Rego's

Posted by jlubans on June 01, 2010

The Rego Fish Co.

Here is my evocative look at a small family business, once prosperous, now seemingly winding down, left behind technologically and with none of the octogenarian owner’s children wanting to come into the fish business.

This essay was originally an appendix to my book’s chapter 14 on Zabar’s, the quintessentially New York deli. But, soon after I completed the first draft of the manuscript, we made an editorial decision to limit appendices and such. Well, thanks to Web 2.0, here it is. The story takes place in January 2002 when Saul Zabar brought me along on a visit to one of his smoked fish suppliers, the Rego Fish Company.

Rego’s is in the Middle Village neighborhood of Queens. Saul told me that Rego’s is a “nice primitive operation”; its “gravity ovens” for smoking fish qualify it as an antique in this era of computerized ovens - an endangered antique it turns out. Founded and owned by Conrad Spizz, now in his mid-80s, the company is recovering from a failed partnership with a conglomerate of banker smoker-wannabes. A new venture, starting in January, leased Rego’s to Marshall’s, a Philadelphia smoked fish concern.

For Saul, besides the long relationship with Connie, it’s Rego’s gravity ovens that keep him coming back and wanting to help Rego’s stay in business. Gravity ovens, Saul is convinced, are the only kind to use for smoking sturgeon – a fish that computer driven ovens have yet to tame. Sturgeon, according to Saul, “likes slower moving air than what the computer sends in” in high tech ovens. Sturgeon cooks best with a human touch. An expert smoker, who monitors temperature, airflow, and the cooking color, produces the finest and priciest sturgeon. At the time of this story, according to Zabar’s online catalog, sturgeon was selling for $15.00 a half-pound. Today’s price is $33.

On the Way
As he has done for innumerable Wednesdays, Saul maneuvered his car from the Zabar’s garage on W. 80th, slipped past snarls of honking traffic, crossed from the West Side to the East Side and over a few bridges, into Queens and pulled up to the curb at Rego’s. The company is in a mixed business and residential neighborhood of small houses, many with post 9-11 American flags on display, some with Christmas decorations yet to be stored for next year. Across from us, the yard was crowded with faded plastic elves and reindeer. I wondered where (or if) they stored them – maybe the answer was obvious.

We entered Rego’s one-story brick building through its unimposing glass door. Conrad Spizz’s office is on the immediate right, a step or two in from the glass entry door. Conrad (or Connie to friends) sat at the far end of the narrow room, a walker on his left. He is partially recovered from a 1993 stroke. When I shook his hand, his other hand supported the one I grasped. Invoices littered his desk, an old Remington typewriter sat idle. Connie let me know right away that he’s an opera buff, for 49 years he’s had three family subscriptions to the Met.

A few photographs, opera and movie posters interrupt the dingy walls. A large yellowing poster, behind Connie, is a lively illustration of what looks like an operatic rendering of Kiss Me Kate. He told us the story behind the poster. Connie’s speech was stroke impaired, but I got the idea. This Kiss Me Kate, according to Connie, includes a drinking toast to oral sex. Connie got a kick out of telling what must be a story many times re-told.
Saul told him (and me) he couldn’t understand Connie’s slurred speech. No offense meant, just the way it was. Their relationship goes back decades. Saul would bring his kids along whenever he was buying fish and the kids would fold, as a pastime, hundreds of shipping boxes for Rego’s.

Connie’s ribald humor extends to interior decoration. The office light switch cover was a guy with the switch coming out of his pants. It was up.

Around the corner to the right from Connie’s office is a tiny retail store with one or two glass deli cases. It’s empty today. Saul told me the cash income was never reported, instead, it was a source for paying the undocumented workers in the store. The Feds and Connie don’t see eye to eye. He stopped smoking chubb – a type of fish - when the inspectors insisted he use a higher temperature. The new temperature made chubb unpalatable.

To the left, swinging double doors lead to the ovens. Saul and I headed there to taste the latest version of Rego’s smoked sturgeon.

In a dim light, two men (Mitchell Gardiner and an assistant, Leslie) stood near one of the operating ovens. Saul introduced us. “My great pleasure” said Mitchell to Saul Zabar, a verbal genuflection. Mitchell, a veteran fish smoker, knew who Saul was. He also happened to be one of the new partners in Rego’s. His life’s mantra: “I’m smokin’, I’m happy!” He also likes to talk.

