Nebraska’s Omaha Steaks may have been the first out of the gate as a family-run butcher shop that transitioned into a mail-order behemoth starting in 1952, but these days having boxes of steaks and other proteins shipped to your door is as hot as a sizzling burger off the barbecue. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs that deliver local fruits and vegetables have long been popular, but since the pandemic began, more people are also taking their protein sourcing as seriously as their produce purchases.
Tamara Harth, who works in patient education at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, is a recent convert to such delivery services. “I always used a butcher and a fishmonger for all of my fresh meat and fish,” she says, “but at the start of the pandemic I was limited in where I could get them because there were huge lineups, and I didn’t feel safe. I was also struggling with online grocery shopping because the fish selection was limited.” As her family eats fish two to three times a week, she started looking for alternative options.
Harth says she used to have an aversion to frozen fish, as she thought freezing meant compromised quality. But after noticing online ads for Vancouver-based Organic Ocean, she was impressed by the company’s selection and the ease of ordering for delivery. Before the pandemic, Organic Ocean had sold its West Coast fish and seafood almost exclusively to chefs and locals, but once the pandemic shuttered most of its clients’ businesses, it swiftly moved to an e-commerce offering for individual consumers.
Now Organic Ocean offers next-day delivery in most metropolitan areas, from Quebec westward to B.C. Harth gave it a go, ordering the “family pack” her first time out. It included sockeye salmon, halibut, lingcod, albacore tuna, Hokkaido dry scallops and blue shrimp – a big box of frozen, ethically caught and harvested, mostly wild West Coast fish and seafood. She says the first thing she cooked was the halibut: “It was outstanding – better than anything I had ever bought fresh.” Similarly, she adds, “the scallops brought back a strong food memory of eating scallops at a lovely seafood restaurant with my mother. They were sweet and fresh and firm, and they cooked up beautifully.”
Organic Ocean has since become Harth’s go-to fishmonger. “There’s the quality, but it’s also … more convenient because I don’t have to go shopping for fish three times a week,” she says.
A similar B.C. business, Skipper Otto, ships fish and seafood across the country and has experienced 300-per-cent growth in the past 18 months. Co-founder Sonia Strobel says the forced pause during COVID shutdowns as well as empty supermarket shelves in the early days of the pandemic prompted people to reconsider whether how they shopped reflected their core values. “Instead of rushing off to soccer and picking up groceries on the way home, they started thinking about where their seafood was coming from.”
Strobel says her company aims to build a new kind of seafood system, with sustainability, justice and equity at its core. Skipper Otto doesn’t do home deliveries; instead, members pre-purchase an annual amount of fish and seafood – usually in the $500 to $1,000 range – then go online and pick what they want when they want it. They then select a pickup spot from about 90 locations across the country, mostly situated at value-aligned grocers and butcher shops from Victoria to Ottawa and as far north as Fort McMurray.
Skipper Otto, which has nearly 8,000 member customers across Canada, sources its seafood directly from dozens of fishing families throughout the B.C. coast and in Nunavut. The company recently partnered with Project Nunavut, an Iqaluit-based social enterprise that supports Inuit societal values and self-reliance through projects such as Hunter’s Harvest, an online platform for local hunters interested in selling surplus country food (traditional Inuit foods, including game meats, migratory birds, fish and foraged food) within Nunavut; and Lake to Plate, which creates financially viable economic opportunities for fishing families that help them maintain a traditional way of life within their communities.
As with fish and seafood, a larger swath of home cooks also discovered home delivery of quality and organic meat during the pandemic. “It’s been interesting to see how many people have shifted their focus during the pandemic to wanting to sell the types of products we’ve been selling for 11-plus years,” says Peter Sanagan, owner of Sanagan’s Meat Locker, a small chain of specialty butcher shops in Toronto. Part of this larger industry shift included customers who would normally go to a grocery store deciding they didn’t want to venture out too often during lockdowns and shifting to delivery instead. “They didn’t know butchers like us existed,” he says. “So, people have been receptive, and it’s been a net benefit for the whole industry.”
As you scroll through Instagram, you’ve probably noticed ads for Alberta’s farm-based Bessie Box and Victoria’s plant-based The Very Good Butchers plying their proteins. Waterloo-based TruLocal, acquired earlier this year for $16.8-million, also offers delivery boxes of meats by subscription. Launched in 2016, TruLocal connects farmers to customers, delivering locally produced meats (from grass-fed beef to organic whole chickens and stewing buffalo) to Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. Even large corporations such as restaurant food supplier Sysco got in on the direct-to-consumer home-delivery action during the height of the pandemic, though it has since gone back to focusing on its foodservice customer base.
While convenience is certainly a selling point, Sanagan thinks the personal connection farm-to-table services provide are integral to their success. “You want the story behind the products, and you want to know where the animals are from,” he says. “And you’re not going to get that from Cargill.” (Cargill, one of the biggest meat producers in the world, has experienced large COVID outbreaks at its plants in Alberta and Ontario during the pandemic.)
While smaller companies like Sanagan’s have benefitted from how the pandemic has changed the way we eat – including a shift in the driving forces behind our purchasing decisions – home delivery is just an expansion of how they’ve always done business. As an independent operator who sources all items directly from Ontario family farms, Sanagan intends to also maintain a focus on his retail locations – and continue to ensure the highest-quality products for both online and in-store shoppers. “We’ve retained our loyal customers and have been lucky to grow organically,” he says. “The people who want to go to a good butcher shop will come visit us.”
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