Bumble Bee pushing past scandal and bankruptcy with new partnerships and products

Bumble Bee has emerged from years of tumult with a splash: A new owner, new product packaging, new product lines, and, perhaps most significantly, an industry-first partnership with a plant-based food producer, Good Catch.

The San Diego, California, U.S.A.-based tuna company’s travails of the past couple years are well-known. The company was fined USD 25 million (EUR 22.3 million) after pleading guilty in a tuna price-fixing scandal in 2017, then entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy this past November. In January, the company was bought by the Taiwanese company FCF Co. for USD 928 million (EUR 826 million), with which it has a 30-year business relationship.

CEO and President Jan Tharp described the new advances the company has made since its recent tumultuous past in an interview with SeafoodSource.

"We are very enthusiastic about our road ahead. We called our dark days our choppy waters. We are through the choppy waters," Tharp told SeafoodSource. "We have come out of the bankruptcy. We've sold the company. This is a new day here."

The company's renewal started with a new group of employees who joined in the last 18 months and brought new perspectives about the brand's positioning and how the product appears on store shelves.

"We understand that all consumers are somewhere on that health and wellness continuum. Whether they're vegan or just trying to eat less sugar, they're somewhere on that journey," Vice President of Corporate Brand Strategy Renee Junge told SeafoodSource.

To identify what matters most to consumers, Bumble Bee asked thousands of them about their preferences, then decided to narrow in on convenience foods and snacking. Ninety-two percent of people snack once or more per day, while half of people snack three times or more per day, according to Bumble Bee, and they're looking for a clean protein that is convenient – a prime market opportunity for Bumble Bee.

New packaging started showing up on store shelves in January, with the transition likely to last for the next 12 to 18 months. Some products were modified, including a redone tuna pouch that will hit shelves in April and May with a modified spork and easier opening process. Bumble Bee sees significant growth potential for pouched tuna; sales increased 40 percent in 2019. 

Bumble Bee is also offering microwaveable Bistro Bowls, which have tuna, vegetables, and a grain. Canadian buyers could purchase the bowls at the end of last year under the Clover Leaf brand. The product is drawing new customers: 30 percent of buyers had never purchased Clover Leaf before, while 20 percent hadn't been down the shelf-stable aisle in the last 12 months, Junge said. Bumble Bee will roll out a test form of the product in the U.S. in the third quarter.

Bumble Bee already dominates the snack tuna category, with 70 percent of the category, Junge said, and the company will continue to focus there. A new version of the “Protein on the Run” snack pack that is more tuna-forward will include crackers and a salt caramel, and will roll out in the third quarter in time for the back to school.

Meanwhile, a revamped canned tuna product will show up in the third quarter of this year.

Cans still have a place among Bumble Bee's offerings as an at-home food that arrives in a package that is more easily recycled than plastic.

"When we look at the can, we don't look at it as an obsolete package. We look at it as an opportunity for our company if you have the right product offering," Tharp said.

The partnership with Good Catch, which creates imitation seafood analogs using a blend of six legumes, is the first for a seafood company, but Bumble Bee sees plant-based products as a way to expand the seafood industry for a growing global population – while still protecting the ocean. Good Catch will pay Bumble Bee to distribute its products.

"We really believed that plant-based could have a space inside our seafood [offerings], or our mantra of creating products inspired by the ocean," Tharp said. "We feel that what we bring to this partnership is a sophisticated supply chain, distribution, factory support."

The partnership is in its early stages, and Tharp sees great potential for further cooperation and growth.

"I think the future is wide open as to what that looks like going forward," Tharp said. "I absolutely do not see it as competitive. I think it's complementary … We're widening the aperture of our vision of seafood."

The two brands are distinct, with Good Catch targeting consumers looking for plant-based products, while Bumble Bee focuses on traditional fisheries.

"The DNA of Bumble Bee is traditional fishing, and we'll stay in our sandbox," Tharp said.

Bumble Bee is also closely watching the cultivated seafood space – tracking companies such as BlueNalu and Finless Foods, both of which create seafood products by growing fish cells in the lab to create seafood products.

"I love the concept and it's something we will keep our eye on," Tharp said. "It's in its infancy right now, so the cost might be prohibitive, but I think they'll get there.”

Photo courtesy of JJava Designs/Shutterstock 


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