Meet the expert: Fernando Moreno

If you’ve ever ordered a swordfish steak from Fernando Moreno, our meat and seafood buyer, you know he can talk recipes all day long. So when we asked him why he became a butcher, we thought for sure he’d talk about how much he loves to eat meat — not so! In fact, it was the tools that drew him to the trade. “My dad was a gardener, so I grew up in a house where we worked with our hands,” he says. “I was already familiar with sharp tools, like band saws and hand saws, so this was just putting a protein behind it, which was way more intriguing.”

Fernando was 21 years old when he started in the Gelson’s meat and seafood department. He came here because we’re one of the few, if not only, SoCal supermarkets that still cuts all its meat in house and offers an apprenticeship program for meat cutters. “Our union rep told me to apply here,” Fernando says. “All they had was a temp position, but I took it because I wanted to work for a good company and learn the trade. I lucked out and someone in seafood got transferred. I’ve been blessed ever since.”

At Gelson’s, apprenticeships start in the seafood department: fish are a little less complicated to cut. Fernando had worked as a clerk in the meat department of another local grocery store, so he had some experience. “But once I jumped in here, wow, I realized I didn’t know anything about proteins,” he laughs. “Gelson’s was completely different: there were so many different cuts, and of course the variety of things we cut — beef, pork, lamb, veal, poultry, seafood. I didn’t even know the names of half the fish we sold.”

At the seafood counter, Fernando honed his knife skills — and learned a lot about customer service. “Seafood is really a unique protein,” he says. “We have customers who know a lot about fish, they’re really aware of what’s in season, and they’ll call us to find out when it’s coming in.”

At the same time, he adds, “A lot of people are intimidated by fish, they’re afraid they’re not going to cook it right, and a big part of our job is giving them tips and recipes, so they feel more comfortable taking it home for dinner.”

In order to provide good cooking tips, Fernando had to get to know the fish. He had great mentors, and he learned a lot by asking questions, watching, and listening. “I also did a lot of self-teaching,” he says. “I’d jump on the internet and read about the different fish species, and I watched a lot of Food Network — still do, it’s my favorite, I’ve learned so much about cooking from it, it’s like an infatuation, and my friends make fun of me.”

Fernando actually practices all the recipes he recommends, so he can give them to customers with confidence. “I want them to be 100% successful,” he laughs. “Otherwise, they’ll come back and tell me, ‘It didn’t work.’ I’d rather they come back super satisfied and ask me for a new one.”

And they do: Over the years, Fernando has really gotten to know his regular customers; he calls them by name, and they call him on his cell phone. “They call me for advice on how to cook something or to find out if we’re going to have a special on live lobsters for Father’s Day,” he says. “It’s amazing really, how you build those close relationships with customers. Gelson’s is a warm, family-oriented place, and they feel like they are a part of our family — and they are, they definitely are.”

Once he had mastered seafood, Fernando moved over to the meat counter, which he says was like night and day to the seafood counter — and a giant opportunity for growth. “I finally got to get on the saw, and I was working next to guys who had 20-plus years of experience. I was the kid in the shop, and they all teased me. They were like fathers to me.”

At first, he started out with the basics: learning to identify the different cuts of meat, grinding our fresh burger meat, and the simple cuts, like skirt steak, brisket, short ribs, and offal. “I didn’t care,” he says. “I finally had a knife in my hand, so cutting liver was my passion. Later, I figured out these were things no one else wanted to do. I was like, ‘Yeah! I get to use the big grinder … oh, it’s cold in here!’”

Eventually, he moved on to the finer cuts, like New York strip steaks, filet mignon, and our signature bone-in cowboy steaks with their exquisite Frenched bones. For Fernando, these are the cuts that set Gelson’s apart. “We’re probably the only supermarket that still opens and closes with a meat cutter,” he says. “That means a customer can come in at any time and get a specialty cut, and we have a variety and quality unseen anywhere else. A lot of our customers come in for the first time to get a crown roast during the holidays. They might question the pricing, but once they taste the meat — oh, it’s a huge difference.”

Fernando has been a buyer for about a year, and his primary focus is on procuring meat and seafood for our stores. He’s found his broad, store-level experience as a meat cutter and merchandiser helpful in his new position. “After working in stores for so long and talking to our customers over the years, I know what they’re looking for,” he says, “and that’s made it easier to take chances on new items.”

Of course, the proteins themselves remain the same, but Fernando has seen big changes in the way people like to eat and shop: He says today’s customers, especially Millennials, want to eat as clean as possible, so they gravitate toward grass-fed and finished beef. They prefer smaller cuts of protein and are more versatile, eating a broad selection of plant-based protein, meat, seafood, and poultry every week. They also shop multiple times a week. “When I was a kid, you’d see big shopping carts full of food that was supposed to last a week or two, which meant it was going in the freezer,” he says. “Now, people like to find a recipe and cook it that day, and they want their food as fresh as possible.”

He says that shopping patterns haven’t changed during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Our customers are still here every day,” he says. “I work here, and I still find myself coming in to shop on my days off. It’s one of the only places you can go, and it gives you a sense of freedom and normalcy. It’s a friendly atmosphere, customers come in and see people they know, and they feel like their life hasn’t changed that much.”

Still, Fernando says Covid-19 has been a big learning experience for all the buyers at Gelson’s in terms of keeping the store stocked through the initial panic and challenging shifts in our food supply chain. In the early weeks of the pandemic, he had some sleepless nights. “I worried so much about my meat guys,” he says. “I wanted to make sure they had everything they needed, to do what I could to ease their minds — so they could be there for our customers, who also worry when they see empty shelves.”

“You know, suddenly, we’re selling out of everything in half as much time,” he continues. “But we’re blessed with great vendors, people we’ve partnered with for years, who went out of their way to help us — and that’s because of everyone that’s ever had this job building those relationships. Our partners took care of us, and we were able to bounce back very quickly.”

Talking to Fernando, one really gets a sense of the greater Gelson’s family — the vendors, the customers, and most especially the folks in the meat and seafood department. “I’ve been very blessed,” he says. “I’ve had so many mentors at this company, and I see that so often with Gelson’s: all the long-tenured people are willing to go out of their way to teach.”

“I’ve built relationships with all the meat guys, they’re like a family to me,” he adds. “I get huge satisfaction out of being able to help them now, let them rely on me, and that’s important because working is such a big part of our lives. Gelson’s has given me a great livelihood, a family, and close friends. I’m so happy to be here, and to do what I can for them, to the best of my abilities, every day — I’m one of the luckiest guys.”