The line on Gem Street begins to form halfway down the block early Friday mornings with a hodgepodge of neighborhood regulars. On this normally quiet block in Greenpoint, you’re promised to hear at least five different languages as you stand next to an old Polish grandmother with a pushcart and a cool young dad with a stroller.
Everyone is here for one very important item: smoked fish.
“Have faith,” a happy customer tells the line as he leaves with a brimming bag of fish goods.
Acme Smoked Fish, one of the country’s largest producers of smoked fish and herring, opens its doors every Friday morning to sell their product at wholesale prices. The weekly sale has grown in popularity in recent years, with advertising strictly relying upon word of mouth.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish are processed at Acme for wholesale and retail distributors. Fish Fridays are set up in the order assembly room, the final process of the entire assembly line, on the only day of the week it is not in use for wholesale distribution. Fish Fridays is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and is cash only.
The fourth-generation family business was founded in 1906 and today sells to major New York institutions like Zabar’s, Barney Greengrass, and Fairway. But for the price of standing in line for 20 minutes (or, in the case of Christmas, an hour and a half), you too can get your hands on a variety of salmon, trout, herring and pickled items.
Vice president of Acme and fourth-generation family member Adam Caslow said Fish Fridays began as a way to provide service to the local community.
“I remember as a kid we would have these huge barrels of herring, and I would reach in and grab one,” he laughed. “Each herring was a dollar.”
But as the demographic from largely Polish families changed to include a new generation of young and cool, so too has the line of customers.
“Different groups come in for a lot of different reasons,” Caslow said inside the order assembly room, surveying last week’s Easter and Passover crowd. “In the mornings you get Polish people who have a routine and they come early. And as the hipsters wake up they come after 11 a.m. or 12. It’s something we love to keep it exactly the way it is.”
Boxes of smoked trout were stacked next to cured salmon ready to be cut to order. A long table of thinly sliced smoked salmon and gravlox was home to many taste tests, where employees delicately rolled up a sliver of pastrami nova so good that it left you wondering why you haven’t had pastrami nova sooner.
As customers thumbed through the packaged salmon options like flipping through albums at a record store, fishmongers yelled out to the crowd, “Next, who’s next?” and “We got lots of big fish here, what kind do you want?” over a mixed soundtrack that included Harry Belafonte and Mystikal.
Krystyna Sowul, originally from Poland, has been coming to Fish Fridays for five years and buys smoked salmon and mackerel most weeks. Last Friday she waited 45 minutes for her goods but didn’t mind.
“It’s very fresh,” she said. “I wish it was two days because there are so many people.”
Michael Richter moved to Greenpoint a month ago and hasn’t missed a Friday yet. He tends to stock up on smoked fish and cured salmon, but his favorite is the gravlax with dill. Richter said he always tries to get something else he hasn’t tried before. This week, it’s rainbow trout.
“You’d think it would last me the week, but it usually only lasts about two days,” he said. “I like it because it’s off the beaten path, the staff knows what they’re doing and they let you taste different fish.”
Even with the line out the door, Richter says the wait is worth it.
“Nobody is impatient,” he said. “Everyone leaves happy and smelling like fish.”