The chief fishmonger for a DC restaurant group got the idea while checking out a bag of coffee at a grocery store. On it was a square QR code that could be scanned to reveal more information about the coffee, where it was grown and how it was processed.
MJ Gimbar thought, why not seafood?
As someone who daily acquires fish and shellfish for the five eateries in the Black Restaurant Group family, he’d seen how the widespread mislabeling of seafood had wreaked havoc on customer trust. He knew his company was making strides to source quality seafood, so why not make that information available to the consumer?
“We’ve always had the information. We’ve always bought the whole fish and gone through several quality checks, mindful of who we’re buying fish from,” Gimbar said. “Now, we just want to show it, to put it out there to level the playing field.”
To Gimbar, that means showing people what they’re paying for.
If a red snapper at his store is $15 a pound and one (or perhaps one mislabeled as snapper) at another store is $5, he can now show people where his came from and why it’s that price.
The program bodes especially well for Chesapeake Bay seafood like the Maryland rockfish and Virginia farmed oysters that are coming onto menus now. By scanning, customers learn not only about the source, but also about its sustainability. They learn how farmed oysters function as filtration systems for the Bay and when rockfish is in season.
Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, says QR code programs like this one help his efforts to get more Bay seafood into the market.
“QR codes are fantastic for getting the message out there, particularly for traceability,” he said. “Anything that gets the story out there about the fish is definitely beneficial for any local marketing campaign.”
Since Gimbar’s restaurant group launched the program, several restaurants have picked up the QR codes, which are now offered by a growing number of seafood distributors to accompany their sales. Jessup, MD-based Congressional Seafood Co., which worked with Gimbar to develop the program, also provides QR codes to the Great American Restaurant Group and Balducci’s markets, for example.
Gimbar said he’s glad to see other restaurants using the technology, as it increases accountability and helps connect the food to the fishing industry.
“Sometimes you’re so separated from the people landing your fish, and we kind of connected those people back to the customer, through technology,” he said.
Gimbar said it was an easy sell this spring when he approached Congressional Seafood Co., a major source for his products, with the QR codes idea.
But it took time to set up the program. QR codes are simple enough: They use two-dimensional bar codes, first designed for Japan’s automotive industry, to link a product to a website containing additional information.
Gimbar volunteered to develop content for the website. He interviewed fishermen and collected photos that could be linked to dishes. For items that come from sustainable fish or oyster farms, he put together “their stories” and made them available with a code that can be used over and over.
Wild-caught items, however, take additional work and maintenance.
“The wild items, we’ve had to take down the codes, change the codes, change the links to the codes. We’ll buy rockfish from Massachusetts in one month and from Virginia the next month,” Gimbar said.
But, when the customers began to come onboard with the idea, the project took on a purpose of its own.
Since launching the project in April, Gimbar says thousands of people have scanned the QR codes to view more information about what’s on their plates. Some of them link back to his blog, The Edible Ocean, where he debunks myths about seafood and answers questions like, “Is all farmed salmon bad to eat?”
He said the majority of QR code scans have come from the restaurant group’s Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Northwest DC. But he’s had more chances to interact with customers about the program at the group’s BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant. There, buyers ask the fishmonger questions and select cuts or whole fish to take home.
He said some customers simply trust that the high-end market provides them quality fish and don’t scan the codes. Others want to know as much as possible.
“We have people come in to the market and scan the code, and they feel more comfortable — even before they’ve read it — to know that we’re putting it out there,” Gimbar said.