Supply Chain: An Afternoon with Sunny’s Seafood’s Big Kahuna, Steve Dulock

For the first post of our new series, we spent some quality time with the man behind the seafood at your favorite restaurants.

Welcome to Supply Chain, where Cassandra Landry goes behind the plates of local restaurants to get a feel for the day-to-day of Boston’s most relied-upon restaurant purveyors.

Photos by Cassandra Landry for Boston magazine.

Photos by Cassandra Landry for Boston magazine

It’s a little after noon on Fish Pier Street off Seaport Boulevard, and the stock room at Sunny’s Seafood is empty but for a few guys clearing the concrete floors of wayward clumps of ice, and a few tubs stacked with fish bones and guts. The main hustle of the morning is done, most of the fleet of trucks—emblazoned with the red Sunny’s logo—have left on their errands, and co-owner Steven Dulock, Jr. is fiddling with Google to bring up one of his restaurant client’s menus. The desktop photo is a fish with a cigarette perched in its mouth, a Budweiser can in the background. On the window looking out into the warehouse, a fortune cookie slip proclaiming, “You have sound business sense,” is secured in place with a small piece of Scotch tape.

After 25 years, it seems that Dulock’s business sense is more than sound. Back in 1989, Dulock (yes, brother to Somerville butcher Michael) and his father set out delivering ten pound orders around town in a used Post Office Jeep found at an auction. These days, Sunny’s schleps a little over one hundred thousand pounds of product a week to restaurants and resorts all over the world. They are both a wholesaler and a specialty house, selling to not only your favorite joint down the street, but other (often competing) suppliers. Dulock takes hard-to-find and first-of-the-season items (think softshell crab), and buys them regardless of price. If Boston can’t handle the price tag so early in the season, somewhere in the Turks and Caicos probably can.

“In the city, we compete with other purveyors, but we sell to them as well. We have a good relationship, in the sense that we don’t go after their accounts and vice versa, you know?” he says. “You get an idea of who’s selling to who, and you don’t play that game.”

On average, Sunny’s deals with around 70 fishermen, 60 independent vendors (who in turn often buy from 40 to 50 fishermen themselves), and 40 oyster farmers up and down the Eastern Seaboard. 90% of their product is wild-caught and locally fished, and the family also owns and distributes Jo Jo Caviar, the only caviar house in Boston Basically, odds are, you’ve chowed down on some variant of Dulock seafood recently.

“Working with chefs is definitely challenging because every chef has their own idea of what product is supposed to look like,” he says, adding that Sunny’s no-minimum policy attracts most of their regulars. (Coppa and Toro chef-owner Jamie Bissonnette mentions that if he screws up, Sunny’s is always willing to come late—a major plus.)

Josh Lewin, executive chef at the Beacon Hill Bistro, is one such regular, noting that the Sunny’s crew is always on deck with answers about where the product came from and who hauled it from the sea. To boot, he adds, “They’re always happy to show us around behind the scenes so we can see how our fish is being handled once it is in Boston…we appreciate the transparency.”

When considering his role in the kitchens of Boston and beyond, Dulock pauses for a moment before explaining that while Sunny’s may not be the biggest supplier in the neighborhood, but it often feels like the best kept secret of the industry.

“A lot of chefs will never mention who their suppliers are because they want to keep that quiet,” he says, before mentioning a few names: Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, Ken Oringer, Tony Maws, and Barbara Lynch, for starters. “Out of the top hundred chefs in the country, I’d say 35 of them are on our customer list.”

Not surprisingly, over two decades in the business has lent Dulock and his team some insight on the ups and downs of the preferences of Boston chefs. The hot topic these days? If you guessed, “trash fish”—the notion that using the fish usually tossed back by fishermen is one of the strongest ways to rebuild sustainability in the seafood industry— you’d be correct. What you might not guess is that Dulock isn’t the movement’s biggest fan. But it’s not the concept he seems to take issue with; it’s the branding. He sees the tongue-in-cheek label as disrespectful, and in many cases, doesn’t believe the underdogs of the sea kingdom are worth all the fuss.

“What I’ve noticed is that certain chefs are opening up their creative process to species that they could be using instead of the typical ones. Now it’s grouper, cobia, black sea bass, not cod, haddock, or Pollock,” he explains. “I’m not saying that the less expensive proteins aren’t valuable and can’t taste great, but normally we don’t sell things that adhere to that model, simply because I believe in selling fish that makes it easier for these fishermen to make a solid living.”

But if you really want dogfish, Dulock can get you dogfish. That is, after all, precisely what he does best.