Caviar: How a Few Tiny Fish Eggs Can Give Your Check Average a Boost

It wasn’t so long ago that certain circles consumed caviar with reckless abandon. During the wild decadence of the Eighties in New York City caviar was everywhere. There are apocryphal tales of veritable mountains of wild-caught Russian and Iranian caviar served and decimated in short order.

Then, the market dropped out. The United States closed its borders to imports of wild sturgeon caviar. Farmed sturgeon caviar of varying qualities flooded the market.  While regal caviar service is a thing of the past there’s still a certain undeniable allure to caviar. So much so that people are willing to pay a premium for a taste of days gone by.

Vogue Magazine called caviar “The Ingredient of 2018,” and rightly so. As the stock market has rebounded, the “upper crust” of Americans have a little more expendable income. Additionally, farmed sturgeon aquaculture and caviar production has exploded. China is now producing an astronomical 70% of the world’s caviar.

So how can a small-scale restaurateur take advantage of this boom? Well, step one is knowing your caviar and roe:

Know Your Caviar

Caviar: How a Few Tiny Fish Eggs Can Give Your Check Average a Boost

  • Beluga: This was once the end-all, be-all of caviar. You can easily recognize Beluga Caviar by it’s pearl size. It is, by far, the largest caviar available. It is also illegal currently to buy or sell beluga caviar in the United States.
  • Osetra: Osetra caviar is the Cadillac of what’s available to the American consumer. It is medium-to-large grain, and it’s color ranges from murky-grey to golden. People often seek out the golden color due to a richer flavor.
  • Kaluga: A species of Chinese river sturgeon, kaluga is typically crossbred with other species of sturgeon, such as the Siberian (acipenser baerii), due to it’s shorter maturation time.
  • Sterlet: With a grain that is slightly smaller than that of osetra caviar, starlet caviar has a rich, buttery flavor. The rarest of starlet caviar comes from albino starlet sturgeon, and is often incredibly expensive.
  • Sevruga: This is the most common caviar. Sevruga caviar has small, dark eggs, and is often notably less complex, which leads consumers to view it as simply “salty” in many cases.
  • Siberian: While often cheaper, due to their much younger spawning age, Siberian sturgeon produce a steely black roe with a sweet, fatty taste, and a firm grain.
  • White Sturgeon: Also known as “American Osetra,” white sturgeon caviar is produced from the roe of Acipenser transmontanus. Their habitat ranges from the Gulf of Alaska to Northern California.  White sturgeon roe doesn’t have the firm texture that is prized in other caviar, it more than makes up for it in its complexity.

For Those on a Budget

Caviar: How a Few Tiny Fish Eggs Can Give Your Check Average a Boost

  • Hackleback: Hackleback is a wild domestic roe that you harvest from the Shovelnose sturgeon. This caviar is dark, with an earthy, sweet flavor and medium grain.
  • Spoonbill: Spoonbill comes from the roe of a wild-caught cousin of the sturgeon. This caviar has a notably consistent egg size (small-to-medium), a firm texture, and a steely sheen.  It’s flavor is slightly nutty and earthy.
  • Bowfin: Another wild, domestic caviar. Bowfin roe is harvested from a distant cousin of the sturgeon, referred to as a “choupique” regionally.  It has small pearls and a jet black appearance, and has been a staple in regional cuisine since early settlement of Louisiana.
  • Salmon Roe/Ikura: This is a very familiar roe for anyone who regularly has sushi. Salmon roe has a distinctly large egg size, notable “pop,” and mild, sweet finish, faintly reminiscent of salmon.
  • Sea Trout Roe: Similar in appearance and flavor to salmon roe, sea trout roe is slightly smaller, with a firmer, almost “bouncy” texture.
  • Flying Fish Roe/Tobiko: Very small, and often offered in a variety of flavors such as “citrus” and “wasabi,” tobiko is often used as a garnish in sushi.

Know Your Audience

Caviar: How a Few Tiny Fish Eggs Can Give Your Check Average a Boost

The other important part of this equation is knowing your clientele and what they’re willing to spend.  Not every market can sustain so much as even a dollop of ossetra as garnish on a plate. However, the use of caviar as a garnish can give an air of luxury that can, more often than not, be monetized.

Many restaurants offer flights of small, 12g tins as a caviar accompaniment that require little to no labor, but yield a substantial price tag.  The markup on caviar from wholesale to retail is fairly significant, in and of itself, often well over twice the initial buy-in.

One of the other convenient things about caviar is that, as a preserved food, its shelf life while still sealed is substantial. Its often good for several weeks or months, depending on date of production. That means there’s not the concern for loss that there is with more volatile high-dollar items, such as fresh seafood.

Caviar is going from being in Vogue to being en vogue again. As a business owner this begs the question: is it worth the risk? Depending on your demographics, it might just be. Besides, would you have opened your own business if you weren’t willing to take some risks?

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Ryan Lamon

Ryan Lamon

Professional Chef/Restaurateur and Recipe Writer/Tester

Ryan, a second generation Georgia pitmaster, began his career at his father’s restaurant, Frank’s Real Pit BBQ in Hoschton, GA. After working at several restaurants in Georgia, Ryan moved to New York City where he cooked at the original Fatty Crab under James Beard Award-winning chef Zak Pelaccio. He later he earned a Bon Appetit Best New Restaurants nod in 2012 as the opening chef de cuisine of Plum Alley in Salt Lake City, Utah. In 2013, Ryan started Peaches’ Smokehouse & Southern Kitchen, a gourmet BBQ and Southern food truck, and followed it up with Poppy+Rose, a brick-and-mortar in downtown LA a year later. He is currently operating a small consulting firm, Smoke and Vinegar Co.