Catfish: All you can eat, no more

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 700 views 

All-you-can-eat catfish buffets are becoming a thing of the past as restaurants struggle to stay afloat, according to industry operators.

Wholesale catfish prices have risen to record highs, availability of U.S. catfish has shrunk and a feckless economy keeps many customers home.

“Wholesale food prices overall have been increasing, posing challenges for restaurants,” Annika Stensson, National Restaurant Association spokesman said in e-mail. “Last year, wholesale food price inflation ran at its highest level in more than 30 years.”

About one-third of sales at a restaurant go to food and beverages purchases, Stensson said. To compensate, restaurants are raising prices, closing or changing their menus to do away with the buffet, said Al Brown, former Arkansas Restaurant Association president and owner of Brown’s Catfish in Russellville.

“There’s not a future in buffet anymore,” he said.

On a Saturday afternoon in Fayetteville, dozens of families filled booths and tables at the Catfish Hole and ordered plates of fried or grilled catfish for lunch. Until last spring, the restaurant served up all-you-can-eat catfish straight to tables, but owners Pat and Janie Gazzola said they couldn’t afford to maintain service.

“I don’t see the days of the all-you-can-eat catfish coming back,” Pat Gazzola said. “The fish is too expensive, and you don’t know when you’re going to have it.”

The struggle of catfish farmers and processors against cheap foreign imports and high feed costs has spilled over to restaurants. Last month, catfish production of food-sized fish in Arkansas fell 37% over the same time a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farmers quit the catfish business as corn and soy used for catfish feed outpaced prices for catfish meat. Also, foreign-raised catfish, which now makes up about 50% of the market, undercut the U.S. catfish market, said Joey Lowery, Catfish Farmers of America board chairman.

Since about 2006, the number of water acres used to raise catfish in Arkansas has shrunk from about 40,000 to about 10,500, said Ted McNulty, director of the Aquaculture Division of the Arkansas Agriculture Department.

Arkansas, which is among the top three catfish producers in the U.S., produced 1.57 million pounds of fingerlings alone in January, according to a USDA report. But that number is 53% below last year’s January production. Total fish sales to Arkansas growers garnered $33.5 million during 2011, down 18% from 2010, the federal agriculture department reported.

The catfish industry is big business in the U.S., where in 2008, the U.S. produced about 496 million live-weight pounds of catfish. The catfish industry pumped billions into the economies of Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama, according to a USDA economic impact analysis.

About 70% of the nation’s catfish ends up at restaurants, Lowery said.

As farmers cut water acreage or leave the business altogether, restaurants have faced a catfish shortage that has caused restaurant owners like Gazzola to scramble to find new sources. At least once last spring, the distributor Gazzola uses wasn’t able to fill his order for 200 cases of catfish, he said.

Restaurant owners said the shortage of catfish started in 2010, and then prices went up.

In February 2011, prices were about $3.30 a pound but went up every week to peak at about $5.27 a pound around May, Gazzola said. Prices didn’t start to come down until October and remain above $4 a pound, he said.

Shortages and prices are helping to put some catfish restaurants out of business or forced them to stop serving all-you-can-eat fish and to raise prices. Brown knew of four catfish restaurants in central Arkansas that had recently closed. Six more had stopped serving all-you-can-eat, he said.

The state does not track the number of catfish restaurants, according to the health department, but about 40% of restaurants in Arkansas serve catfish as part of their menus, said Montine McNulty, executive director of the state hospitality association, which is an umbrella organization for the Arkansas Restaurant Association and others.

The state has about 9,557 restaurants or stores that serve food, said J. Terry Paul, environmental health branch chief at the state health department in e-mail.

Although 2011 was a rough year for farmers, processors and restaurants, the availability and prices of catfish are stabilizing, said Carole Engle, director of the Aquaculture Program Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. New farming techniques promise to help farmers produce more catfish with fewer water acres, she said.

But the high prices for wholesale fish will stay elevated for the foreseeable future, said David Harvey, agriculture economist with the federal agriculture department. That means restaurants will continue to pay higher wholesale costs, he said.

Gazzola expects some shortages of catfish this spring, but agreed the catfish market is improving.

“Things are certainly better than a year ago,” he said.