“It just creates that excitement,” said Scott Severs, Jungle Jim’s meat operations manager.
Exotic food is nothing new to Jungle Jim’s. Severs said the store has offered rare meats since he started there in 1995.
“When we first started doing this, there was maybe just a couple of items available, a couple of bison items, because our main exotic meat category was designed for food service and not retail,” he said. “Because it wasn’t a really big category (and) we didn’t sell a whole lot of it, I would have to actually fly the product out from L.A. to CVG because we couldn’t order enough … to truck it out.”
Now, with distributors broadening their reach to offer retail items, Jungle Jim’s keeps its freezer case stocked with various retail-ready packages of alligator, antelope, bison, buffalo, elk, guinea fowl, kangaroo, ostrich, venison and wild board bacon.
“That has enabled us in this category to just totally explode,” Severs said. “We sell so much … I’m able to bring in thousands of pounds of it and get it trucked out here. It saves on freight, so I can lower the cost to the customer.”
The farm-raised camel tenderloin steaks and roasts shipped in from Australia can be restocked as needed from a sealed supply, Severs said. Once butchered, it looks and tastes like a piece of beef, he said.
“We’re trying to showcase the exotics, different things (that we offer) … that are interesting and fun,” he said. “This was just a perfect fit to do that.”
Ross Carroll, manager of Jungle Jim’s seafood department, said the more than 9-foot-long, nearly 400-pound freshly caught alligator that arrived from Florida earlier this month had generated the same kind of buzz, selling out in three hours.
Carroll, a Maine native who previously ran a large New England-based seafood company that sold its wares to grocery store suppliers, was sought out and hired by Jungle Jim’s earlier this year.
“I eat, breathe and sleep seafood,” he said. “It’s been my life.”
The Fairfield Twp. resident said he works at all hours to stock the store’s seafood selection at both locations directly from the sources he made during his previous job.
That, he said, has provided Jungle Jim’s shoppers fresher, more affordable options, with whole fish displayed before being filleted on site.
“If it looks good, odds are it is good. If it looks bad, it’s probably bad,” Carroll said. “That’s why eye appeal is buy appeal. ”
Carroll’s connection to the seafood industry also means a wider variety of exotic fish including venomous scorpion fish, red gurnards and geoduck, a species of very large saltwater clam that lives beyond 100 years.
“We have fisherman who come in, we tell them what we want and they go out and catch it,” Carroll said, showing a text message regarding one who was set to net 100 pounds of sheepshead fish.
Another texted photo that Carroll displayed on his cellphone was of two swordfish which, like the sheepshead fish, were caught Thursday and set to arrive Friday at Jungle Jim’s, he said.
“I literally check them in at the (loading) dock at 4 a.m.,” Carroll said. “I come in here and check the quality. I need to hold our fisherman and vendors accountable. None of these fish came in without me putting eyes on ‘em.”
So why does Jungle Jim’s both to offer a diverse range of exotic seafood?
"The biggest reason is it could be the best fish you ever ate," Carroll said. "People branch out and they try new things.You should experiment. Try something different."
For those wondering how to cook Jungle Jim's exotic offerings, the grocer offers recipes at www.junglejims.com/recipes.