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Diners grilling restaurants over seafood sourcing

Distance doesn't seem to matter. No matter how far they are from the Gulf, waiters and waitresses around the nation are getting the same grilling by diners.

Is your seafood clean?

After months of watching news coverage of tar balls washing up on beaches and oil-soaked wildlife, customers are asking questions about the where their food was fished from, especially items closely associated with the Gulf, like shrimp and oysters.

"We have two oyster dishes on our menu and people want to know where they are from," said Bryce Statham owner of the Blue Moon Fish Co., in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla.

For some restaurants, the solution has been to add new items to the menu (alligator at one New Orleans eatery). Others have sought out the same seafood with a different geography (New Zealand grouper over Gulf Coast, for example).

Still others take a more blunt approach. While Dallas-area restaurants hung up "God Bless the Gulf" signs, another in upstate New York tweeted that they do NOT serve Gulf seafood, which accounts for a bit more than 2 percent of the seafood consumed by Americans, according to industry estimates.

The Associated Press contacted more than a dozen restaurants nationwide and many said the increased curiosity from customers hasn't cost them business. Rather, restaurateurs say some customers seek reassurance before ordering. Servers are getting pointers on assuring customers seafood is from clean waters in the Gulf or another part of the world.

This can be a balancing act. Restaurants typically want to support the devastated Gulf fishing industry but also want to make clear they're steering clear of product from polluted water. Ken Vaughan, director of operations for Flying Fish restaurants, said his restaurants in the Dallas area and in Little Rock, Ark., and Memphis, Tenn., put up "God Bless the Gulf" signs, but they also tell customers who ask that their shrimp comes from reputable suppliers.

Jack's Oyster House in Albany recently told customers on Twitter and Facebook that "Jack's is NOT sourced from the Gulf." In Florida, Statham said staff members checks tags on the oysters so they can tell customers where they are from. Brad Lomax, owner of Water Street Restaurants in Corpus Christi, Texas, said they're training servers to explain that the shrimp is safe.

In Miami, the River Oyster Bar changed the look of its menu to show customers specifically where the oysters are coming from, said David Bracha, chef and owner. He also tells his staff to assure customers that the restaurant tries to buy fish locally when possible. "I try to educate them on where the fish comes from," he said. "If a guest asks them or is concerned, they can speak about it intelligently."

It's still not clear if that customer concern has translated into a nationwide drop in seafood restaurant business. Some Gulf state businesses are clearly affected. Vaughan of Flying Fish said the effects of the oil spill have cost them about 15 percent of their profits. A New Orleans restaurant, Bayona, filed a class-action lawsuit against the companies involved with the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig for the loss of customers and revenue. But other restaurants say business is fine.

Bracha said his business has yet to be affected, though that could change with the currents. "If the oil comes to Florida . . . if it comes to the Keys . . . people are going to be just freaked out," Bracha said. "You are going to see a lot less tourism and less people interested in eating seafood."

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