SFB August 2013

Originally published in Seafood Business Magazine

Seafood veterans John Yokoyama and John Yates keep the fish moving at Pike Place Fish Market, Buckhead Beef (Sysco)

Seafood buyers who not only want to learn more about the U.S. marketplace but also the diverse folks in the trade read SeaFood Business. In our annual Buyer’s Turn feature, which celebrates our readers, we’d like you to meet two of the best in the business. They’re both named John Y., but the similarities don’t stop there. These men — John Yokoyama, owner of Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, and John Yates, director of seafood for Sysco subsidiary Buckhead Beef — have built their careers on a foundation of pride and commitment.


— Pike Place Fish Market

Several sights spring to mind when you think of Seattle: The Space Needle anchoring the skyline; fishing boats crowding the waterfront; Mt. Rainier dominating the horizon (on a clear day); and smiling fishmongers in orange slickers tossing salmon back and forth.

That last iconic image can be traced to one guy: John Yokoyama, longtime owner of Seattle’s legendary Pike Place Fish Market. The story about how fish came to be flung like rugby balls at the market is indeed interesting; even more so is the “World Famous” phenomenon that Pike Place Fish Market has become, against all odds. But what might be most fascinating about Yokoyama’s story is how he ultimately found success. It wasn’t with salmon, or even throwing it, really.

“The difference, I think, is the person that I changed into,” he says.

That happened in the mid-1980s. Yokoyama had reluctantly accepted outside help from business consultant Jim Bergquist, who gave him some difficult news to digest — his business needed goals, values and commitment. Not only that, his attitude needed a serious adjustment.

“I was what you’d call a screaming maniac. I’d yell and scream at my employees,” he says. “With [Jim’s] philosophy, I had to alter who I was being — from this tyrant boss to someone who loves, supports and empowers his employees.”

It was a life-changing turnaround, not just a new business strategy.

“It was a 180-degree turn from my personality, so it was pretty tough but I was committed to doing that,” Yokoyama says, adding that it wasn’t always easy because the business he had owned since 1965 (he bought the company for $3,500; $300 down and $300 a month) wasn’t either. For instance, a wholesale operation he had started years earlier went $300,000 in the hole in its first six months before it was abandoned. He was “practically broke,” and prone to negativity.

Similarly challenging for Yokoyama was creating goals, both for himself and for the company. For years, moving fish in and moving fish out was really the only concern. Never was the future top-priority, until Bergquist got everybody to focus on tomorrow, and to think big when doing so.

“The first time we got together he set up a meeting with myself and the whole crew and he said that we had to create a vision for our company. You gotta understand that at that time I was just a fishmonger; I didn’t know too much about anything except, well, fish,” says Yokoyama, laughing at himself. “I asked him, ‘What the hell is a vision?’ He said it was something you want to create in your future that’s pretty big; something you want to live up to, you know?”

Crazy as it may sound, the little fish stall in a bustling public market where eclectic vendors hawk fresh produce, fish and art wasn’t thinking about being known throughout the city as the place to buy fresh fish. There was a bigger objective in mind.

“And so, there were six of us at that time, and we were brainstorming at that meeting and one of the young kids said, ‘Let’s become world famous.’ And I looked at that kid and I thought, ‘What are you, nuts? This is a fish market.’ As the meeting went on, Jim said to me, ‘We ought to take a look at that possibility.’”

Over the next few years, things started turning around, both in terms of morale and money. As they say, one thing led to another and the opportunities for publicity and notoriety started rolling along: When the 1990 Goodwill Games were played in town, news crews stopped by the market almost daily, sending Pike Place fish-tossing images to all corners of the globe. A corporate-training video producer also took notice. His 17-minute video featuring Yokoyama and all the positive energy he and his crew were creating became a huge hit. Soon, public-speaking opportunities at corporate offices and annual meetings became easy money; some requests were swatted away, there were so many. Spike Lee filmed a Levi’s commercial featuring some of the market’s employees; a few of the guys earned credits in the 1993 film “Free Willy.” The market’s name and reputation spread like wildfire, long before Google and YouTube were the tools de rigueur.

