Work Is for Those Who Know How to Fish

Roberto San Miguel is a man who cares about fish. This is hard not to notice.  When he busts into the Black Star Co-op kitchen to hand deliver a hefty gulf grouper, he does so with the smile of a proud father. That pride is well earned, Roberto has been delivering fresh fish to Austin since the eighties. The operation is a small one—Roberto delivers all the fish himself once fish are loaded into his truck. Though, that may change with some new business ventures on his plate. Roberto opened a restaurant this past March with chef Shane Stark on Austin’s east side—Monger’s Fish Market. In the interest of spotlighting some of our passionate local food providers, I spoke briefly with Roberto about wholesale, starting a restaurant, and of course: fish. 

Roberto’s moment of clarity came when he sold a whopping 102lb grouper to the Four Seasons. After reading an interview that was done with the chef , who served over 100 plates of food from the single grouper, and seeing how much was charge for each plate, it clicked. “I’m on the wrong end of this business.”  Now he’s cooking the fish he’s catching, while still selling wholesale to our kitchen and others around the city. “Costs are way lower and our profit margins go ‘skweeeeyoo,’ ” he says and motions to the sky. 

But it’s not simply about profits, which is one of the reasons Roberto will continue selling his fish to restaurants around town—he wants to improve the quality fish in Austin as much as possible. Because, as he puts it “there’s a lot of crap out there, and I mean crap! I went to ______ bought their fish, just wanted to see it. I took it home and immediately you could smell the stink.” Part of this has to do with a culturally engrained way of selling fish. “My problem with the way that fish is retailed is that it’s been done the same way for six-hundred years, you get a raw goddamn piece of fish and you put it on the ice, exposed to the moisture. And the oxygen. Moisture plus oxygen equals bacteria! I had a problem with that, I thought it was time for something a little different.”

That something different proved advantageous when negotiating a contract with the landlords of the 2401 E. Cesar Chaves property. According to Roberto, “the landlord said, ‘we don’t want a hamburger, coffee, taco, or pizza joint, we want something different.’ ” He and Shane presented the Monger’s concept and 20 minutes later the property owners called back, eager to close the deal. 

Monger’s is in a great position, both geographically and from the perspective of culinary innovation, to charge exorbitant prices for they’re produce, but that’s not something Roberto is interested in doing. He’s firmly anchored to the idea that “world class, or even just a beautiful—fresh, seafood meal, when we’re only three hours from the coast, shouldn’t only be for people with disposable income… Or special occasions, weddings—that sort of thing, or you get your tax break.” As someone who has worked on a government salary, and a journalist’s salary before that, he knows how unaffordable seafood can be. 

Mr. San Miguel is a man whose values intersect with Black Star Co-op’s in more ways than one—that’s been one of the pleasure of working with him. And as he expands his influence in Austin, it’s inspiring to see those values still so integral to the work he’s doing. Here’s to hoping it’s smooth sailing for him and his crew.