Dan Wesner is determined to serve real grouper at his two Fish Tales restaurants, but it hasn't been easy.
His boxes of frozen imports have always said grouper on the label. But a Fish Tales grouper sandwich showed up as fake in a DNA test last summer, and Wesner's records were later subpoenaed by the Florida Attorney General's Office.
Since then, Wesner has fired his Orlando supplier, bought a more expensive import, arranged his own fish tests and tweaked his menu.
"I am going to prove myself right. I wasn't trying to deceive a customer,'' Wesner said Thursday. "I want this problem solved. I want to sell grouper.''
Wesner's efforts underscore a buzz that continues to swirl around west Florida's signature fish: People aren't just hawking and devouring grouper, they are wondering about it.
Developer Joe Vais and his wife, Marica, hopped a plane back to Missouri on Thursday with 10 pounds of Gulf of Mexico "black'' grouper, just frozen and tucked into a cheap cooler.
They frequently vacation in Florida and always take back grouper, preferably fish they caught themselves. But the weather was bad and fishing poor this time, so they bought their supply from Grouper's, a Treasure Island restaurant they favor.
This year, they wanted to see the fish before they shelled out $150.
"We trust them. We've gone to the same place before'' Joe Vais said. But "there's a lot of talk'' about restaurants, he said.
"Other people say it's not grouper. It's tilapia. You're not getting what you are buying.''
Grouper's was happy to bring out a slab of whole fresh fish, skin still on, and cut it into 20 servings, Vais said.
Grouper's sells only fresh gag or black grouper, both prized gulf species commonly listed on menus as "black'' grouper, says chef Jeremy Dickens.
In the past, tourists might ask to see the fish, he said. Now, locals are asking for the same reassurance.
Questions about grouper rattled the public psyche in August when a DNA test, commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times, showed that six of 11 Tampa Bay restaurants who advertised grouper had actually served catfish or other cheaper substitutes. One Palm Harbor restaurant served a $23 "champagne braised black grouper'' that was actually tilapia.
The Attorney General's Office took its own samples, found fake fish and subpoenaed invoices and purchase orders from more than a dozen restaurants.
Other media outlets have found faux grouper in southwest and northwest Florida, though it's unclear whether restaurants, suppliers or foreign exporters are deliberately switching product or whether some switches are unintentional.
A Hooters "grouper cousin'' sandwich tested out as a real species in the Times test, but came back as not grouper when the attorney general tested three Hooters restaurants.
Hooters calls its sandwich "grouper cousin'' because they import the fish from Thailand and don't want customers to think it is Gulf of Mexico grouper, Chuck Riley, purchasing director for Hooters Management Corp. said last week.
Riley said he traveled to Thailand, checked out his supplier's operation and received a certificate from the Thai government authenticating the fish as a genuine grouper species.
However, dozens of Asian grouper species swim with, and get caught with, other bottom feeders that may be tasty but are not grouper. Getting fishermen and exporters to separate them can be difficult.
"We are at the mercy of suppliers,'' said Neil Kiefer, Hooters Management CEO. "We haven't been in this business this long by trying to fool people.''
Jimmy Guanas in Indian Rocks Beach runs a popular fish fry on Saturday nights - all the grouper you can eat for $10.95. No one tested Jimmy's grouper, but manager Yale Towel said Jimmy Guanas is now switching from frozen imports to fresh fish whenever they can buy it.
About a month ago, the restaurant's U.S. distributor said it had dropped some of its foreign suppliers.
"They found out that some stuff was not really grouper," Towel said. "Somebody was boxing it up and stamping grouper on the boxes.''
The supplier said the price of imported grouper was going to rise, Towel said, "to make sure we are getting the top-quality grouper they are supposedly selling.''
Wesner, of Fish Tales, has taken his own precautions. After the Times reported that his red grouper sandwich was some other fish, Wesner said, he dropped his Orlando distributor and threatened to sue if the company couldn't document the product's authenticity.
Wesner said he never heard back and the distributor has since either gone out of business or is operating under a different name.
After checking out three other distributors, Wesner started buying $5 a pound frozen red grouper from New Suncoast Shrimp, a Clearwater distributor recommended by others in the industry.
Red grouper swim in the gulf and are the most common domestic fresh species sold in restaurants. They also inhabit waters as far south as Brazil and are imported fresh and frozen.
To make sure, Wesner had friends at the University of South Florida test five of his new fish and they all came back as red grouper, he said.
In an abundance of caution, he dropped his "red grouper'' sandwich from the menu. Now, it's simply an $8.95 "grouper'' sandwich.
"I'm standing up for the restaurant industry,'' Wesner said. "Not just Fish Tales.''
St. Petersburg resident Gail Brazzell has heard talk lately from friends who like grouper, saying, "You never know what you are getting. You have to be careful.''
But Brazzell isn't worried when she dines at Harvey's 4th Street Grill, her favorite grouper haunt.
Harvey's sell fresh, domestic, red grouper that passed the Times' test. Cooks will readily display the whole fish to diners who ask.
With gulf grouper supplies unusually tight lately, the sandwich goes for $10.95 and dinners for $18.25.
Out-of-town guests recently complained about Harvey's because the restaurant was out of grouper, said Brazzell, a 30-year resident.
She had to do some educating.
"I like it when they tell me they are out of grouper,'' she said. "That means they are being honest. It would be better for them to give me something else and say, 'Here's your grouper.' ''
Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8442.