Selling Frozen and Live Foods

A term that’s rarely heard anymore is, "We’re a full service pet shop." I suppose the big-box and chain stores might have tried to claim that title in the old days, but now retailers in both these categories seem to be running away from the aquatics industry. Well, maybe not the whole industry, just livestock—you know, the beating heart of it.

It’s true that if it wasn’t for livestock, selling pet products would be a lot easier. There are transportation costs, maintenance costs, personnel costs and, most importantly, costs due to death. If you prefer to do things the easy way, then the aquatics business isn’t for you. Go look for products that give you a "money in, money out" guarantee. You can try used cars, cemetery lots or even insurance policies.

There are several practices that should be followed if you want to hold fish losses to a minimum: buy your fish from reliable suppliers, keep your store tanks well-maintained, only mix species that are compatible and feed the fish a varied diet of both live and frozen foods twice a day. Sure, these foods are certainly more difficult to maintain and sell than the packaged diets, but they will make you money—if you do it right.

First of all, you must be a believer. You must understand that fish thrive when they are fed a varied diet that includes both prepared and frozen foods. In general, live food is not a necessity for many fish. A few species, however, will not survive long without it. Coming to mind immediately are large predatory species and small, virtually miniature species. The small species will do well on live brine shrimp, such betta splendens, tiny tetras, badis, dario, indostomas, dwarf pufferfish and celestial pearl danios. These fish will also enjoy live black worms, but the fish that benefit the most from these are the substrate feeders: gravel-sifting catfish, cichlids, gobies, mudskippers, small knifefish, ctenopoma and anableps (yes—they sift gravel as well as feed at the surface).

When you move from the smaller live foods to feeder fish and ghost/grass shrimp, you will be supplying food for fish such as leaffish, predatory catfish, piranhas, large knife fish, arowanas, predatory cichlids, archers, large puffers and datnioides. The list is virtually endless, for almost any fish you sell will eat some form of animal-based live food.

Now, why would you not sell live foods to your customers when you know the fish you sell eat them? The only reason I can think of is you don’t have the experience in buying, selling and maintaining live fish foods.

First of all, the live foods you MUST sell, if you are going to sell any at all, are brine shrimp, black worms, various sizes and types of feeder fish, earthworms and ghost/grass shrimp. Yes, there are other live foods, but most of them are difficult to obtain commercially. Coming to mind are mosquito larvae, glass larvae, daphnia (a variety of species) and bloodworms. If you want one of these four, your best bet is going the frozen route.

Adult brine shrimp have been sold as live food for tropical fish for many years. In the old days, they were (sort of) collected in the wild, cleaned up and shipped by air. Now, it is almost as common to obtain farm-raised brine shrimp. These tend to be smaller than their wild counterparts and the color is not as red. You will sell a lot of this item if you can master maintaining it properly, but that’s going to require some manual labor and a constant inspection of the environment.

Brine shrimp, after all, are not freshwater animals or marine animals—they’re brine-loving animals. Think the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the shallow pans where sea water is evaporated to extract salt, plus basically anywhere with the right substrate, low precipitation and no predators.

The correct specific gravity for brine shrimp is hyper-saline, ranging from 1.030 and higher. The water must be temperature controlled and well-oxygenated. Filtration must not interfere with the shrimp’s ability to swim properly. If you just blow them around helter skelter, it will kill them. There are customer units made specifically for use in pet shops, but if you have the talent and imagination, you can build your own brine shrimp system.

Black worms are interesting creatures that are raised in California (among other places) specifically for the aquatic trade. These animals will entice almost any fish to feed, as long as it is willing to feed off the substrate. Here, once again, maintenance is the issue. The worms require a constant flow of cool, clean water passing over them. Healthy worms will ball up together, while sick or dead worms will be carried away by the current. If you sell black worms, try to clean out any unsold animals before you receive a new shipment.

Feeder fish are a conundrum. In England, there has been a movement for many years to make the sale of feeder fish illegal. You know the reasoning behind this and as an aquatics store owner, you probably vehemently disagree. After all, it’s your livelihood, and if bait shops can sell live fish to go fishing with, why can’t you? Let’s set this part of the equation aside, but keep in mind that some of your customers may find the practice of selling live fish as feeders repulsive.

There are numerous choices for feeder sales, but by far, the most common is goldfish, follow by feeder guppies and native North American species, such as minnows. There are a variety of these depending on your location in the U.S., with fathead, chubs, shiners and suckers being the most common.

Notice that these are all cold-water species, so you’re going to need a chiller on the system that houses them. I also highly recommend a commercial UV-sterilizer unit, because wild-caught or farm-raised feeders are notorious for harboring pathogens. It is extremely important to maintain feeders in good health. Depending on how many types or species of feeders you have, the filtration needs to be top-notch, even better than your store displays. A dedicated room or section in your behind-the-scenes work area would be best. This is where you should keep all the live foods you are selling to the public or feeding to your own fish.

Now, I saved the two best live foods for last. First, let me remind you that for large predatory fish—be they freshwater or marine—earthworms are the answer. Buy them from wholesale fishing supply outlets in plastic containers. You want red wigglers, not night crawlers—the difference is the size. Red wigglers are small, while night crawlers can reach more than 8 in. in length.

Store your plastic containers of worms in a refrigerator maintained at 55 degrees, and keep them moist by adding water as necessary, but not enough drown them. Any of your customers keeping fish such as predatory cichlids, arowanas, gar, tiger fish, stingrays, predatory catfish, Polypterus or spiny eels will want to supplement their diet with earthworms.

Finally, the last live foods I recommend are grass shrimp and ghost shrimp. Do not confuse the two. Ghost shrimp are smaller, transparent freshwater shrimp available from Florida fish farms, while grass shrimp live in brackish environments. You’ll want to maintain a specific gravity of 1.0010-1.015 for these animals. Keep them both the same way, but not together.

Any fish that eats live food and is large enough to catch/swallow a ghost shrimp will love it, while grass shrimp are perfect for feeding both freshwater and marine fish. The grass shrimp will live in either habitat until they’re eaten and carry no transmittable pathogens.

The best way to house these shrimp is in a large, flat container that’s made of clear acrylic, glass or plastic. You need plenty of surface area with a substrate of sand, and filtration must be slow so the shrimp aren’t carried away. Use good lighting so the shrimp remain active, and feed them daily with finely powdered dry food. Live plants will give the shrimp cover and provide natural surfaces for them to feed on.

The difference between live food and frozen food (I didn’t forget!) is that live food is something you choose to do, while frozen food is something you must do. Frozen food should be right at the front of the store and across from the registers, if possible. This allows the clerk to ask, "Oh, did you need any frozen food before you check out?" Yes, it sounds cliché, but it works. When it comes to frozen fish foods, sell the ones you like. The ones you feed your fish. The ones that support independent pet shops.

Live or frozen, these foods are the retail items that keep customers re-entering the store. New fish, plants, coral and live food shipments generate the enthusiasm that every shop needs in its customer base. You must have repeat sales to stay in business, as you won’t survive if you can’t entice customers to come back.  PB

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 40 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.