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How Samuels & Son seafood swims with the sharks

If you order seafood in the Philadelphia area - whether it's the go-for-broke omakase menu at Royal Izakaya or a piece of salmon at a store - chances are good that it rolled through Samuels & Son's, in a gigantic building near the stadiums in South Philadelphia.

If you order seafood in the Philadelphia area -- whether it's the go-for-broke omakase menu at Royal Izakaya or a piece of salmon at a store -- chances are good it rolled through Samuels & Son, in a gigantic building near the stadiums in South Philadelphia.

Samuels moves 40 million pounds of seafood a year, not only along the East Coast but in the Pittsburgh, Orlando, and Las Vegas areas, says Sammy D'Angelo, whose grandfather Giuseppe Ippolito got into the business about 90 years ago with a shop on a South Philadelphia corner.

D'Angelo, 60, a wiry guy who still lives in South Philly with his wife, Donna, runs the business with his four children. On any given day, you'll find a chef or two checking specials. Samuels operates 24 hours a day, employing 450 people, including fish cutters, salespeople, and a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America.

What's your first memory of the business?

Working at Ippolito's, at 13th and Dickinson, and taking care of the fish. Putting ice on the fish, maintaining good displays, and restocking. I was about 9, 10 years old.

Was there any thought that you wouldn't go into the seafood business?

Well, you really didn't have too many options. You were in the seafood business. That was, like, being on a farm. You wake up every day. Somebody's got to take care of the roosters, the cows got to be milked, and the plants and everything's got to be watered. But everybody has, of course, aspirations to do something else. I was a musician, so my goal was to play [piano] in a band.

How did the business grow?  

When I got out of high school [Central], we [with his wife, Donna] started having kids, and I had more mouths to feed. At that time, we were doing a lot of South Philadelphia restaurants. We were doing some hotels in Center City, and the store was just getting too small. Especially Fridays. That was fish day. At the same time, the restaurants were calling us for the weekend, and it was interfering. In 1989, as we moved to the food-distribution center, we decided to go out and solicit business from some of the restaurants and some of the bars. ... People were starting to eat more fish. They were starting to become more health-conscious. There was air freight for new and different species. The dynamics of the business were changing, and, at the same time, so was the demand. People would go to a restaurant, they would try red snapper, and they wanted it at the local store.

You sell a lot to sushi restaurants. How did you get into that?

I think it was the early '90s, when we brought a Korean salesman on board to help us understand better the sushi business. We hired different people who really understood the sushi products, including Joe Lasprogata [then director of purchasing, now a vice president]. If you had good tuna, then you could sell the rest of the line. But you had to have good tuna first. We started to build our quest for the best tuna that we could find, and then we would use that as an entree into the sushi restaurants.

How has the business changed, say in the last 10 years or so?

Well, I think the consumer is much more educated today in terms of availability, in terms of species. Years ago, mahi-mahi. Nobody knew what it was. Well, mahi-mahi is a household item now. It became more widespread in terms of availability, and the air freight, the internet connected everybody together. Now, they want Spanish octopus or Madai snapper from Japan.

How did the company handle growing pains?

Well, as I was growing, I got my children to help me. So they were there. I have four kids. So it's only 100 people per child. They're all very much involved in the business. My daughter Lauren [age 33] oversees the sales department. Donna [26] oversees our marketing department. My son Sam [who turns 36 in late May] oversees our retail division, and Anthony [38] oversees our expansion programs in other cities and is also in charge of new products, visiting our overseas partners, whether they're in India or Spain.

What's your long-term plan or goal?

Competing with the bigger houses -- primarily,the food-service companies that are just very powerful these days. One thing that we do better than them, for sure, is understand the product line. If you understand the product line, if you understand the seasonability, you understand market trends. We don't just get on the phone and place an order. We're studying day in and day out.

Is there a seafood line that's going to become really big?

For a while, there was a lot of Amazonian fish that were becoming more popular. ... I think octopus has grown exponentially over the last five years. It's not new, but it's relatively new to the American market. There are different species out of Antarctica that haven't come to the market yet. We had a shipment come in a couple weeks ago of a mackerel that nobody's ever seen before. Every day's an adventure. You never know what you're going to find.

What is your dream seafood meal?

I'll take a nice stuffed calamari. Stuffed squid. Or a nice of piece of raw bluefin tuna.