The Fisher King
A bold new restaurant in the Seaport District is the crowning achievement or Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz, who rules New England’s fishing industry and likes nothing better than getting into hot water.
Today, Berkowitz wields enormous power in the seafood industry. He’s one of the largest buyers of seafood on the East Coast. Fishermen and suppliers go to extraordinary lengths to do business with his company, including in at least one instance paying for the privilege. In 2005, a former Legal vice president of seafood operation, Arthur M. Kloack, was found guilty of three counts of filing false tax returns for failing to pay taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks he’d gotten from Legal suppliers in exchange for the company’s business. Legal itself reported Kloack to the authorities when they learned through an internal audit what was happening, but the fact that the scheme went on for four years speaks to how reticent members of the fishing community were to do anything that might affect their relationships with the company — and just how valuable those relationships could be.
Seafood suppliers weren’t much interested in going on the record for this story to discuss rumors that Legal buyers had been strong-arming suppliers into lowering prices even though they were already under contract. Berkowitz confirms that he’s had a buyer problem but says he’s tried to correct it. “If situations were brought to my attention, I would remediate that,” he says. “I’m not going to say there weren’t episodes like that in the past, but it’s in the past.”
While there’s no indication that Berkowitz knew anything about such tactics, at least one insider says they were in response to companywide cost-cutting pressures. In any case, the fact that Berkowitz is so entwined with the Legal brand means that it really doesn’t matter where the fault lies. If the company is seen as manhandling fishermen, the rumor mill doesn’t whisper that it was a buyer at Legal who was playing dirty. It’s Berkowitz himself who’s to blame — even though it’s been a long time since
Berkowitz directly negotiated a fish deal. “If you have someone in an influential role making contract and purchasing decisions, if they don’t handle that power properly, it becomes a reflection on Roger and the family,” says Tenner, the former executive director of culinary operations.