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Fresh Fishmongers
Onsite aquarium is a water world of seafood sourcing at Miami’s Fontainebleau.
By John Paul Boukis

Fontainebleau Miami Beach onsite aquarium
Guests may tour the facility, and usually they come away “speechless,” says Jeffrey Klein, VP operations, F&B, for the Fontainebleau. “We get a lot of private groups of 20 to 25 who want to walk through,” he says. “The first question is always, ‘How do you do it?’ We take them and show them.”

Not every property boasts a dry-age room and butcher shop to go with its patisserie and chocolate room. But the Fontainebleau Miami Beach splashes out of all compare with its marine biologist checking in on 2,000 gallons of onsite tanks filled with lobster, shellfish, eel, and more than 800 pounds of live fish brought into the property daily. It’s a Vegas-size operation with 11 F&B venues and more than 1,500 guest rooms, in a distinctly un-Vegas location on 22 acres of primo oceanfront.

Dining venues include Gotham Steak; Scott Conant’s Scarpetta, the only four-star Italian restaurant in South Florida; and Alan Yau’s four-diamond Hakkasan. The ocean may be calling outside, but it’s also sloshing around down below in the 2,000 square feet of tunnels that link the various food outlets.

“We call it ‘Water World,’” says Jeffrey Klein, VP operations, F&B, for the Fontainebleau. Massive fresh- and saltwater tanks allow Executive Chef Thomas Connell to supply all the F&B outlets with an enviable daily harvest of seafood. “We have three tanks just for lobster,” says Connell. “Each holds over 200 gallons of water, with the lobsters segregated by size.”

A tank could hold 80 to 100 lobsters, and as fast as they arrive, the tanks are emptied and reloaded. The daily moving and loading operation is coordinated by Carlos Ladines, chef de cuisine butcher, and his staff of five fishmongers and butchers. Each of the 11 venues puts in an order every evening based on sales the night before, along with banquets and catering. And at 5 a.m. the team starts producing, cutting, and transferring the daily catch onto ice.

“My outlets have their fish six hours from tank to table,” remarks Connell. “Branzino sells very well. Lobster will always move, and all of the shellfish goes.” The crew does not sous vide any fish, due to questions about histamine buildup, so everything is prepared daily from catch to table.

Klein elaborates, “Our number one reason for keeping the product fresh onsite is the high quality it gives us. And the second reason is consistency. Every day here is a Saturday in terms of business volume. The ocean, the weather—it all affects what you get and how much. So we work with a lot of vendors— many local, but some West Coast, northeast coast, people who go out to different areas and pull different products.”

It’s a high-volume, 12-month operation. “Everyone talks about a slow season, but we have none; our demographics just shift,” Klein says. “The business has been fantastic with financial groups, pharmaceutical—our transient is through the roof. Local travelers are finding it a great destination. We see a lot of Latin American and European travelers in summer.”

In terms of operating procedure, “we don’t want to make money off ourselves—the store’s goal is to sell all of the product and clear neutral at month end.” And the Fontainebleau team leverages the property’s reputation for quality to keep costs in line. “We can bargain with our vendors,” Klein says. “With our quality comes a reputation: ‘I serve the Fontainebleau.’”

Connell stresses the importance of food safety to the program’s success.

“We have a marine biologist here weekly, checking saline, bacteria, temperatures, keeping the environment natural, making sure we have the product sustained correctly,” he says.

As for the potential of a smaller hotel facility scaling the concept down with success, Connell sees both opportunity and challenges. “I’ve done it before on a smaller scale in restaurants, just focused on lobster. We would play around with baby turbot and branzino and live prawns for show. It’s a great eye-catcher in the right setting.

“It’s all based on the quality of the product you’re going to get. As soon as you remove it from the sea, it deteriorates. With your own tank, it’s going to stay fresh. For us it’s a huge benefit. With the exception of lobster, a lot of times it turns out to be more décor and design instead of function and use. It’s not easy; it takes a lot of due diligence, skill, and money to do it right and safely, or the risks become much higher than the rewards.”

While the Fontainebleau does not advertise the presence of the water world below, it becomes a hidden wonder for the inquisitive guest or meeting planner to discover.

“They’re usually speechless,” says Klein. “We get a lot of private groups of 20 to 25 who want to walk through. They’re astounded. The first question is always, ‘How do you do it?’ We take them and show them. A lot of our leaders are really good with kids. And once they’re in the underground world here, the aquarium is something else to show them. Kids make those purchases for mom and dad. Show them something cool, and mom and dad are happy.”

John Paul Boukis helped develop the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s publishing division and is a founding editor of HOTEL F&B. He is based in Tampa.

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