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Surviving the Shutdown: San Pedro Fish Market has sold over 15,000 shrimp trays since stay-at-home started

A shrimp tray to feed four at San Pedro Fish Market
(San Pedro Fish Market)

San Pedro Fish Market, the waterfront destination anchoring what remains of the old Ports O’ Call Village, has weathered many storms during its 65-year history, some more literal than others.

Yet none arrived with the ferocity of the coronavirus pandemic, which decimated foot traffic and forced third-generation owner Michael Ungaro to completely overhaul his business model.

“An earthquake or a fire, that’s over in a couple days,” said Ungaro, whose grandfather Mackey Ungaro opened the family’s original fish shack in 1956. “How do you deal with a disaster that goes on for two months?”

During balmy summer days, the market’s harborside patio — which seats up to 3,000 — is usually packed with families sharing massive fajita-style shrimp trays and souvenir micheladas.

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Waterside patio seating is taped off for now at San Pedro Fish Market.
Waterside patio seating is taped off for now at San Pedro Fish Market.
(Garrett Snyder / Los Angeles Times)

These days, patio tables are roped off with caution tape as diners line up at marked intervals to pick up their takeout orders.

“I’m used to seeing the crowds, hearing the music — it’s strange to see it empty like this,” said one of the market’s security guards, Juan, who has worked there for six years. On normal weekends, about 30 security guards are on duty, he said. Now there are just two.

Ungaro has been able to keep San Pedro Fish Market afloat by offering pickup and delivery for the first time ever, no small feat for a business that employs 400 people across four locations.

“It was absolute chaos the first week, trying to figure out the delivery apps,” Ungaro said. “I think half of our staff threatened to walk out because they were so frustrated.”

To drum up orders, the restaurant offered a promotional discount on its popular shrimp tray, cutting the price in half to $20. Served with a loaf of garlic bread, the stir-fry came mixed with potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and onions, weighed four pounds and easily fed a family of four.

“It was priced just enough to cover food costs and labor, that’s it,” he said. Ungaro estimates the restaurant sold 15,000 in six weeks.

A customer waits in line to order takeout at San Pedro Fish Market.
(Garrett Snyder / Los Angeles Times)

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But even as orders have increased, the market is still hemorrhaging money — a common dilemma for restaurants during the age of coronavirus. Overall sales are down 90% as customers order smaller amounts of food, and less often.

“Mother’s Day is usually one of our busiest days. We’d get 50,000 diners that week alone,” Ungaro said.

But there’s some reason for hope: As temperatures have crept upward, tailgate feasts have become a common occurrence in the Ports O’ Call parking lot, with families attempting to continue summer traditions, or something resembling them, given present circumstances.

In the meantime, Ungaro has upped the price of the shrimp tray special to $30 (“because we have to survive somehow”) and introduced a luxe $80 Mother’s Day tray that includes lobster, snow crab, salmon and shrimp plus two large Coronas or a bottle of sparkling wine.

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San Pedro Fish Market has also donated 1,500 meals to area first responders and hospital workers.

Ungaro is as concerned about the future as anybody else. His family’s company recently spent $4 million on a new Long Beach outpost that opened in February, and the original San Pedro location is slated to move into the redeveloped San Pedro Public Market next year.

Restaurants offering Mother’s Day specials (including brunch and tea) in Los Angeles and Orange County.

The hope is that the market’s durable reputation will carry it through tough times, even if enjoying warm shrimp and cold beer on a crowded patio isn’t possible in the near future.

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“The thing is, we draw from a 100-mile radius. We’re more of a tourist attraction. But now most of our customers are eating from their couch. So we have to produce satisfaction in a different way,” he said.

“It’s like, OK, survival mode is over, we’ve taken care of everyone. Where do we go from here?”

San Pedro Fish Market, Ports O’ Call Village, 1190 Nagoya Way, San Pedro, (310) 832-4251, sanpedrofish.com


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