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Hook, Line and Sinker

The Big Fish in the Seafood Industry

Written By: Kim Conlan
Photographed By: Matt Doheny

The Expert: Michael Cigliano
Credentials: Owner, Santa Monica Seafood
Recommended Products: Alaskan Halibut & Copper River Salmon

Over the last century, seafood distribution and consumption has changed dramatically. Technology has evolved to allow fishmongers to quickly catch, process and ship tons of pounds of fresh fish daily from all corners of the world, right to the local grocer or restaurant staff within a matter of 24 hours. At the forefront of this industry is Santa Monica Seafood, a longtime family-run business based in Santa Monica that started with two brothers fishing off the pier in 1939. Through the years, these two Deluca brothers expanded their brand and built their storefront. Many years later, they passed their legacy on to their nephews and niece. The Cigliano family then continued to build the company to the remarkable size and stature that it is today.

Encapsulating all of the resources and commodities Santa Monica Seafood provides to customers gets difficult, just because the business scope is vast, as is their customer base. The company works with fishermen from all over the world, sourcing only the finest product held up to the highest standards. With three retail locations, Santa Monica Seafood provides fresh seafood to local consumers looking to bake, fry and grill anything from sea bass to shrimp, from scallops to salmon or oysters to lobster. Furthermore, many of the most outstanding restaurants and hotels in the San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, and Central California markets receive shipments of fish distributed with the utmost care courtesy of Santa Monica Seafood. Since the history is long, and the reach of this successful company’s business continues to grow, I sat down with the owner of Santa Monica Seafood, Michael Cigliano. While we enjoyed the aesthetic of his Orange County retail location off of 17th Street in Costa Mesa, Cigliano described the growth of his family’s company, their procedure for successful operations, and a few tips for making the most of your personal seafood experience.

Q: What services do you provide and who are your customers?

Michael Cigliano: For the retail stores, we have Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and Costa Mesa, so we get to service all of the communities around the stores. We’ve been doing that since 1939 when we started on the pier in Santa Monica. We service a number of restaurants and hotels, and grocery stores as well. We service from Pebble Beach all the way down to Tucson, so we have a lot of accounts in there, and that includes the Las Vegas Strip.

Q: When and how did Santa Monica Seafood begin?

MC: It began with my two great uncles Jack and Frank, who started it in 1939 on what is now the end of the Santa Monica Pier. They were unloading little local fishing boats in the Santa Monica Bay area, and they were getting some local fish there. They started to distribute it to other wholesalers and other restaurants. One thing led to the next, and they got involved with some lobsters out of Mexico, and they became the primary source of lobsters. They coupled the lobsters with the fresh fish they were getting off of the boats, and became more of an asset to restaurants and hotels in the immediate Los Angeles and Santa Monica area. They did that until 1968 on the pier.

Q: How did the business change from there?

MC: In 1969, they moved off the pier because the city wanted to change the focus of it — from more of a working pier to a tourist pier. They still stayed in Santa Monica and moved 12 blocks east, built a new facility, and continued to expand a little bit, but still service the greater Los Angeles area and Westside. Then in 1981, my brothers, sister and I bought the company from our uncles, and we’ve expanded it little by little. We went to Orange County, went to San Diego, went to Palm Springs, and one thing led to the next. Over the years, we’ve grown the business, and here we are today.

Q: Where does your product usually come from?

MC: We get fish from all over the world. The industry has changed over the last 76 years — it’s become more global. With the advent of air freight, we’re able to move product from other parts of the world overnight. What was not available to us just 30 or 40 years ago now is. It’s just a matter of picking up the phone or sending a purchase order through the internet, and you get the fish. We get fish from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South America — almost every continent, including Antarctica. We get Chilean Sea Bass out of Antarctica.

Q: What kind of standards do you have for your product?

MC: We’re an FSSC 22000 company, which is a European food standard. Everything we get in has to have full traceability. We have to understand exactly where it was caught, by whom it was caught, and how it was handled. When it gets to the doors of our distribution facility, we check it for temperature, we check it for quality, and we check it for weight. If it doesn’t meet any one of those standards, we reject it. We’ve always held a very high standard.

Q: Can you tell me a little about your retail storefronts?

MC: The one in Santa Monica is on 10th and Wilshire, and that was recently moved. We created the building to look like an icehouse or an old fish shop so that the customers still have this feel of going into a factory and getting their fish. We thought that was part of the allure — getting it direct from the factory. It has a little cafe and oyster bar in it, along with a 64-foot seafood case. It does great, and it’s our flagship store. In 1992, we built our Costa Mesa store, and in 2010, we gave it a renovation. We added a full-service cafe and oyster bar and put a lot of the components that were in our Santa Monica store that we had built into that one. Then in 2014, we opened a little kiosk, or a small oyster bar and retail case in the Santa Barbara Public Market. That’s been very exciting. It’s our smallest footprint, and we like how it’s going.

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Q: Can you tell me about how the addition of your processing facility and distribution has bolstered the company?

MC: The bigger distribution facility, first of all, allows us to move more product in the same period of time. We’ve brought in a little bit of automation, and that helps us, and it also slows down the process for us, so we’re not as rushed. We work 24 hours a day, whereas before, we didn’t. Working in a bigger facility, we’re able to spread out the shifts — spread out the workflow. It helps us slow down what we’re doing, which enhances our quality controls, which, in turn, ultimately helps the customer. We’re able to get as close to the source as anybody can, and we pass that quality and savings, when it is available to us, all the way through the supply chain.

Q: On your company website, it indicates that Santa Monica Seafood is a long-time family business. How does the family currently stay involved?

MC: I have five brothers and a sister. At one time, all of us were involved in the business, until my eldest brother retired in 2004, after running the business for 24 years. The family is still very much involved in key areas, but we’ve also learned along the way that the only way we’re going to continue to grow is if we bring in people with different skill sets and more of an expertise than we have. The family grew up in the fish business. We know fish. We’re fish mongers by trade, but it doesn’t make us experts in other fields, such as marketing, sales and procurement.

Q: What product do you get most excited about when it’s available?

MC: Alaskan Halibut, because it’s not available year round. It’s a very defined season, so when it shows up, there’s a level of anticipation, and that’s fun. I would say the other one would be Copper River Salmon. It has a very short season, around 4 – 5 weeks, and there’s a tremendous buildup on it. It’s great to see the buzz of the anticipation, and it’s great to have people excited about the fish industry.

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Q: Do you have any tips on selecting fish and how to keep it fresh for enjoying?

MC: You should go to a very reputable store to start with, and you should ask your fishmonger questions. I always say, if it smells like fish, don’t buy it. That’s the true indicator, so your nose knows. How do you keep a fish fresh? When you get it home, if you buy it from a store and they wrap it up, what I suggest doing is unwrapping it, maybe giving it a quick rinse — not soaking it. Put it on a plate, cover it with Saran wrap, and it will be fine for at least 24 hours. Before you season it or do anything to it, give it a quick rinse again. That would be it. If you’re getting shellfish like mussels and clams, and they put them in a bag and seal it up — you don’t want that to happen. You want them to have air because they’re still alive, and you want them to breathe. So when you get them home, you just put them in a bowl or Pyrex dish, and just cover them with a damp towel. And that’s it.

Santa Monica Seafood
154 E 17th St
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
949. 574.8862
www.santamonicaseafood.com