gulf to plate

Reinventing the Reel: Maggie's Seafood

By Abby Weingarten / Photography By Cat Pennenga | July 24, 2014
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Gary Balch, owner, setting up at the Downtown Sarasota Farmers’ Market

An early morning haul after an evening of spear fishing in the Gulf yields the freshest possible catches.

Local entrepreneurs Maggie and Capt. Gary Balch have known this for nearly two decades. Maggie’s Seafood was built on the concept.

The Balches pick through what the fishermen bring into John’s Pass and act as direct purveyors of the high-quality wild-caught products. They peddle everything from individual fish to preparations such as salmon patties, bisques, chowders, and spreads prepared by chef Doug Vogel.

Devoted patrons know how coveted Maggie’s inventory is, so they will call 24 hours ahead (or earlier) to reserve their iced seafood before the following day’s market sale. Maggie’s sets up each week at four different farmers’ markets (Saturdays at the Sarasota Farmers’ Market and the Venice Farmers’ Market, Wednesdays at Phillippi Farmhouse Market, and Thursdays at Englewood Farmers’ Market), depending on the season.

“I’m up at 2:30 a.m. every Saturday morning, loading the trucks for the Sarasota and Venice farmers’ markets,” Gary Balch says. “We load everything on a forklift. From 3:30 to 4 a.m., we’re at the Sarasota market, and Chef Doug is heating up the chowders he made the day. During peak season, I’ll bring 400 to 600 pounds of fish, shrimp, lobsters, and more. The Venice market has about a third of that. We try to bring about 20 different varieties of fish to showcase.”

Photo 3: Filleting Snowy brown grouper for the market
Photo 4: Eve Johnston, Maggie Balch, and Gary Balch posing outside their office in Venice

All of the company’s fish is inspected, cleaned and, packaged in a state-certified commissary. The Balches either catch the fish themselves, have local boats do the catching, or ship it in from a couple of select seafood wholesalers. Maggie’s knows the history of each fish it distributes, including the time and place where it was caught, and whose hands it touched. The majority of the seafood comes from around John’s Pass, but also Tarpon Springs, and much of the shrimp is sourced from Alabama and Louisiana.

“We buy strictly quality seafood, and we’re doing our best to support the families of the fishermen who live locally. I try to buy close to home. It’s beneficial for everyone who lives here,” Gary Balch says. “It’s so important in the current industry to know exactly where you’re fish is coming from and who caught it. We’ll never risk our customer’s health by selling seafood that can be traced to closed fishing areas.”

Maggie’s does 100 percent of its retail sales in farmers’ markets, and some of the most popular products include the shrimp, grouper, salmon, and snapper.

“We almost always sell out of what we bring to the markets. I don’t want to go back with 100 pounds of fish. One of the reasons we do as well as we do is because everything we get is caught, cleaned, and sold within about a 48-hour period,” Gary Balch says. “Sometimes we’re out of fish at quarter after 10. Every once in a while, you get a rain day and you’re stuck with stuff. Anything that comes back to the shop goes into the smoked fish spread; it all gets used in a creative way.”

That is because of Vogel. He is the kind of chef who can take leftovers and overstock and turn it into a gourmet feast. He brings one-of-a-kind, refreshing dishes to the Sarasota Farmers’ Market every weekend, and he is constantly researching trends to help invigorate his repertoire.

Vogel grew up in northeastern New York and relocated to Florida in 2000. He cultivated his cooking skills at the old Alley Cat Café in Sarasota before moving onto the Helmsley Sandcastle hotel, Mattison’s, and Canvas Café. In 2009, he became a chef instructor for Aprons Cooking School at Publix, which is something he continues to enjoy when he is not crafting recipes for Maggie’s.

“I love being a part of Maggie’s and the farmers’ market, because I’m a huge proponent of local fishing and using local seafood. I also like fish from other regions of the world, as long as the seafood is cost-effective and fished properly,” Vogel says. “You have to know what you’re buying. I wouldn’t pay $28 a pound for Pacific halibut when I could have wonderful $15 local cobia.”

Chef Doug at the Dontown Sarasota Farmers’ Market

The Maggie’s staff is consistently reminding its Southwest Florida clients that the waterfront landscape in which they live deserves to be exalted—from the creatures in the sea to those who responsibly fish them. By doing things the old-fashioned way, Maggie’s continues to remain ahead of the seafood-purveying curve.

Maggie’s Seafood: Sarasota Farmers’ Market, Venice Farmers’ Market, Englewood Farmers’ Market, and Phillippi Farmhouse Market; maggiesseafood.com

Article from Edible Sarasota at http://ediblesarasota.ediblecommunities.com/shop/reinventing-reel-maggies-seafood
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