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Fishmongers of the Essex Street Market

Whether you’re looking for salmon, tilapia, porgy, or mussels, fishmongers at the Essex Street Market have got you covered. Step inside the market today and you find two stalls selling fish, Rainbo Fish and New Star Fish Market, both of which are family-owned and operated with roots in the market going back decades.

And like most fish sellers – whether they are retailers, restaurants, or supermarkets – these market vendors get most of their product from a single source, the Fulton Fish Market. Being a seaport city, fish has always been an important part of New York’s economy and culture. Opened in 1817, the Fulton Fish Market was a sprawling complex hosting fishermen, wholesalers, and buyers in Lower Manhattan. The market became a major target of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s efforts to reform and modernize the city’s food distribution system. In 1935, the mayor wrested control of the market from the Department of Docks and placed it instead in the hands of the Department of Public Markets, to work in concert with the city’s growing network of retail and terminal markets, and in 1939, the New Market Building opened at the end of Fulton Street.

Mayor LaGuardia inspects a 300-pound halibut at the opening of the New Market Building at the Fulton Fish Market, 1939. Source: Library of Congress
Mayor LaGuardia inspects a 300-pound halibut at the opening of the New Market Building at the Fulton Fish Market, 1939. Source: Library of Congress

Already by the 1950’s, Lower Manhattan was no longer a site for landing locally-caught fish. All the product was brought in and out by truck – a less-than-ideal arrangement in the neighborhood’s narrow streets – and plans were laid to relocate the market to the Bronx. It took another 50 years, however, for the market to leave Manhattan, in 2005. The Giuliani administration, wishing to reduce the influence of organized crime and remove the incongruous market from the financial, residential, and retail district, built the new market in Hunt’s Point.

Today, the New Fulton Fish Market is the largest wholesale fish market in the United States, part of a vast food distribution complex in the South Bronx. The market is operated as a cooperative, with more than 30 vendors inside the 400,000-square-foot space. Improved security and logistics management have greatly reduced theft from the bad old days in the 1990’s, and the market sells more than 200 million pounds of seafood annually – more than double the volume of 20 years ago – but short of the 300 million pounds sold a century ago. (Special thanks go to Open House New York and NYCEDC for leading a tour of the Fulton Fish Market earlier this year).

Rainbo Fish

Partners in life and business, Ron Budinas and Ira Stolzenberg have been at the Essex Street Market for almost forty years. After Ira graduated from art school in 1976, he wanted to move to Las Vegas, but his parents, who were immigrants from Eastern Europe, did not want to see their youngest son move so far away. In an effort to prevent him from leaving New York City, Ira’s father, himself a fishmonger in the neighborhood, bought his son a kosher fish business in the Essex Street Market. By this time, Ira and Ron had been together for a few years (coincidentally, they met at a fish market in Queens a few years prior) and decided to run the business together. Ira remembers going down to the old Fulton Fish Market at 3:30 each morning; he would sleep in the car while Ron went inside to purchase fish for the day.

Halibut for sale in the New Fulton Fish Market.
Halibut for sale in the New Fulton Fish Market.

Back at that time, they were in one of the other original market buildings, located between Delancey and Broome Streets, and were one of only three or four vendors in the whole building (one of whom was a cheesemonger who had been in the market since it opened in 1940). The market underwent a major renovation in the mid-1990’s, when Rainbo temporarily relocated to East Harlem’s La Marqueta, after which they moved into their current location in the current Essex Street Market building.

Like all businesses, Rainbo has had to adapt to changing times. While neighborhood residents once flocked to their stall to purchase fresh carp straight from their fish tank, Ron and Ira have witnessed the neighborhood change dramatically, and with it, the residents’ cooking and eating habits. Starting in the late 1990’s, Carp was no longer a popular item, and there were fewer and fewer Jewish mothers and grandmothers stopping in to pick up fish and make small talk. Being located right next to the market entrance, Ron and Ira noticed more and more young people curiously stepping into the market, looking around for a moment, and leaving.

That’s what inspired Ron’s idea to build a display shelf with fresh juices and prepared baked goods. It also gave him an opportunity to showcase his baking talents and Ira’s artistic background – today, in addition to selling a variety of fresh fish, prepared foods (like their amazing fish sandwiches), and fresh juices and smoothies, they also make unique custom-designed cakes.

Ron serves up fish sandwiches to a tour group at Rainbo Fish.
Ron serves up fish sandwiches to a tour group at Rainbo Fish.

New Star Fish

Owner Jae Duk Suh opened New Star Fish at the Essex Street Market in 1994. He and his wife, both of whom had operated businesses in South Korea, immigrated in 1982 and settled in Connecticut, where they opened their first fish store. Unfortunately, their shop, along with other nearby business, closed down after competition from a large supermarket chain. As Mr. Suh was weighing next steps, he learned about an available stall at the Essex Street Market, and he decided to relocate his family to New York City. Despite this setback, the move has been a success, as the business is going strong and growing.

With a selection of fish mostly coming from the Fulton Fish Market, New Star Fish, much like many other vendors in the market, offers reasonable prices and a wide selection to reflect the diverse preferences of the neighborhood. Today, the counter offers porgies and whitings, fish that they served from the day they opened, as well as tuna fillets, sustainably-farmed salmon, and shrimp.

Eric working behind the counter at New Star Fish Market.
Eric working behind the counter at New Star Fish Market.

Since moving to the market, Jae Duk Suh’s son Eric has worked in the business, helping his dad out on weekends through high school and college. In recent years, he has become even more involved, and New Star Fish is one of many multi-generational family businesses in the market.

Eric graduated from the French Culinary Institute a few years ago, and he is eager to put his knowledge and skills to work to help the business grow. In 2018, the Essex Street Market, along with all of its current vendors, will be moving into a new market building on the south side of Delancey Street, and Eric has big ideas for their new stall. “When we move over to the new market,” he told us recently, “we plan on having our own small kitchen and we’ll be doing small prepared foods.”

So the next time you’re looking for a fresh piece of fish for dinner, stop by the Essex Street Market.

Editor’s Note: Sadly, Ron Budinas passed away in May 2016. His partner Ira Stolzenberg is still running Rainbo Fish, but Ron has been greatly missed since his passing. The mural on the front of the market is dedicated to Ron’s memory. You can read Ron’s obituary in The Lo-Down.

Since 2010, the team at Turnstile Tours has worked with some of New York York City’s best street vendors to offer our Food Cart Tours – in Manhattan’s Financial District every Wednesday at 12pm, and Midtown every Friday at 2pm. All tours are offered in support of the Street Vendor Project.