Case Studies

Jessica Zabel – Cod & Capers Seafood

Florida family enjoys frenetic pace at mom-and-pop seafood company

As people enter Cod & Capers Seafood in North Palm Beach, Florida, they step into a bustling, high-ceilinged marketplace with a display case running the length of the store. On any given day, it holds 50 to 60 different kinds of fish, as well as oysters, clams and scallops.

There is a gourmet foods section stocked with cheeses and meats from a fellow family-owned business nearby. And the produce—organic lettuces, squash and zucchini—is sourced from a single farmer several towns over. Likewise, the marketplace offers gluten-free nut crusts from an area woman-owned company called Nuts Over Fish and locally made cookie dough from La Gringuita.

Toward the center of the marketplace is a large selection of dining accessories—unique coastal platters and other serving pieces made by private artisans, tableware and a little bit of home decor.

Jessica Zabel | Marketing and Operations Manager | Cod & Capers Seafood

Grant Gyland, Jessica Zabel, Stephen Gyland, and Nancy Gyland on the day of reopening following the mandatory Covid closure.

And keeping it all running is a Florida family of four: Stephen Gyland, Nancy Gyland, Grant Gyland and Jessica Zabel.

“Those [dining accessories] are curated by my mom, and she tries really hard to put items in there that you just won’t see anywhere else,” says Zabel, the marketing and operations manager at the family-owned company. “A lot of people will come in here just to buy a gift. Or if they’re hosting a dinner party, they can pick out tableware while they’re here.”

If guests find the selection of fish, which can be pricey, intimidating to cook, they can ask practically anyone behind the retail counter for advice and get an answer from an experienced chef. Zabel says her family employs multiple former chefs who wanted to step away from the kitchen but still use their expertise. Zabel’s brother Grant, who’s been the retail manager for nearly 10 years, also loves to cook.

“My desk is in earshot, so I hear all these different conversations between our guests and our team,” she says. “‘How do I cook this?’ or ‘What’s the best seafood to buy if I want to grill?’ And then they’ll respond with, ‘Oh, I had this last night,’ or, ‘Try it this way,’ or, ‘Use this compound butter over here.’ It’s such a nice bonus for our guests.”

Weathering COVID through diversification

In addition to the marketplace, Cod & Capers also has a restaurant and a wholesale business. On particularly busy evenings at the restaurant, Zabel’s father, Steve, a former commercial lobster diver who launched Cod & Capers as a small fish market in Palm Beach Gardens when Zabel was a baby, can be found pouring wine for diners.

Some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes include grouper with lemon garlic aioli and a panko crust, lobster rolls and, for out-of-state tourists, Florida specialties like snapper and hogfish.

Like every other restaurant, Cod & Capers saw a precipitous drop in dining out during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zabel says the company has recently felt the pinch of inflation and an economic downturn just as people were starting to go back out again.

Jessica Zabel | Marketing and Operations Manager | Cod & Capers Seafood

But because the company is diversified, the family and their coworkers have managed to survive COVID-19 and its lingering aftereffects.

“That’s the only thing that got us through COVID,” Zabel says. “Because the wholesale—other than the nursing homes and hotels that we service —declined; the restaurants pretty much just tanked. We stayed open in the market, we were curbside-only, but we were busy as heck, because people were splurging on items to enjoy at home.”

In those days, the family sold $60-per-pound king crab “like it was nothing,” she adds. But even as the pandemic gives way to different macroeconomic concerns, the diversification continues to save them, she says.

Growing the wholesale business

Zabel and her family have been working to expand the wholesale side of the business, but that’s no easy task. For one thing, there are a lot of players in wholesale. For another, Cod & Capers specializes in fresh fish, and there’s always someone out there sacrificing freshness to hawk a bargain.

“When you’ve got restaurants that are focusing on a 30 or 40 percent food cost, sometimes that bottom line is all that matters,” Zabel says. “And we’re just not the least expensive. We’re quality-driven. Here we are trying to sell a fresh local snapper filet and there’s someone coming along that’s giving them a price on a previously frozen one.”

On top of that, the wholesale business in south Florida is consolidating. Many mom-and-pops like Cod & Capers have been bought up by major companies, and it’s hard for the family to compete with the behemoths.

Jessica Zabel | Marketing and Operations Manager | Cod & Capers Seafood

Yet being a David to those Goliaths does confer some advantages. Cod & Capers is nimble, for one.

“We don’t have any big corporate office to answer to, and we can make quick decisions about what we feel is best,” Zabel says. “Maybe a fish doesn’t have a great report recently as far as the catch, or how healthy the fishery is, and we’ll decide we’re not going to sell that right now. There are certain kinds of tuna that we absolutely won’t sell, because we feel it’s overfished; there are certain game fish that we won’t sell.”

The company is now looking to expand to more farm-to-table restaurants. And despite challenges, the wholesale business has been growing. Cod & Capers works with many of the Four Seasons hotels in south Florida. The Breakers Hotel is a client, as is Disney. To the north, the company sells to hotels and restaurants in Vero Beach, and to the south, it serves clients on Fisher Island.

“Our participation in the USDC/NOAA voluntary seafood inspection program helped us gain such reputable partners,” says Zabel. “It’s sometimes chaos but we love serving them.”

Evolving with the company

Zabel has been with the family company for 17 years, but she started out in the restaurant business before working at a nonprofit. When her first child was born, she realized she wanted to slow down and spend more time with family, so she began pitching in at Cod & Capers.

Zabel certainly got the second part of what she’d been looking for—and now her kids, 14 and 17, help on school holidays—but as for the first, there’s never a dull moment at her company.

Jessica Zabel | Marketing and Operations Manager | Cod & Capers Seafood

“This thing has been a moving target,” she says. “Every day it’s growing and changing, and we don’t have boxed-in roles. If the cashier doesn’t show up, I may be at the register; we had a driver not show up the other day, and my brother took a delivery route. We jump in wherever it’s needed.”

That spirit creates a culture in which employees feel like everyone is in this together, she adds. According to Zabel, they’ve seen low turnover.

“I never dread coming to work,” she says. “We love the people we work with; we like what we do. And you never know what kind of fish is going to come through the back door. It’s nice to have something every day that’s a little different.”

View this feature in the Terra Firma Vol. II 2023 Edition here.

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