The notch from a tuna that determines its grade.

Fish live in a secret world out of our everyday sight. That secrecy extends after they die too, when they enter the supply chain that brings them to our plates; what happens between fishing boat and restaurant kitchen is unknown to most of us. I was invited into that secret world when my sons (still off from school for the summer) and I took a tour of Fortune Fish & Gourmet, located near O’Hare in an industrial section of Bensenville.

Founded in 2001, Fortune serves six states in the area with fresh seafood. Our tour, arranged by PR rep Susie Riskind, was conducted by marketing manager and sustainability coordinator Stacy Schultz, a marine biologist and former vet at the Shedd Aquarium who helps Fortune ensure that it’s offering a sustainable product. Fortune is the midwest’s only Marine Stewardship Council-certified distributor. Says Schultz, “We take sustainability seriously because we want to be able to sell fish, we want the environment to produce fish, and we want future generations to be able to enjoy fish.”

Last year, Fortune also acquired Chicago specialty distributor JDY Meats, adding a range of nonseafood gourmet products such as Iberico hams and artisanal goods. They had always offered a small array of upscale nonseafood products like sushi rice for their sushi customers, but this represented a much bigger commitment to them—and required building out two more loading docks and the associated warehouse space.

Marketing manager Stacy Schultz leads us through the loading dock.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Marketing manager Stacy Schultz leads us through the loading dock.

Every room in Fortune’s warehouse is for a different product—partly because you don’t want your cheese smelling like fish, but also because, for instance, you want to keep shellfish, which many people have allergies to, apart from other seafood. The loading dock is chilled to refrigerator temperature—in the winter that actually means heating it to keeps pipes from freezing—but it’s more than just a garage; every bit of food that passes through it is tracked by bar code, and then even as fish are broken down, those codes travel with each piece, so that if a food-borne illness is reported, Fortune can track it to a specific fish and get it out of other restaurants.

In the shellfish room, Schultz tells us, there are at least 25 to 30 types of oysters at any given time, and the entire room will turn over almost daily. Most are identified by regional type, though we also see a more modern kind of branding—a line named for Times Square’s Naked Cowboy (the connection appears to be that it’s a semifarmed but “pretty wild” oyster bed, and thus just like the street performer).

Oyster branding.

Schultz’s enthusiasm comes through as she tries to sell my kids on oysters—”Because oysters are filter feeders, they’re really nutritious. They’re like eating a multivitamin,” she says, to somewhat skeptical response. There are also clams (I learn that a littleneck clam and a chowder clam are the same species, just one’s younger, smaller and not as tough as the other—hey, I grew up in the midwest) and soft-shell crabs at the end of their season, sluggish but alive under straw in a box.

The next room is the busiest—fish such as salmon, whitefish and tuna are cut up, boned, and portioned to order by eight or ten workers slicing three-foot-long fish apart as easily as if they were unzipping them. One thing about this room is that the waste doesn’t hang around the food—it goes out almost immediately to a bin back in the loading dock, where it’s collected to be turned into pet food.

Compared to the seafood side, the gourmet side, with its cheeses, Iberico hams, and jars of artisanal products, seems sedate—well, except maybe for the llama. At the end of it, after seeing all manner of creatures from the depths of the sea, one of my sons asks one of the guys who manages the gourmet cold storage what the strangest thing they’ve ever had in stock is. Eels? Horseshoe crabs? Shark?

“The llama,” they agree.

Llama storage.