The ovens are tall, bricked up from the floor to just below the ceiling each with an arched roof, like pottery kilns. There are five black doors, one with smoke seeping out. These are walk-in ovens. Unlit. Mitchell used a trouble light to see what was happening inside the oven. When I peered in I could see a series of sturgeon chunks hung from hooks on a series of crossbars, straddling the oven, a few inches below the curved ceiling.

There was a perceptible sizzling as the fish oil dripped onto a metal grill around the perimeter of the oven floor just visible in the shadows cast by the arc light. Adding flavor and heat, buckets of charcoal were randomly placed inside the oven. Gravity was at work, the air redolent from the dripping juices splashing onto the metal grill. The rows of sturgeon chunks were turning a pale gold. The walls and grills are baked-on black, black from decades of smoke and oil.

Oven temperature matters, Mitchell explained. It’s best to start high to seal in juice, and then lower the heat to finish it without rendering the fish. If the temperature is too low at the start you wind up with dry fish.

Getting down to business, Mitchell asked Saul how he liked the sturgeon Rego’s sent him a couple days ago. “It’s OK”, something he says to people who have good stuff. Saul did want the tailpieces cut longer. Mitchell explained the short tails in the sample were a fluke; Leslie was already cutting them the requested Zabar’s length.

On another business point, Saul and Mitchell concurred, “You can’t make money selling sturgeon”. That was probably not just barter palaver. Sturgeon’s raw cost is high, permitting only a fractional retail mark-up – otherwise it becomes too expensive. Their talk turned to Rego’s price for smoked salmon, starting at $7.00 then to $7.50, settling on $7.25, and splitting the difference. I couldn’t tell if Saul was pleased or not. (A month later Saul still was not satisfied with the taste of Rego’s salmon and had not placed an order.)

Leslie had again opened the oven’s door, shining a light on the glistening fish chunks. The final step in smoking uses a bushel basket of “excelsior”. That’s the word for the fine curled softwood shavings that add the desired golden color to the pellicle (the very exterior of the skin), like thin sunlight at dawn. It’s important to use softwood, since it smolders, unlike hardwood that bursts into flame.

Leslie got feedback from Mitchell about how he had “ringed” the excelsior fire with sawdust on the oven’s floor; not the way to do it. Mitchell explained what was needed: don’t smother the excelsior with saw dust, just cover the center of the pile so air still comes into the excelsior and produces the right mix of flame and smoke.

Leslie, with asbestos lined gloves, hauled out the cross bars laden with sturgeon, and hung each bar on a nearby cooling rack. Mitchell selected and pulled off a large sturgeon chunk, still on its hook. We gladly accepted his offer and ate with our fingers on paper towels, celebrating the golden fish, like ancients around a smoke fire savoring a heavenly gift.

Afterwards, on our way out to say good-bye to Connie, Saul gave me a tour of the retail store– there’s no one around. We’re behind the deli case counter. Making himself at home, Saul opens a tray of herring and pulls out a piece in a white cream sauce. He slices it on a piece of wax paper. We share it. I thank him and tell him I like it. It is fresher and has a milder flavor than I am used to.

Before we left, Connie wanted me to talk to his son; he’s on the phone. He’s called the son, an alum of the university where I was working. We reminisced about the campus and fund raising among the alumni.
__________
Rego’s survives, albeit under new ownership. Still in the Middle Village neighborhood, an Internet review published in 2009 terms the retail shop a “treasure” with excellent smoked fish and excellent prices. As for the Zabar’s connection, I’ve gained from Saul in the mid-2000s the impression that Rego’s would at best be an incidental supplier.

Connie died in 2007. Here is his New York Times obituary:
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/18/obituaries/18spizz.html

A question for the reader: At the literal level this is a story about a small company in the fish business. Beyond that level what does this story say to you?

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Comments

Posted by Russ on June 17, 2010  •  11:58:12

I was a fish smoker (smoker of fish?) at Aikens Market in Tawas City MI ca 1971.

Whitefish, lake trout and herring smoked with apple wood (from the orchard where we disposed of the fish-guts).

Seems when I did the whitefish, there was always one or two that "fell" onto the metal plate and couldn't be retailed / sold. But consumed? oh yesss!

Posted by jlubans on June 18, 2010  •  07:36:18

Thanks, Russ. Sounds like mighty good eating.
A friend, living in Durham now, has a house in Tawas and hopes to return one day. JOHN

Posted by jlubans on June 18, 2010  •  15:22:23

Oh, that Russ in Tawas! JOHN

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