By Millicent Borges Accardi
Last spring, the landscape of New York City’s Times Square changed dramatically with the arrival of “The Fantastic World of the Portuguese Sardine” store, located at 1582 Broadway, on the corner of 48th Street, run by COMUR a Portuguese canning company.
“O Mundo Fantástico da Sardinha Portuguesa,” as it is known in Portuguese, is a bright and colorful circus-themed store chain that sells only one thing – sardines! Like a festive carnival, colorful cans of sardines can be seen creatively displayed in the open-shelved store. Outlandish decorations and lights can be found all over the shop. Row upon row of cans of sardines are displayed, as if in a library.
Shoppers can find thousands of cans of artistically decorated cans of sardines, some dating back over 100 years. A popular collectible gift is a tin of sardines canned on the birthday or anniversary year of the gift recipient. Sardines are playfully known as Portuguese Gold.
Although the first of its kind in the United States, The Fantastic World of Portuguese Sardine is part of a chain of 20 sardine-themed shops around Portugal, all run by COMUR, whose motto is “The Cannery of Portugal.” As Eater has stated, the store is “set up like a sardine time machine, with cans chronologically arranged by the year stamped on the top of each one, like fine bottles of wine, running from 1916 to the present.”
Founded in 1942, COMUR is one of Portugal’s largest canners. They still use old-fashioned preservation methods of canning. But, interest in tinned fish has been on the rise lately, especially among gourmet “foodies,” global consumers, and chefs like Spanish-American Andrés chef and humanitarian.
The following is an interview by Millicent Borges Accardi with Sónia Felgueiras, director of marketing at COMUR.
Q: What made you decide to have a flagship store in New York’s famous Times Square?
A: Portuguese canned sardines are a delicacy par excellence appreciated in Portugal and around the world. In the United States, Portuguese canned sardines have benefited from historical prestige since the early 20th century when consumption was limited to large cities, especially New York. By that time, the city stood out for the preference of Portuguese canned sardines of greater added value such as boneless and skinless sardines. Today, canned fish stand as a keystone of modern American culture and Times Square would be the perfect place in the world to give Portuguese Sardine the stage they’ve ever deserved.
A: The queen of all fish – the Portuguese sardine – a fish both noble and popular, has ascended the throne during the summer months for many years, showing off its crown up and down the country. But at the Fantastic World of the Portuguese Sardine, the sovereign rules all year round.
Q: How have you come up with a circus theme for sardines?
What better tribute could be paid than through the fantasy of the wonderful world of the circus, also noble and popular, in parallel with the extraordinarily popular nobility of sardines? The fantasy we create in our stores allows us to capture people’s attention and let them learn our rich history and the purpose of our mission: to place the highlight on the fishermen and the artisans.
Q: Sardines are finding new fans because of their nutritious benefits. Do you have many non-Portuguese customers?
A: Yes, for sure! Not only many New Yorkers say they found the perfect place to buy this now trendy and nutritious meal, but also a lot of customers from all over the world who either have visited our stores in the past or are now discovering our wonders of the sea!
Q: The packages are beautiful! And arranged like a library. How did you decide to display tine in such a creative way?
A: The store was designed under the inspiration of a Canning Library, to highlight the rich history of canned fish in Portugal. The country had 400 factories in the late 1960s’ and the canning industry was at that time the second major sector of the Portuguese economy. Today, only 15 remain, but we wanted to pay tribute to the industry’s history having 2.000 real old books in-store to genuinely deliver the concept. We wanted to pay homage to our country.
Q: Do you have sardine tastings?
A: Not at the moment, but it is something we are considering seeing that a lot of our customers are not as used to certain seafood flavors as we, the Portuguese, are.
Q: Are there a lot of Portuguese-American customers who stop by?
A: Yes! We have been getting a lot of Portuguese-American customers who live either in the nearby states, like New Jersey, and decided to take a trip to the city to visit us, but also from across the country who happen to be visiting the city and stumble across our store. The reaction when they see the word “Portuguese” on the stage of the world that is Times Square is absolutely wonderful!
Q: Do you have sardine merchandise? Like hats and t-shirts?
A: No. We concentrate our offer on what distinguishes us: canned fish, mainly sardines. This way we ensure we put all the spotlight on the fishermen and the artisans and their incredible work and knowledge.
Q: Who is your ideal customer?
A: Everyone in the world. Everyone is invited to this fantastic experience and to taste the flavors of the Portuguese sea.
Q: Can those of us who do not live in New York City purchase your canned sardines online?
