Seaworthy

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hink “fishmonger” and perhaps you picture an old man, his face half-hidden by facial hair, his peppered ponytail tamed beneath a thin net. There’s a cleaver in one hand, a scale in the other. Perhaps he’s pushing a cart, wandering through old Nashville or New York, yellow waders clinging to his legs as a perpetual sea chantey escapes from his mouth, the kind of man from whom the words “chuckle” and “jolly” come to mind—a salmon-slinging Santa Claus, if you will. This image has its historical and literary roots to be sure—it’s part of our collective unconscious—but visit the local Whole Foods in the Hill Center and you can see the real deal.

            In place of the iconic fisherman’s costume… tattoos and baseball caps. Instead of the shabby beards… three handsome, relatively clean-cut men, ranging from late twenties to early thirties. No chantey escapes their lips, but over the store’s speakers the same cycle of ’80s songs sounds like waves breaking over and over.

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You might think someone who holds a job so specialized and obscure would also be supremely strange, someone lured to the profession by a bizarrely inherent love of seafood. The reality, however, proves that assumption false. What I found were three men who, after simply finding themselves working for Whole Foods, developed an enthusiasm for a previously unknown career path.

“Before I started with Whole Foods,” says Andrew AuBuchon, the head of the seafood department, “the closest I came to working with fish was going on fishing trips with my dad. It was a new experience five years ago, and it’s an experience that I still am passionate about to this day.”

Andrew is in charge of seven other men whose experience with fish varies from six months to countless years. He’s no stranger to Whole Foods. Five years with the company have taken him from Chicago to Louisville to Birmingham, and finally to Nashville. But no matter the store, AuBuchon knows that the same hands-on learning he experienced is the best training possible for a rookie fishmonger. “Knowing where the fish comes from,” he says, “if it’s a cold- or warm-water fish, well, you pretty much just listen to the people who have been behind the counter for years, and then after six or seven months you know what you need to know for the customer and what’s to be expected of you as an expert.”

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The excitement that seems to come with the job is not limited to its longest-standing employee. Both Jeff Davidson, a six-month monger (he goes by the nickname Road Dog and has an aquarium of tattoos running up his arms), and Johnny Peters, who came to Nashville after working in various Whole Foods stores around the country, are as passionate as AuBuchon on the issue of farm-raised versus wild caught fish. Road Dog, an obviously shy person, speaks confidently of his new enthusiasm. Flanked by this small school of co-mongers, he’s the anchor to the Whole Foods team.

What brought all three men to the job was not so much an eagerness to work with seafood as a desire to be part of the Whole Foods Company. Once hired, none of them could ignore the good noise coming from behind the fish counter. “The seafood department seemed like the coolest department to work in,” says Road Dog. “The guys there were always having a good time.”

Peters agrees. “I had a friend that worked at Whole Foods in the seafood department and got me a job, and it slowly turned into a passion and a love for seafood and the company. I mean, over time I just realized that this is the greatest company to work for. It’s so relaxed and it just allows you to be who you want to be, and at the same time you can just make a career for yourself.”

Any discussion of the company almost instantly leads to CEO John Mackey—the company’s Blue Whale and Great White Shark all in one—a leader whose accessibility and regard for each employee, from the entry-level worker to store manager, have conferred on him Poseidon-like status. Mackey has pushed for a holistic focus on quality-of-life issues, ensuring that no animal—either air- or water-breathing—was mistreated before it made its way to the store. In the seafood department, this means that nothing in the case (with the exception of clams and mussels) is live. “Lobsters that have been cooped up in a tank for two to three weeks are not happy or healthy,” says Peters.

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This lack of a live supply does not seem to have lost Whole Foods customers to competitor chains. (In spite of the chain’s nickname “Whole Paycheck,” business is booming.) And while wild salmon is always a top seller, customers often come to the counter looking for new selections. Nashville’s significant distance from the sea in no way diminishes the knowledge of its customers. “They do read on the internet, believe me,” says AuBuchon. “Sometimes they come in with reports.”

It’s this doggedness that makes an educated group of shoppers and keeps the store’s fishmongers on their toes. “I’ve worked in several different cities, and there are different personalities everywhere,” says AuBuchon. “I do believe this is the most informed I’ve been around. When I worked in the Birmingham store, it was really just ‘give me that.’”

It’s worth noting that when it comes to fish freshness, Whole Foods has bypassed the landlocked issue entirely. With distribution companies in Alpharetta, Ga., Gloucester, Ma., and Seattle, Wa., 95 percent of the department’s stock has never been frozen. “[The fish] are trucked up here from Alpharetta, Georgia every morning,” says Road Dog. “They show up at six a.m., and we just unload it and throw it in the case. It’s as fresh as you can get, considering that if a fish is caught in the Gulf of Mexico it’s probably been out of the water for 24-36 hours.”

AuBuchon adds, “I don’t know anything about Harris Teeter or Publix or where they get their fish from, but we own our distribution companies on the East Coast and West Coast, so for us it’s set up so that we can provide the freshest fish, the highest quality fish, to the people of Nashville. It would be really hard to compete with that.”

When it comes to seafood, AuBuchon and his team see little beyond the Whole Foods community. Within the store, even, the seafood department stands out. “Every time I hire somebody, after they’re hired, I’m just like, well, welcome to the best department in the store,” he says. “It’s a cold department, it’s a very wet department, and you smell like fish—three things that I never thought to myself I would enjoy doing or being. I look for people who balance all of our personalities. We all have fun back there, and if all my guys were here right now, not one person would complain about their job.”

            The lure of the seafood counter is undeniable. The noise, interaction, and laughter are a Siren song beckoning exploring shoppers to its gleaming display. The massive produce section is a mere prelude to the seafood department, nestled like an oyster bed in the corner of the store.

“I’ve always been under the attitude that in any job where you have to spend roughly one third of your life, you might as well have a good time doing it,” says Road Dog. “The monetary side of it was secondary to the fact that I needed to maintain my mental health and not really take my job home with me at the end of the day and stress over it, and I’m getting exactly that here. I have a good time, and I can see myself doing it for the foreseeable future. I love what I do.”

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AuBuchon and his team reside in a sort of seafood Utopia, a land-lubber’s Atlantis. Theirs is an environment in which regular customers form attachments, and the provider is as much a part of the experience as the product. “Our department is built on trust,” said Andrew. “We have to know everything back there. And once we build that trust and [customers] go home with one of our recipes, they come back. We get a lot of repeats. You give one person awesome customer service, and they just want to talk to you, and you only.”  Angling at Whole Foods, it seems, is a form of perpetual catch-and-release.

 

-- Sarah Schutt