Guest Column: The True Cost of Seafood

Cheap shrimp is easy on your wallet but hard on the planet, writes John Bil of Honest Weight.

I read all comments, and all the reviews. Some restaurant owners claim that they don’t, and more power to them. For me, Honest Weight is such a personal space that I genuinely feel like I exposed a part of me when we opened about two years ago.

So I take all of the comments to heart. Some I agree with, some I don’t. But I’m happy for the feedback. We’re somewhat unique in that we are a seafood retail shop as well as a full-service restaurant all in one.


John Bil, owner of Honest Weight, challenges us to decide whether we value cheap food or good food. 

Comments on the service, the food or reservation policy are all fair game to me. Those things are all so subjective, and they are all part of a healthy discussion.

One aspect of our business, however, is a little more complex: the price of the fish. I want to describe a few truths about fish sourcing and pricing to try to give a sense of what goes into what you pay.

One of the most popular seafood items in North America is shrimp. It is also one of the most fraught industries in the world.

Journalists at the Associated Press, among others, have been highlighting some of the terrible environmental and human costs of the global shrimp industry. It’s worth exploring if you’re so inclined.

But, for me, as a retailer/importer, I need to make sense of shrimp in a way that lets me sleep at night, lets you have a reasonable choice and supports good fisheries. Shrimp can be farmed or harvested wild, and each has its merits. But for now, let’s just focus on the cost side of things.

I can purchase large shrimp from Thailand, India or similar far-flung locations for $8.50/lb., or about 50 cents per shrimp. These are considered “premium” and are
likely the sort of shrimp you would eat at most restaurants in Toronto.

Let’s say a shrimp dish has eight of these shrimp per serving. The restaurant’s cost on the shrimp is then about $4, plus garnishes – let’s say another dollar. Food costs generally run about 1/3 of the final menu price, so that dish could be offered for $15 to $18 with a fair margin for the restaurant.

I don’t want to be a party to overfishing, environmental problems or the exploitation of workers

At Honest Weight, however, we purchase only North American shrimp. I like to know that my suppliers are held to high standards. I don’t want to be a party to overfishing, or to environmental problems, or to the exploitation of workers. This practice of sourcing more locally, however, has its “downside”: the price.

For beautiful B.C. spot prawns, in season, I am paying over $20/lb. Farmed Ontario shrimp: $18/lb. Wild Florida shrimp: $15/lb. In other words, our average shrimp cost is high. We pay a dollar per shrimp, more or less. And keep in mind that we are a wholesaler, so a restaurant committed to the same principles would pay slightly more, around $20 to $21/lb. Working with the menu formula mentioned above, that works out to a minimum cost of $9 for those same eight shrimp, leading to a menu price of $27.

So, maybe you see a few less shrimp on the plate instead. Or maybe you do see the higher price. Either way, the perceived value, to many customers, has gone way down.

So now, we as consumers have to decide what it is that we value: cheap food or good food? I know which way I lean.

Words by John Bil