A: Soon they will. We are preparing an online shop that will also be available throughout the US. Meanwhile, we invite everybody to visit our store in Times Square, or visit our wonderful country, Portugal, to explore our stores, all different from the other, and all celebrating the Portuguese sardine.
Q: What’s your best-selling sardine brand and flavor?
A: All our canned fish live under the same brand, “The Fantastic World of the Portuguese Sardine.” If we had to name one to be the most iconic of Portugal and knowing the royal condition of the sardine, we would definitely go for the ingot: boneless and skinless sardines, with edible gold flakes. A superb taste of Portugal, to delight everyone.
Q: Do you think the market for Portuguese products like wine and sardines is growing in the US?
A: Today, canned fish stands as a keystone of modern American culture: they are a ready-to-eat, healthy, tasty, versatile, long-lasting product, with a broad portfolio of fish and easy to transport and travel. This trend of consumption in the US market sees unprecedented growth, stimulated by changes in consumer tastes, convenience, and the adoption of a healthier lifestyle, without having to give up on taste. We cannot respond about wine, but canned sardines are facing huge growth in the US.
Q: Are there plans to open other shops in the US? Perhaps in Portuguese communities in California Massachusetts or New Jersey?
A: We have just opened this store in Times Square, and we are studying the market for other possible locations.
Q: Have you promoted sardines in Portuguese communities in the US?
A: There is no Portuguese that does not love sardines or recognize them as a symbol of Portugal. Being in Times Square, the center of the World, it’s a huge promotion itself, for Portuguese communities and others.
Q: What are the variations and the range of different products you offer?
A: Besides the sardine, the Queen of the Atlantic, and the most iconic fish in Portugal, the store offers a wide variety of canned fish in more than 20 varieties: Codfish (another icon of Portuguese gastronomy), Octopus, Tuna, Salmon, Croaker, Seabass, Mussels, Calamari and others for a full immersion into the flavors of the Portuguese sea.
Q: Can you describe the inside of the store?
A: “Stars and Stripes Forever,” music is played throughout the store (and others by the same composer). This music, created in 1896 by John Philip Sousa, became the national march of the United States of America. A descendant of the Portuguese, John Philip Sousa represents well the diverse origin of America, made up of multiple immigrant communities that fulfill the American dream.
The 6 dolls in-store represent the music band and were inspired by Portuguese Popular Festivities held mainly in the north of Portugal with musicians formally dressed as in the olden days. The store has an LED wall with a multisensorial video representing a window to Portugal. Following the lights of Times Square and its magic, the video is an invitation to dive into Portugal’s fantasy!
Q: What do YOU LOVE about sardines?
A: Absolutely everything! Sardines are a Portuguese popular dish, super delicious and super healthy. We are definitely crazy for sardines!
Q: Are sardines the national dish of Portugal?
Q: Do you host events? Like Fado or wine tastings?
A: Not yet, but it is a great idea we may consider someday.
Q: What are your plans for the future, for the NY store? Any special events or announcements?
A: The dream of venturing to bring the Portuguese Sardine to Times Square, took a lot of courage. Despite the fear, we moved forward to our American dream with a store at the number 1592, with a storefront both on busy Broadway and on 48th Street. It is our first store outside Portugal, a flagship store that aims to conquer the city that never sleeps and extend to other states in the coming years. We are passionate dreamers and believers of this project. The future will tell what other opportunities may arise!
Q: Is there a message you have for our Portuguese American Journal readers?
A: Certainly: be proud of our country and people. With this store, our dream is in fact a project of social economy, spotlighting the fishermen and the artisans whose art continues to make canned sardines an exquisite delicacy. The production methods were artisanal in 1942, when the factory was founded, as that was the standard of the canning industry in Portugal at the time. Today, the same production methods are still used, but for a different reason: the fish is delicately prepared by the hands of those who have inherited this legacy of knowledge from generations, something that machinery will never be able to overcome or even compare. Maintaining this legacy, and properly rewarding the fishermen and the artisans, is the great ambition of the project. Those at the beginning of the chain are often forgotten. The American dream of the Portuguese sardine is to bring it to the spotlight, to the busiest place on the globe, transforming their lives and putting them on the map. This is not only a store, this is the Portuguese fishermen’s embassy on the pinnacle of the world, Times Square.
Find more pictures here.
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Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of four poetry collections, including Through Grainy Landscape, 2021 (inspired by Portuguese writings) and Quarantine Highway (2022). Her awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, Creative Capacity, California Arts Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Covid grant), and Fundação Luso-Americana (Portugal). She also curates the popular Kale Soup for the Soul reading series.