Unlike oysters, clams are considered a commodity. They vary by species, but are not typically branded by their place of origin, as with Wellfleet oysters. No one goes into a restaurant and asks for “Maine cherrystones,” they say “clams on the half-shell, please.” (A few restaurants do note the source of their clams on the menu: Monomoy is a well-respected name with regard to steamers, Ipswich is known for its fried clams.)
Clams are marketed to the public by retail means, generally small stores close by the harvest locations or restaurants. Small businesses purchase clams at wholesale rates from local producers, who may be holders of local farming grants or simply people who enjoy clamming. State licensing of the sale of locally-grown clams to retailers is required, but this requirement is not always honored. Digging clams is wearying but not especially difficult, and in the summer can be a very pleasant activity. More than a few buckets of steamers or cherrystones dug up without a license wind up for sale behind refrigerated glass cabinets. Nonetheless this is illegal. Legal provision of local clams to retailers and restaurants is most often by long-term trade relationships. This assures the harvester of a reliable market, and the retailer of a safe product. Because it is impossible to inspect all fresh seafood, safe clams to eat are most often assured by government inspection of clam beds on a routine basis.
Restaurants purchase clams wholesale, often using the same suppliers as retailers. Long-term relationships are the industry standard here as well. This assures buyer and seller of quality and quantity, and a reliable customer respectively. The wholesale market for clams is dominated by long-term players, due above all to the perishability of the product. There are occasional new entrants. They inevitably have deep pockets: the wholesale clam market is less a growth market than a steal-the-share market. It takes significant investment to take away share from established, proven players even if they are small.
Reliability is the sine qua non of the wholesale clam market: supply and quality are limited in their availability. There is a reason Snow’s Clam Chowder has been the dominant chowder brand for decades. Heavily capitalized new wholesale entrants still must prove their bona fides over long periods of time. Because purchasers expect price fluctuations as the natural course of events, retail outlets and restaurants are more likely to stick with their long-term suppliers even when offered significant price reductions, which they know will be temporary. The perishability of shellfish, in particular oysters is so certain it was the key driver of the extension of the Long Island Rail Road to Montauk (the easternmost point), and of the Old Colony Line to Wellfleet on Cape Cod. This also is testimonial to the historical and ongoing popularity of shellfish.
Wholesale prices for clams are market-driven. New York’s Fulton Fish Market, now relocated to the Bronx, is a representative example: chefs and restaurant managers prowl the offerings in the very early morning, seeking bargains. Prices vary daily. The limit to price variability at the low and high end is still geographic proximity: because a tasty cherrystone is a tasty cherrystone be it from Maine or New Jersey, the market for fresh clams is determined by how far a refrigerated truck can drive within a given period of time. The market for frozen and canned clams is not bound by perishability. That does allow some leveraging by clam processors to secure the lowest price at an acceptable quality level.
If you are new to the wholesale clam business, the best way to learn the ropes is to visit a wholesale seafood market such as Pike’s Place in Seattle. Each seller will claim to have the cheapest, most reliable and freshest product but that is to be expected. Enough time invested will reveal how to operate. Those interested in purchasing delicious clams at the retail level are best-advised to visit at least three or four local shops and compare prices over time. The Internet does offer commodity price information, clams being no exception but there is no substitute for feet-on-the-ground investigation.|