“Those things just happened out of our commitment, now that I look back,” says Yokoyama. “We were committed to having this vision happen and out of that, you know, the world kinda confirmed that with us and sent us the opportunity to become what we were going to be.”

And that’s “World Famous,” the company’s official tagline. The logo depicts a guy in orange slickers, tossing a salmon. “We used to wear yellow ones, but someone came back one day with new orange ones once and that’s been our look ever since.”

Today, Yokoyama thinks about the future in a different way. He’s 73 years old, and a transfer-of-ownership plan is not far from his mind, even though he still does all the “big ticket” buying for the market, for products like frozen crab. His younger brother Dicky retired last year after managing the store for 12 years. Dicky’s son Ryan is the only other employed family member, says Yokoyama of his shipping manager, one of 15 full-time employees, most of them long-timers (there are a total of 17 in the summer). What he’d like most is to sell the business to them, so they can “carry on the tradition.” His employees have become like family, and he still holds meetings with them every two weeks to “make sure the crew is pumped up.”

Because at Pike Place Fish Market, all who pass by are treated like kin, even tourists seemingly more interested in snapping pictures of the guys tossing a salmon than buying some (Yokoyama swears that only a cheap “dummy” salmon gets tossed around multiple times and that any fish that is sold is only thrown once). “Extraordinary customer service” is the daily goal, says Yokoyama.

“We learned from Jim through the years that your experience in life is totally your choice. You can experience that crowd as a pain in the butt, or choose to say, ‘Hey, you are world famous, that’s why these people are out here watching you.’ You have to be responsible for your image. It’s your job to take care of those people,” he says. “It’s an honor for us.”

Anyone who’s visited the market knows that fun is had there. When the guys get going and crank up the intensity and the fish are flying, you see as many smiles as fish scales. It’s seafood theater at its best — the way it’s done here is done nowhere else.

So, how did that fish-tossing thing get started anyway? Pure laziness, as it turns out.

“We used to have this L-shaped counter. If somebody wanted clams we had out front, I had to walk all the way around the counter, go out to the front of the counter, pick up the product and walk it all the way back,” Yokoyama says. “One day I started counting steps. Geez, 150 steps — for 1 pound of clams! That’s a lot of steps for a pound of clams, at 29 cents a pound! So the next time I went around I put them in a bag and said, ‘Hey, catch!’ And I thought, wow, I just saved 150 steps! So, I started putting one guy out front, so if anybody wanted anything out front, they’d pick it up and throw it over the counter. Now they throw everything … as long as it doesn’t have spines on it.”


— Buckhead Beef (Sysco)

In his youth, John Yates didn’t dream of throwing fish but baseballs for a living. He would have preferred to patrol the outfield at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, not far from where he grew up, or maybe write the great American novel. Seafood, it seems, found him.

“I always tell people you just kind of end up in this business,” says Yates. “There’s no Ph.D. in fishmonger. I don’t think there are a lot of kids wishing they’re going to be the next fishmonger extraordinaire, like they do a doctor, lawyer or maybe Derek Jeter. But there seems to be a personality disposition that loves this business.”

The fast-talking fish veteran, who’s the director of seafood for Buckhead Beef, a division of Sysco that handles top East Coast foodservice accounts, is one of those guys who love the gig, even though it can drive you crazy. He says seafood is much like the game the New York Yankees’ shortstop plays so skillfully.

“I’ve always been a huge baseball fan and I see the parallels to the seafood business — both can be very unpredictable and difficult to do well,” he explains. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a week in the seafood business in which I laid out a game plan and it worked out just the way I thought it would. I guess that’s what always keeps it interesting.”

