Sometimes, retailing can be a joy when the demand for a product is so great that people are willing to wait in line for it. The event I am speaking of happens on the days when your weekly live food shipments show up. Thank goodness the airlines are beginning to return to a dependable schedule now that COVID has diminished. As they say in the air travel business, sometimes it’s necessary to “rack’em and pack’em.” When too many people want live food at the same time, pull out the “take a number” machine, like they do at the deli. Don’t worry, the rush usually only lasts a couple of hours. This is a small price to pay to keep your customers returning on a regular basis.
Selling live foods for fish and aquatic invertebrates can be an important part of your bottom line. But if you don’t do it right it can be a disaster for your business. The main pitfall to avoid is selling live foods that might be compromised. Your maintenance systems must be held to a high standard or live foods can quickly succumb to numerous environmental or internal problems.
Keeping Fresh Food Alive
Let’s take a look at the most common live foods for tropicals and discuss what it takes to keep them alive in your shop. First and foremost, housing for live foods should always be away from the main showroom floor. If you allow customers to see the live items, they will invariably attempt to “cherry-pick” them. You don’t have the luxury of allowing this—for time is money—and if you think people are slow at selecting fish for their home aquariums, you can multiply that factor by four when it comes to live foods.
So, holding facilities for live foods should be behind closed doors. This is easily accomplished if you have a back room that is temperature-controlled with plenty of space for tanks, adequately lit, and has hot and cold-running water connected through a utility sink. With these amenities, you should be able to keep any live food in good health. First, what live foods are you considering? The two most common are brine shrimp and black worms. True, this is leaving feeder fish out of the picture, but fortunately, you already have experience with live fish. Let’s look at brine shrimp first.
So, you need a really big tank—or even better—a really big vat or plastic pool. I prefer a poured concrete vat that sets on the floor and has the necessary plumbing for installing an open-vane recirculating pump and a massive UV-sterilizer. Your goal is to give the shrimp a large volume of water that has minimal filtration, but is still almost devoid of bacteria due to the UV-sterilizer. And, yes, you can feed the brine shrimp a powdered food, if you wish. Remember, the vat/pool must be wide open to allow you to collect the animals for sale. Use just enough lighting to make it easy to collect the brine shrimp. Catch nets must be tightly woven, allowing only water to pass through.
Black worms & Earthworms
On to black worms—and these are a bit more problematic, since they do better when they clump together and form a living ball. Initially, these tiny worms come from cool/cold mountain streams with fast-moving water. These conditions are a bit difficult to reproduce in captivity and gradually, farmers learned to spread the worms out over vast areas of shallow ponds or tanks (in India). Here they grow well and are easily collected. Unfortunately, this will not work for your aquatic shop. Instead, I recommend a series of small plastic ponds that overlap and drain by gravity (very slowly). Finally, the flow reaches a “mother-pool” where a chiller is placed and the water is returned to the top of the cantilevered pools. On each level, it is important to collect worms that are separated from any familial ball that may form. Obviously, the lowest container must have a return pump. It should be open-vane and running at the lowest speed (RPM) permissible to get the job done.
Lighting can be minimal since you are hoping not to have a lot of worms left over by the time your next shipment arrives.
The easiest live food to obtain and maintain is undoubtedly earthworms. In the fishing trade, these might be called a variety of things from earthworms, to red wigglers, to night-crawlers, and finally, blood worms (real worms - not related to the animal in the pet trade). Let me assure you—for the home aquarium—red wigglers will be adequate for 95 percent of the fish your customers might maintain. Actually, even these are a bit large, and it might be judicious to feed them to tropical fish by cutting them in half. You can probably buy this wholesale from any company that sells to sporting goods stores or fishing equipment dealers. They come in plastic tubs that contain a certain number of worms, give or take. Store them in a refrigerator in the tubs they arrive in or have your own tubs made.
Turn the refrigerator to its minimum setting. Be certain to write the arrival date on each container. If they go to the expiration date (2-3 weeks), take them out and feed them to the fish in your store. For sale, these worms should always be maintained in peat moss. This material is organic, so it will break down even if a predatory fish swallows some of it, inside the worm. Raising these worms is simple, but who needs one more thing to do, so I suggest the fast and easy route.
Over the years, I have seen a wide variety of items sold as live food for ornamental tropicals. In the old days, daphnia was a staple, but culturing this animal required a great deal of work. Live bloodworms—which are actually a larval form of a chronomid fly—are excellent for fish, but very few people collect them to sell alive. Tubifex worms were the gold standard until brine shrimp showed up. The problem with Tubifex was that the worms lived in filthy conditions, usually on the substrate near municipal sewage facilities. Glass worms were once popular. They came from frozen ponds in the Great Lakes region. They required a chiller or the larval animal would turn into a fly.
Feeder fish are a major item and most of the species that fit this category require cold water, like goldfish and native North American minnows. Fish farms in Florida produce massive quantities of live guppies, platies, and mollies that are designated as feeders. There is no attempt to develop fancy versions of these strains, and, in fact, they are sold mixed in size from new-born fry to full adult.
Marketing Common Items
What’s your edge on a product that is universal to the trade? I hesitate to say you need a gimmick, but other than low prices, what can you do to sell more frozen foods than your competition? One of my bright ideas has been to sell small Styrofoam containers and insulated cold bags. These will keep frozen fish foods from defrosting on the way home. I encourage customers to bring back their containers from previous trips. When they do this, I give them 10 percent off all frozen food sales.
Frozen fish foods come in all shapes, sizes, and prices. As far as offering the best nutrition outside of live foods, I go with mysis shrimp and bloodworms. The mysis is great for larger specimens or species and the bloodworms are a favorite of the classic schooling fish, such as: tetras, barbs, danios, rasboras, Corydoras catfish, rainbowfish, plus angelfish and discus.
Beef-heart is a great fish food for fish that are carnivorous or have an omnivorous diet in the wild. I would certainly recommend it as a regular feature in a varied diet. Likewise, shrimp, scallops, mussels and even crab meat is beneficial for predatory fish species. All of these items are sold in the aquatic trade, but they should be used sparingly. As you might expect, brine shrimp is the gold standard of frozen foods. This is not because it is the most nutritious, but because it is plentiful and raised by companies supplying the trade.
A well-stocked aquatic store should have at minimum two up-right glass-fronted freezers for frozen fish foods. Be certain to train all your employees in what frozen foods to recommend to your customers. This should include any permanent clerks who do not walk the store floor. Place the freezers directly across from the check-out lines. This gives customers one last chance to remember to bring home food for their fish. PB