Hidden among the tourist noise of Fisherman’s Wharf, the San Francisco seafood industry is dominated by a dozen companies clustered in and around Pier 45, some of which have been in business for several generations. The old guard doesn’t always take to upstarts kindly, especially those who don’t know what they’re doing or don’t follow the established protocols.
That was a fitting way to describe former chefs Ismael Macias and Adrian Hoffman when they started their company, Four Star Seafood and Provisions, in 2015. The idea was simple: become one of the few Bay Area seafood companies that buys directly from fishermen and sells directly to restaurant chefs.
“We knew how to run a restaurant but not a seafood business,” says Macias. “Now every single day, there’s something that we have to figure out.”
Despite early growing pains, Four Star seems to be thriving. The company recently outgrew its location on the pier and moved to a 10,000-square-foot facility in the Bayview. In addition, Macias and Hoffman plan to open a seafood shop and oyster bar in Noe Valley this summer named Billingsgate, after the London fish market. Their expansion speaks to a growing demand in the Bay Area for fresher seafood coming out of local waters, which despite its close proximity can be days-old by the time it travels from the dock to the restaurant walk-in (let alone to retail customers).
“You’re talking about something that is a 30-minute drive from here,” says Stuart Brioza, speaking from his adjacent S.F. restaurants, State Bird Provisions and the Progress. The chef says it took him a long time to persuade seafood purveyors to deliver anchovies to him the day they were caught instead of the next day, since they lose quality so quickly. “What if this was the way that we treat everything? This is how it should be done.”
Four Star is not alone in selling direct-from-the-boat seafood — still a tiny portion of the local market — but Macias and Hoffman have the advantage of knowing their audience, which early on included restaurateurs like Gabriela Cámara of Cala, Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn and Corey Lee of Benu. That’s why they’ve expanded over the years to offer what Hoffman calls “chef-sexy” specialties — like Spanish octopus or New Jersey salumi — that cooks are always seeking.
Hoffman, meanwhile, came to One Market in 2000 as executive chef and went on to become the culinary director of Lark Creek Restaurant Group, where he oversaw more than a dozen restaurants, including Macias’. They were close friends early on.
“We call each other brothers,” says Macias, 42.
“We fight all the time, but we love each other,” says Hoffman, 47, laughing.
These days, they work from 2 a.m. to about 1 or 2 p.m., and they only just started taking one day off per week — meaning they rarely see their girlfriends. Macias’ dry humor comes out sparingly while Hoffman, a Boston native, is the bigger talker as they tell their backstory in a heated office inside the very cold Bayview warehouse.
Four Star’s beginnings were in 2014 after they both left their high-powered jobs in the Lark Creek Restaurant Group when the outfit was sold to a larger entity, Moana Restaurant Group.
The idea for the business came from time spent working and living abroad. During stints at restaurants in France and Italy, Hoffman experienced how fish sellers would stop by the restaurant each morning with a selection of the day’s catch for cooks to choose from. Compared to the freshness of fish he could get in the Bay Area, Hoffman says, “it was just night and day difference.”
Their first post-Lark Creek idea was to open a modular seafood restaurant right on Pier 45. They convinced All Shores Seafood to let them roll out kitchen equipment and dining tables after they had closed for the day in the early afternoon. It was inspired by a restaurant of a similar nature in Copenhagen’s meatpacking district. But San Francisco Port officials didn’t go for that for a myriad of reasons.
“In about two seconds they were like, ‘No way, no how,’” Hoffman says.
But the time spent at the pier got them wondering why it was so hard for restaurant chefs to get fish direct from the source, and whether they could do it themselves.
Though some newer Pier 45 companies like Water2Table and TwoXSea specialize in buying fish directly from fishermen and immediately delivering it to restaurants, the seafood distribution process can involve many more steps. A boat comes in, say to Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay, and a business there buys and unloads the fish. Steps after that can include selling it to a broker, who then might sell it to a distributor who transports it to a wholesaler, who delivers it to the restaurant.
“At each point along the way, everybody has to sell their oldest product first,” Hoffman says, because fish is so perishable and expensive. Within that system, he says, restaurants often receive fish five days to a week out of the water.
Macias and Hoffman went to Half Moon Bay to see what it would take to buy fish from the boat themselves. They saw beautiful lingcod and halibut come in, and watched how Pete Alexiadis, known to many as Pete the Greek, caught anchovies, surf smelt and sardines in the morning and kept them in a net next to his boat until he sold out.
They asked the fishermen what it would take to buy the fish and sell it to restaurants, cutting out everyone else in between. The fishermen said to give them a buck more a pound and they’d sell it to them.
So Macias and Hoffman got a receiver’s license from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, bought bags of ice at 7-Eleven and began buying fish, spot prawns and sea urchin from Northern California ports, ferrying it to San Francisco restaurants in a tank in the back of Macias’ SUV.
They used a sample bag of Alexiadis’ sardines — small fish like that don’t hold more than a day — as a calling card.
“It was like candy,” Macias says.
One time, when they stopped at the Progress with a small selection of seafood, Brioza took one look and said he would buy everything.
“It felt really good,” Hoffman says. “And then we were like, ‘Oh s—, we have nothing left to sell. We have to go find some fish again.”
The problem was that as they were starting out, they could only buy 70 or 100 pounds at a time, leaving fishermen with extra fish to find a home for, which they didn’t like.
But as they grew, they graduated from 7-Eleven and got an ice machine. When it was finally time to get a real seafood facility, they rented a small space from All Shores at Pier 45.
Within weeks, they say, they met resistance, if not hostility, from the established seafood companies there, who said they were undercutting prices and stealing their clients.
“We became very, very unpopular,” says Hoffman. “It was like, ‘You’re bypassing everybody and that’s not the way this business works.’ But they didn’t put it so gently.”
Still, sales tripled in the first two years and doubled in the third year. They partnered with Cain Monti, who already had a seafood business at the pier, and began working with fisherman Phat Vo to expand their network of fishermen.
Vo still does that but now on a national and international level, picking up orders at San Francisco International Airport every day. In addition to the usual scallops and salmon, they now offer tankless lobster from Hoffman’s native New England — sold live but never held in water, where it can lose flavor and sweetness — and wild morels, Japanese katsuobushi (cured and dried bonito) and various spices.
Though no longer solely local, that part of the business continued to grow, too. Earlier this month, they landed over 5,000 pounds of local black cod, hook-and-line halibut and rockfish, an amount that will rise as the various spring and summer seafood seasons get going.
“I honestly think this business is so vast that we’ve scratched the surface,” Hoffman says.