Unpredictable, it seems, describes his career as well. Yates, 46, has a degree in English literature from the University of Scranton (Pa.) with a minor in business. He also earned a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales University in 1990, which was like second nature to him, since he began working in kitchens at age 15. The sixth of seven kids in his family, Yates says having a job as a teenager wasn’t exactly a choice. “I was raised in a big Irish family — you needed spending money, you got a job, it was one of those kind of deals,” he says.

Good thing Yates started early, because he developed a work ethic that has carried him to where he is today. But along the way, the stops weren’t always glamorous. Like the time he cut fish for Pride Seafood on the New Jersey shore.

“I started at the bottom. My first job … I had a four-year college degree, English Honors Society, graduated top of my class in culinary school, with a 4.0 average, married, kid on the way and I’m scraping red snappers and skinning cod,” Yates says. “There weren’t too many opportunities in the English lit world. I was working six days a week in a little seafood company on the Jersey Shore. But you know what? It worked. That decision put me on a path I never expected and I never looked back.”

Within a few years, he landed a sales gig at DB Brown in Carteret, N.J. “It was a $500 million meat company,” Yates says. “They’re doing export, they’re doing casinos, all the big steak houses in New York City. It was wide open for me, coming from a small-world seafood company on the shore to that environment. That was a really hard-driving sales force.”

After DB Brown was sold, Yates and a couple of colleagues decided not to join the new company, but to instead start up a Northeast office for Buckhead Beef, based in Atlanta, before it was acquired by Sysco. While Yates was finding his role there, his old friends at Pride — Jerry Montanino and Evan Stark — were starting up a new company and wanted him to join. He couldn’t refuse, and became co-founder of Trinity Seafood in Asbury Park, N.J., in 2001.

“I’m not saying it was the American dream, but it was the definition of going out and starting your own business and being an entrepreneur — the American spirit,” Yates says. “It was hard, the same tale told by many: Work long hours, cut a lot of fish, go to the markets, drive trucks, do everything. Jerry and I used to race cutting fish. We’d block ourselves in with pallets of cod and fluke and say, ‘We can’t leave until we cut our way out!’”

After eight years, Yates decided it was time for something new, and his partners bought him out. “I was ready to do different things. We just made a decision. I’m always one for what’s next. I have goals and targets and I saw myself doing something more. I can look back and say it was a good venture, a tough eight years but a good eight years.”

Buckhead Beef brought Yates back as a general manager in 2008, charging him with opening a division in Charlotte, N.C., from the blueprint stage through its first year of operations. Now, as director of seafood, he sources product from all over the world and handles many of Sysco’s key foodservice accounts, covering a wide geographical area. Last August he moved back home to work at Buckhead’s New Jersey office, where the competition for fresh fish is fierce.

“Like everyone else, our No. 1 fresh item is going to be salmon, that’s really what it’s all about,” he says. “Scallops are obviously a big item for us on the fresh side. Getting those two items right is the key to maintaining a successful program.

“We try to go out to the best possible vendors, get the best pricing and maintain our quality at the highest level. It’s a good formula. We have a lot of vendors we have good relationships with,” Yates says, adding that his friends at Trinity remain trusted suppliers. “[Vendors] want to do business with us and want to get us the right product. I’m sure we do a good job of getting our share.”

Sysco, one of the largest U.S. food distributors, has been getting even larger. Recent acquisitions — like Houston-based distributor Louisiana Foods, purchased last August — have fueled a growth period that’s keeping Yates awfully busy.

“When people see the momentum we’re creating, I can see why they want to be part of it,” Yates says, shortly after giving a presentation in New York City to one of Sysco’s major accounts. Manhattan isn’t far from the Jersey Shore, as the crow flies, but the big city might feel sometimes like a million miles away from where he wielded the fillet knife day after day. In the seafood world, he’s made it to the big leagues.

“I’m like most in the industry. If you’re in it, you’re in it seven days a week, day and night, buying and selling, doing food shows, training, running production. There really is no start or finish to my week, it just runs on every day,” says Yates. “We’re passionate at Sysco about what we do and we want people to view us as a great option for seafood. I love it. It’s an exciting business.”

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