In 1957 at the age of just 15, Henry Ungaro and his cousin Tommy Amalfitano were slinging whole fish from Vista Seafood, a tiny 100 square foot shop tucked back from the waterfront of the bustling port of San Pedro, about forty minutes south of Los Angeles. 60 years later the family-run San Pedro Fish Market now sits on right on the water, has its third generation at the helm, and sits 3,000 people at a time. If those successes weren’t enough, the market has also achieved a rather unique status, carving out a niche alongside more scene-y temples of food as one of the most instagrammed restaurants in America.
The growth of the San Pedro Fish Market into a social media juggernaut flies in the face of what it typically takes to dominate the digital food landscape. A quick look at the other restaurants in Instagram’s top 10 most popular American restaurants of 2016 are a who’s who of exactly who you might expect—the likes of Tao, Nobu and Black Tap Craft Burgers and Beer (whose almost undrinkable milkshakes seem made with the express purpose of going viral). But In talking with co-owner and Henry’s grandson Michael Ungaro, the rise of the San Pedro Fish Market seems like a natural result of decades put into building a brand.
Ungaro says it took 25 years before the owners of the out-of-the-way, hole-in-the-wall fish market toyed with the idea of serving food and even then the concept was far from an immediate success. “We almost lost the business the first year,” Ungaro recalls. A record El Niño almost rained out the restaurant end of the business entirely. But a simple, limited menu of market fresh items like boiled crab and pick-your-own fish grilled to order eventually gave the market a stronger foothold in the area and opened the door to expansion.
The further transformation from family restaurant to the self-proclaimed “Disneyland of Seafood” was part tradition, part marketing. Ungaro tells us that the restaurant became a place people remembered and returned to. “We would have three or four generations of a family show up. People would drive 100 miles to get here.” But he was also the one who turned to what was, at the time, a nascent social media movement for publicity. “We had never advertised before [2008-2009],” Ungaro says. “We had to do it for cheap or for free so I gave Facebook and Yelp a try.” The timing couldn’t have been better, as that also happened to coincide with the number of Facebook users jumping by close to 600 percent.
Camera-ready, the fish market’s shrimp trays (massive piles of shrimp that could likely sate a small family reunion) began populating people’s feeds and long before Black Tap dreamed of stuffing entire candy stores in a milkshake and hashtagging them #foodporn, new customers were queuing up at the San Pedro waterfront to challenge their appetites.
A few years later and the San Pedro Fish Market, while still a family affair at heart, seems comfortable with its place in the crowded online food world. Ungaro speculates that at 55,000 square feet and with a clientele of 1.2 million customers per year, they may have the biggest restaurant in America. And they have certainly taken advantage of that, setting blog-friendly world records at their annual Lobsterfest. They have also rolled out a webseries that looks like it could easily have a home on Discovery or Bravo (probably because they used a crew from Deadliest Catch), filling out their digital-savvy résumé with yet another accomplishment.
As of 2016, the San Pedro Fish Market has made Instagram’s top 10 two years in a row, this year beating out the likes of Dominique Ansel and his Cronut and last year’s number one, Café du Monde in New Orleans. While everyone these days seems to be looking for a gimmick, this seafood mecca is keeping things simple which just might be the secret to their list-worthy success. As long as there are heaps of shrimp to be photographed and social media feeds to fill, it doesn’t seem like they’ll be falling off that list anytime soon.