BACK OF THE YARDS — The quest to bring sustainably raised saltwater shrimp to Chicago begins in the basement of a former South Side meatpacking plant.
The Salty Prawn is a business launched by Kate Purvis, 28, and Sia Xeros, 24, two environmentally conscious entrepreneurs who are hoping local restaurants and grocers cut back on their use of farm-raised shrimp, the vast majority of which — about 90 percent — is imported from places like Southeast Asia and Central America.
Casey Cora says the entrepreneurs say the shrimp will taste better, and be more ecologically friendly:
Those sources are problematic for a couple of reasons, the pair said.
First, because multiple investigations have revealed a horrid slavery rings in the shrimp farming trades and also because of the serious environmental consequences caused by the industry, including pollution and the destruction of natural habitats.
The solution, the pair believes, is squirming around somewhere in three vats of copper-colored water, deep in the noisy basement of The Plant, 1400 W. 46th St., an incubator for sustainable food businesses.
"Ours are going to the freshest source of seafood in the Midwest, considering that the next closest sources would be the Gulf coast or the Pacific coast," Purvis said.
After several months of intense research, the pair ordered their first batch of some 30,000 microscopic post-larvae shrimp, which are delivered from a hatchery in Florida to The Plant.
The bags are spilled into a bubbling nursery tank, where they'll grow to about an inch long. Then, they're dumped into one of three above ground swimming pools that serve as growing and feeding tanks.
Each tank holds about 7,000 shrimp but will yield about 75 percent of that, at best.
"There's competition. They are carnivorous and they're territorial as well, so they will attack each other. And we have some jumpers who jump from the tanks and there will be some shrimp who just don't survive," Xeros said.
The shrimp reach market size — roughly 20 per pound — after about four months. After that, they're ready to eat.
Key to the whole operation, the pair said, is getting the mix of water temperature and biological materials in the tank just right.
Keeping with the eco-friendly ethos, the pair plans to reuse the thousands of gallons of soupy water, with the goal of making the nutrient-rich water and the shrimp feed off of each other in a self-sustaining loop.
"The idea is that we don't flush the water we use. The water is a byproduct of the shrimp," Purvis said.
In other words, baby shrimp go into the water, big shrimp come out and the process, conducted completely indoors, can repeat itself year-round.
The Salty Prawn is launching as a benefit corporation, a unique business model that prioritizes social and environmental goals, so rather than reporting to a company president, Purvis and Xeros report their progress to a third partner, industrial engineer Michael Krautmann.
The partners' first batches of shrimp aren't quite ready for distribution across the city or at The Plant's forthcoming storefront yet, but they've already made their public debut at the swanky Chicago Gourmet Festival and at Nana Organic, a Bridgeport restaurant committed to using sustainable ingredients.
"What they're doing and how they're doing it is the way of the future. It's eating with a conscience," said Nana chef Jeremy Kiens, who used Salty Prawn shrimp throughout the summer. "We get them with the head on and some of the soups and sauces I've been able to make, they're absolutely amazing."
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