Four Star Seafood Brings a Fresh Catch for Home Cooks

January 15, 2021

It’s Tuesday morning, crab season has just opened, and Adrian Hoffman has reasons to be stressed. “I’ve got a thousand people asking me for crab,” he says. “If I can get it, I don’t know what I’m going to have to pay for it. There’s just not as much out there. It’s a mess.”

But as one of the founders of Four Star Seafood, Adrian has learned to ride the waves of the local seafood market. When Adrian and his partner, Ismael Macias, made the leap from chefs to fishmongers five years ago, it was a steep learning curve getting to know the players and the politics, what’s locally available and sustainable, and what’s in season when.

And in the last year, they’ve managed to survive by completely rethinking their business model, in response to the pandemic. “Our niche had really been chef-to-chef. Right now, we’re learning how to do direct-to-consumer,” says Adrian. “It’s been an interesting nine months as we’ve tried to figure that out.”

Hook, Line, Sinker

Four Star Seafood began when longtime friends and colleagues Adrian and Ismael were working together at Lark Creek Restaurant Group, longing for the fresh seafood they’d encountered in their travels. “I remember having the most phenomenal seafood meal ever in Portugal,” Adrian recalls. “I thought, ‘We have the ports right here in San Francisco, so why can’t we buy that quality of fish for the restaurant?’”

Adrian and Ismael drove down to Half Moon Bay and started talking to fishers to figure out how to bring seafood straight off the boat to the restaurant. He recalls meeting a fisherman named Pete the Greek, who caught sardines and anchovies. “When they’re just out of the water, it’s a night-and-day difference compared to those that have been out for 24 hours,” says Adrian.

As new kids on the block, Adrian and Ismael started raising eyebrows among established seafood slingers, but they started to build trust with fishers. “Many seafood businesses are multigenerational. They’re old-school. They do it one way and that’s what they know, and they’re great businesses. But we felt like there must be a better way to do it.”

They started talking to chefs and delivering them fish within hours of the catch. Chefs were blown away by the freshness and quality, and Four Star began to gain a following with restaurants like Waterbar, La Mar, and Californios. “They’d never seen anything like it, and posted pictures on Instagram, which helped us get started. It was very organic.”

Pandemic Pivot

Last February, Adrian and Ismael began to anticipate what COVID would mean for restaurants, and they quickly developed an e-commerce platform so they could offer home delivery. “The pandemic has been such bad news for our restaurants. It’s all tech now,” says Adrian. He feels fortunate that they had the foresight and skills to pivot to selling direct-to-consumer so quickly. 

Last year, they also started selling at farmers markets, including the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and Outer Sunset Farmers Market, and opened a brick-and-mortar fish market, called Billingsgate, in Noe Valley. “We’d never had that one-on-one interaction with the end user before,” he says. “If you’re a non-restaurant civilian, it’s really hard to buy quality fish.” 

The pandemic’s devastating impact on restaurants has also been acutely felt by the fishing community, which has made finding a market for local seafood all the more urgent. “For local halibut, I normally support 10 boats, but last year, I just had two main boats,” says Adrian. “Even though our online business is doing pretty well, it’s just not the same volume as restaurants.”

“It’s super hard for the fishermen,” he continues. “They’re just small guys, and they’re doing it right. They’re keeping a very sustainable fishery going, and they’re the best of what we like to support.”

Seasons of the Sea

Throughout this challenging year, supporting sustainable fishers directly has been, and continues to be, a cornerstone of Four Star’s business. “We make sure that any of the fish that we bring in or import are direct from the producer, if it’s a farmed fish, or first receiver. We don’t want to buy fish that’s changed hands.”

Four Star Seafood consults the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list, with most of their offerings in the Best Choice or Good Alternative ratings. “We really try to steer chefs toward things that make more sustainable sense. It’s everybody’s lifeline in this industry,  but it also simply tastes better.”

Having conversations about seafood sustainability and seasonality is part of the education they aim to share with chefs and home cooks. In the summer, about 75% of their fish is sourced from local boats, according to Adrian. “We know the captains, and we pull the fish out of their boats and into our totes.” But as the winter winds down, they have to cast a wider net, sourcing from sustainable fishers from further away.

As for crab, a much-anticipated winter favorite, it’s still hard to tell what will happen this year. Usually starting in November, the season was delayed a couple months due to safety measures for endangered whales, a domoic acid scare, and prolonged price-setting negotiations between buyers and fishers. And now that the season has finally opened, there appears to be very little crab to catch.

“Crab has been a nightmare,” Adrian says. “The first two fishermen I talked to this morning said there’s practically nothing in their pots, which is horrible.”

Staying Afloat, with Home Cooks

With restaurants closed and families cooking at home more, the appetite for local seafood at farmers markets has, thankfully, grown during the pandemic. Selling directly to the public has provided a morale boost for Adrian and the team, as they continue to support the local fishing community. 

While Four Star Seafood brings a wide variety of familiar seafood options, such as salmon, scallops, snapper, tuna, and shellfish, Adrian also encourages shoppers to check in if they have off-menu special requests, such sea urchin, steelhead roe, raw monkfish liver, or live lobsters from Maine. 

“It’s been energizing for us to see the caliber of home cooks, and it’s given us courage to put more adventurous things out there” he says. “People are sending us in pictures of what they made, and they’re telling all their friends about it. It’s so heartwarming.” 

Find Four Star Seafood at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Thursdays (10 am to 2 pm).

Photos by Four Star Seafood.

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