PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA
Women-owned seafood and salt business thrives despite pandemic
To hear Corina Gitmed and Sara Spencer tell it, destiny brought them together and the universe continues to guide their way through a complicated landscape. Somehow, they say, this was all meant to be.
Despite the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has been devastating for so many food producers, Gitmed and Spencer have adapted and are thriving. With a demand for healthy foods delivered to people’s doors, their company Off The Hook Essentials is now doing a brisk business as a CSF (community supported fishery), bringing sustainably caught seafood directly to their customers in San Benito County and beyond.
“You have to trust the journey,” says Spencer, an Aptos resident and essential oils educator. “Everything has worked out for us.”
At first glance, Off The Hook’s mix of seafood and essential oil infused salts seem like an unusual pairing, but Gitmed and Spencer have brought their passions together—Gitmed’s quest to provide a source of sustainable seafood for her home area, and Spencer’s to spread the gospel of healthy essential oils.
They’ve been selling fresh fish at the Hollister Farmers’ Market as well as their all-natural dry brine and finishing salts that add a special zip to all kinds of recipes in addition to seafood. But when that farmers’ market closed due to the COVID-19 crisis, Off The Hook pivoted to its current delivery service.
Gitmed and Spencer met several years ago when Spencer was teaching an essential oils workshop at a mutual friend’s home. The two moms hit it off instantly and began collaborating. Their first major step forward came when a grocery store district manager visited their farmers’ market stand and became entranced by their salts. As a result, Off The Hook infused salts are now being carried by regional Safeway stores, and Spencer and Gitmed are also working to get these products into independent markets and other mom-and-pop businesses.
Another important connection came about when they met Becky Herbert of Farmhouse Foods/Eat With The Seasons, who manages her family’s CSA and had recently opened the Farmhouse Café in downtown Hollister. Gitmed and Spencer were initially café customers, then became friends with the staff and Herbert, who allowed them to set up their farmers’ market stand in front of the restaurant.
Spencer suggested that Off The Hook products might be something Herbert’s CSA customers would be interested in and Eat With The Seasons began offering this option. Now Eat With The Seasons customers from around the Bay Area and the Monterey Bay can also order Off The Hook seafood and salt selections.
Off The Hook’s infused salts and sugars are also being used by other food purveyors to create unique and creative goodies, such as Heritage Chocolates in Corralitos, which uses them for its toppings. “It’s all about community and collaboration,” says Spencer.
Each of the Off The Hook salt varieties is a mineral-dense combination of Mediterranean sea salt, Himalayan salt, and red and black Hawaiian sea salt infused with flavors. The Citrus blend, for instance, uses orange, lemon and lime, while Thai combines lemongrass and basil and Pico de Gallo is a mix of black pepper, cilantro and lime.
Gitmed has made it her mission to provide fresh seafood to her hometown of Hollister and the surrounding area. It’s part of a longtime tradition that she’s proud to carry on. Her father treated fishing as a family activity and lived just down the street from Louie Freitas: “His lineage is legendary in the commercial fishermen industry,” says Gitmed, with Freitas’ boat, The Pancho, part of the harbor scene in Moss Landing for many years.
“I remember playing with his daughter in the front yard while Louie got his crab pots ready for the season,” says Gitmed. “The man still goes out every day! It’s just something I’ve always been around.”
As an adult, Gitmed realized there was a pressing need for fresh local seafood, and she developed the idea to sell at the farmers’ market.
“I envisioned always getting our fish from The Pancho, however, state law and permitting was always an obstacle,” she says. She and Spencer are still working their way toward getting the necessary permits to buy fish directly from the boats, a lengthy and time-consuming process that Gitmed compares to “jumping through six hoops of fire.”
For now, they buy from seafood wholesaler Pacific Harvest in San Juan Bautista and process the fish themselves at a friend’s butcher shop, where they portion it out and then flash-freeze it for optimum freshness. One of their primary considerations is providing the very freshest but also sustainably harvested seafood for their customers, and they work with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to ensure they’re making the best choices.
Customers order through the Off The Hook Essentials website and Gitmed and Spencer personally deliver each order to people’s homes. It’s opened up a whole new customer base for their company and people appreciate the convenience. Gitmed and Spencer are also able to give their customers details on how the fish were harvested.
Their ultimate goal is a zero-waste business supplying sustainably caught seafood that supports the local fishing industry. And although they acknowledge they’re still a little way from that, they’re on the right path.
Gitmed says she and Spencer are excited about the growth and potential for their business.
“It’s great to be doing what we’ve done thus far. Timing is everything. The COVID-19 experience has helped us and guided us…people and our community trust what we’re going to do is good for them.”