Chicago's Calumet Fisheries wins James Beard award

No one was more surprised then Manager Carlos Rosas when he got a call saying that his small fried and smoked seafood shack was receiving a James Beard Award. In early February, the James Beard Foundation designated its “America’s Classics” award to Calumet Fisheries, an 82-year-old seafood takeout place in Chicago’s South Side. Granted, the fast food-style eatery – which has no seating – has been a longtime favorite of locals and tourists. And, its profile was heightened in February, 2009, when Anthony Bourdain visited the eatery on his Travel Channel show, “No Reservations”.

Blank: What was your reaction to receiving the James Beard Award?
We were surprised. We are doing as many interviews as we can before they take it back. For the James Beard Award, I think of fine dining restaurants downtown, not a little hole-in-the-wall in the South Side of Chicago. We definitely deserve it, though. We constantly have other restaurants that want to buy from us, and we won’t do it.

How did your sales increase after the award and after the “No Reservations” piece aired?
The first week after the James Beard Award, there was an 80 percent increase in business. The next week, there was a 50 percent increase, and it will remain strong. The Saturday after “No Reservations” aired, for smoked fish, we sold in five-and-a-half hours what we normally sell in a week. We weren’t expecting it. This time we were more prepared, and didn’t have to hire more people.

What is so special about Calumet Fisheries’ seafood that keeps people coming back, year after year? 
We have a smoked product that people can’t replicate. We are one of the two places in Chicago that can smoke the whole fish, and we still use oak to cook everything. About 60 percent of our business is fried, and fried shrimp is the biggest seller. The smoked salmon sells well, as well as chubs. We have scallops, frog legs, smelt, catfish, oysters, trout, whitefish and other seafood. We have people from Florida and Louisiana who will come here first, as soon as they get off the plane.

Where do you purchase your seafood from?
Our salmon and smelt come from Canada. Our shrimp comes from the Gulf. We have four or five different distributors. You have to buy from a reputable source and we would rather pay for the quality, than go to a lesser quality. We have chubs from Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, but they are hard to get these days because another type of fish is eating the chubs.

Do you have plans to add on to the restaurant or add other locations?
We don’t have the room to expand; we are at the top of a hill. And most of the people will eat in their cars or, on a nice day, sit by the pier or on the bridge and watch the ships pass by. People actually bring their chairs and tables. We’re happy with what we have. If people had it all the time, it wouldn’t be special.

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