Of all the 400 kinds of fish we sell, giant king crab would be one of the most scary to meet in real life – a big one can have a leg span of nearly two metres – although one and a half metres of that is, most fortunately, pure leg. Fortunately, because those legs contain the most coveted crab meat in the world. Fortunately, we fishmongers don’t have to deal with the live crab. It comes from the Russian Arctic coast where it’s normally caught and processed on large factory vessels.
The scare factor for your average fishmonger is not the size as such, but the consequence that this giant crab must be packed in giant boxes which wholesale at £700 each. That’s an awful lot of money to lay out on such an expensive product—not a fast mover amongst our retail customers. Most giant king crab goes to upmarket casinos where it’s dished out “ free” to keep high rollers rolling. Of course it’s also favoured on superyachts, in restaurants catering for the mega-rich and (I would suspect) in investment bank dining rooms.
In the trade, it’s sold as a “cluster”—a set of three legs and a claw arm. The clusters we buy are typically the length from your elbow to your knuckle. That £700 box contains about 15 clusters.
Retail customers for £700 boxes are non-existent. Indeed customers for single clusters—at £70 or more—are sparse. Looks impressive but… what do you do with it? We were the first company to put giant king crab on general retail sale in the UK, which was an adventure in itself. We did find a few customers—just enough to keep it flowing, buying a box or two at a time from the one UK stockist. And we figured that cutting the clusters into portion-sized sections was the way to go. It flowed a bit faster.
Then the fishermen had a poor season (funnily enough, just as there was a spate of headlines along the lines of “Giant Crab Red Army Invades Norway”) and the price jumped 50 per cent. Just as we had established a useful niche, our supplier, Bert, said he was dropping it. His minimum purchase, he explained, had increased to £20,000—the cost of a pallet of those boxes. Working on tight wholesale margins, Bert reckoned his customers—other than us—wouldn’t wear it. So as we eked out his last few boxes, we contemplated… could we import it ourselves? It would be a pity to disappoint the market we had built up. Where to begin?
Google eventually yielded up Alexey in Murmansk, Russia. He had very good English and although he appeared only to Skype from his kitchen, he did seem a genuine fellow who knew about giant king crab. He would not deal in less than a pallet – the full £20,000-worth. This was about £18,000 more than the previous biggest outlay we had ever made on a single purchase. I pitched Bert to take half the pallet. The conversation lasted about 90 seconds. Fortunately, we did have £20,000 available. But…
The problem was the trust. Not unreasonably, Alexey insisted on payment in advance. Not unreasonably, I wasn’t too keen on that. Sounding genuine does not qualify you to receive £20,000 upfront. Bigger traders normally resolve this issue with credit insurance. But at the time The Fish Society barely registered on credit-insurers’ radars and in any case Alexey in his kitchen wasn’t a credit insurer’s kind of customer. We eyeballed each other for a week. Then I made the proposition that we would pay half—£10,000—upfront and the rest on delivery. My book-keeper thought I was bonkers.
But good old Alexey came through. It took a month. Our pallet came from a fishing village with no road access: next stop, Novaya Zemlya. It had to await the arrival of the famous Norwegian Hurtigruten coastal shipping service at its remotest port of call, way over the top of Norway and just miles from Russia. Then our ship with our pallet wended its way slowly back down the Norwegian coast as its tourist passengers gawped at all those beautiful fjords (at a cost—if they were boozing—probably not far off the cost of our pallet) until it reached Bergen where our pallet boarded a ferry for the UK. And eventually us. It was a nail-biting month.
But with a great outcome. We were delighted by the pristine large clusters Alexey sent. And so were our customers. We even sold a few boxes to Bert’s customer.