Jeff Grolig greets the dawn by eyeballing mounds of dead fish. Just hours earlier much of the bounty before him was in the ocean. But now it's been whisked by air and truck to the vast, damp warehouses of the Maryland Wholesale Seafood Market in Jessup, one of the largest links in the East Coast sea-to-market food chain.
The market's 13 wholesalers serve as speedy, high-tech middlemen to restaurants, grocers and seafood shops throughout the East Coast. Buyers such as Mr. Grolig, who selects seafood for the Sutton Place Gourmet groceries in the Baltimore-Washington area, are one of the last links in a chain that takes seafood from far-off ports -- in the Gulf of Mexico, Greenland, California -- to diners' palates.
For many wholesalers at the market near U.S. 1 and Route 175, these last few days before the Memorial Day holiday weekend are their busiest of the year. And a much-requested item this weekend will be hard and soft crabs from the Chesapeake region.
"It will be tough keeping up with the demand for crabs. Everybody will want them this weekend," says Louis Goodwin Sr., co-founder of one of the oldest seafood wholesale companies at the market, E. Goodwin & Sons Inc., operated by his son, Lou Goodwin, and nephew, Edward "Bruz" Goodwin.
Traditionally, April and May -- when local seafood begins to return to the market -- are the market's best business months. May's full moon -- this year May 14 -- signals the arrival of one of the Chesapeake Bay's prized delicacies, soft-shell crabs. Maryland hard crabs will follow. Then, fish culled from the bay.
The market's fare, local and exotic alike, begins arriving at 4 a.m. each day. Between then and about 9 a.m., the huge center -- it's the size of 12 football fields -- is abuzz.
In morning's blue light, men dressed in orange, yellow or black rubber pants, aprons and boots rush about unpacking and inspecting boxes of arriving seafood. Other workers fillet and cut fish, ice down crates of seafood and load dripping boxes onto trucks. Truck refrigerator generators hum. Dozens of workers swarm the docks. The smell of saltwater hangs in the air.
"It's organized chaos is what it is," says Tim Sughrue, general manager for wholesaler Lou Foehrkolb Inc., weaving his way through boxes of seafood and darting workers in the cool warehouse.
"It's amazing when you stop and think about it," he says. "A lot of our seafood is flown in overnight from pretty far away and by midmorning it's on the way to customers."
Calmly doing business in this whirlwind is a dwindling breed of buyers, such as Mr. Grolig, customers who personally select their seafood rather than leaving the duty to wholesalers' employees. A group of Japanese men also visits the market's NAFCO seafood company several times a week to choose just the right sushi for their restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington area.
"They are very particular. We don't open any of the boxes of the seafood we think they might want until they get here," says Stanley Perlman, NAFCO's owner. "Otherwise, they might think we let someone else get the best first."
Such sharp-eyed buyers hark back to the way the local seafood trade long operated at the former Baltimore Fish Market near the Inner Harbor. That 200-year-old market closed in 1984 when the state opened the seafood center -- known in the trade as "the Jessup market."
By strong contrast, most of the business today is done by phone, facsimile and computer. Most orders are left on answering machines overnight.
"A lot of customers we know just by their voice," says Mr. Sughrue. "There's not a lot of haggling that goes on anymore. There's no time for it."
Adds the senior Mr. Goodwin: "Everything is driven by time. Get the product in quickly and get it back out to the customer."
The Pasadena resident, called "Captain Lou" at the market, has been in the seafood business since he was a young boy hustling door-to-door with his father in East Baltimore. He misses the old days.
"There was camaraderie back then. It was much more personal. We'd help each other out. If one guy was short on money, we'd all pitch in, get him through the week. We got to know each other's families."
Today, the business is fiercely competitive. At the market, the 13 wholesalers operate side by side, but customer identities and tricks of the trade are guarded. Wholesalers no longer serve strictly the Baltimore area, but customers from New York to Richmond to Pittsburgh.
Cellular phones enable some wholesalers, such as the Goodwins, to keep in touch with boat captains offshore to see what's being caught. "You know what's going to be hitting the dock even before the ship is in," he says. "That's an edge."
And with much of the seafood trade heavily reliant on the whims of weather, some wholesalers also have invested in sophisticated monitoring equipment so they can track storms.