Landmark New York City wholesaler struggling to survive

Published on
July 8, 2020

Already struggling to stay in business since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the owner of a fourth-generation New York City seafood wholesaler was devastated to hear the news last week that restaurants in the city cannot open for indoor dining – only outdoor.

To top it off, Broadway theaters will remain closed through the end of this year, and nightclubs remain closed.

“It is so tortuous and stressful. I really felt like throwing up all day when [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio came out and said indoor dining is suspended indefinitely," Louis Rozzo, owner of F. Rozzo & Sons told SeafoodSource.

The wholesaler has been supplying New York City’s top hotels such as Four Seasons, the Harvard Club and Princeton Club, and many of New York’s most upscale, big-name restaurants, since 1895.

But F. Rozzo & Sons has been struggling since mid-March, when New York restaurants were ordered closed for indoor dining. It shifted from a previously flourishing wholesale operation to “no business overnight” in March, and in one excruciating stretch of days, the company was forced to throw out USD 80,000 (EUR 71,000) worth of fresh fish.

“It’s horrendous. I went from making 250 deliveries a day to zero at the beginning of March,” Rozzo said.

As a result, the wholesaler’s sales have plummeted by nearly USD 2 million (EUR 1.9 million) monthly since the start of the crisis.

“My business has been completely compromised, to a huge degree. I have worked my whole life to build up my business and last year was our best year, so to see it [decline] without anything I can do about it is harmful to my soul,” Rozzo said.

Initially, Rozzo was hopeful New York would permit indoor dining by mid-July, in accord with the city’s reopening plan. But in an about-face due to rising COVID-19 cases nationally, de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reversed course and on 1 July, indefinitely postponed permission for restaurants to serve diners indoors. Now, most of the upscale restaurants F. Rozzo was servicing are still closed and are not offering takeout or delivery.

“Some of those big restaurants may not open up until they can get to full capacity,” Rozzo said. “My concern is that some of these restaurants won’t re-open at all and they owe me money. I have a fairly ridiculous amount of money [owed].”

Rozzo has 30 employees, nine trucks that are not being utilized right now, as well as 10,000-square-feet of refrigeration space in the Bronx that is empty.

Besides his drivers, Rozzo said he has kept on all other employees.

However, the challenge is that Rozzo’s bills continue to mount. The company continues to pay auto insurance, health insurance, and faces numerous other expenses.

F. Rozzo & Sons did receive a PPP loan through the CARES Act, which “helped me, absolutely, but my expenses are high,” Rozzo said.

In order to bring in some funds, F Rozzo established a pop-up retail store in Chelsea soon after its foodservice business disappeared.

While sales at the store are a fraction of F. Rozzo’s sales to hotels, clubs, and restaurants, it has helped to keep employees working, according to Rozzo.

“I haven’t worked retail before and dealing with the people every day has been really rewarding,” he said.

Rozzo said he has built relationships with retail customers and enjoys seeing them learn about fish they wouldn’t normally eat, such as opah and cobia.

However, F. Rozzo’s retail business has slowed this summer, as many Chelsea residents leave the city for the season.

The wholesaler’s seafood purchasing has changed dramatically since COVID-19 began as well. In some cases, it shifted from buying bulk fish from overseas, to buying smaller amounts at the New Fulton Fish Market.

“You can’t just buy a few branzino from Italy, so I’m paying more for the fish and buying what I need,” Rozzo said.

Despite the extreme challenges the wholesaler is currently facing, Rozzo said he does his best to remain positive and knows that he “is one of many in the seafood industry and the food industry” who are experiencing the same hardships.

The owner has vowed to keep his business open, but may have to move to a smaller facility in the future.

“I’m going to do everything I can to weather the storm. Ideally, I would like to make the pop-up store into a real retail business,” Rozzo said.

Photo courtesy of F. Rozzo & Sons

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