Memphis catfish restaurants adjust to higher prices, lower supplies

April 22, 2011 11:49

Muddy Waters made it famous. B.B. King, Taj Mahal, John Lee Hooker and Jimi Hendrix did versions. Now Memphis restaurateurs are joining in the 'Catfish Blues.', reports with reference to VASEP.

The business owners are grappling with an unexpected spike in prices and short supplies for farm-raised catfish.

The problem started more than a year ago, when farmers responded to rising feed prices and stiff competition from Asian imported fish by shifting their resources to more profitable row crops like cotton, soybeans and corn.

For Memphis restaurants where catfish is a major menu item, that has caused concern.

Soul Fish Midtown orders roughly 80 cases of catfish fillets per week, said Ben McLean, the restaurant's general manager. Their local vendor changed their product because of the shortage, so McLean said he tried switching vendors but was told that the company couldn't handle any new customers.

McLean said the restaurant is paying 33 percent more for a case of catfish now than it was last year at this time and has, unfortunately, he said, had to pass some of the cost on to customers.

'There was nothing else we could do,' McLean said.

But Soul Fish now offers a lower-cost, two-piece catfish fillet basket that is one fillet smaller than its usual 'small order.' The new, smaller basket is $9.25.

Flying Fish has not yet raised its prices on its traditional catfish items, said Ken Vaughan, the restaurant chain's director of operations. But it has started charging $2 more for its all-you-can eat catfish special on Wednesdays.

'We are trying not to (raise prices), but we have taken a hit on our bottom line because we want to remain a value-oriented choice for our customers,' Vaughan said.

The Memphis restaurant goes through roughly 3,500 pounds of catfish in a month, Vaughan said, but has not had any supply problems.

He said the restaurant chain will wait to see if catfish prices drop in June or July when the next generation of catfish is scheduled to leave the pond and head to the processing plant. If prices don't fall, 'we may have to relook at it.'

Catfish processing was down 32 percent in February 2011 compared to February 2010, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a result, catfish producers were paid $1 per pound in February, 23.8 cents higher per pound than they got at the same time last year.

In Mississippi alone, the nation's leading catfish-producing state, catfish acreage has fallen by about 40 percent since it peaked at 113,000 acres in 2002.

The 2011 slowdown led to layoffs at Heartland Catfish processing plants in Mississippi and Alabama in February. The Itta Bena-based company said it plans to slowly rehire some of the 750 workers early this summer and be back to full operation by July 1 when new supplies of fish come in.

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