail space, install a test kitchen upstairs, add a new roof, and repair other bulkheads. John explained that their desire to continue upgrading is based in part on a belief in the area’s rebirth.

“The Flats are a unique place,” he said. “The investment nearby gives us confidence that the area will be better than ever, and more sustainable because of the mixed uses. We’re thrilled to be a part of it.”

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted