New eCommerce app hopes to change how buyers access distributors

The interface for the Seattle Fish Company's version of the Pepper app.

A group of tech experts is hoping to enhance how the food distribution industry manages its sales supply chain, and seafood companies are already starting to get on board.

Pepper, an eCommerce platform for food distributors, is strictly targeting the business-to-business side of purchasing and ordering products – including seafood. Pepper Co-Founder and CEO Bowie Cheung told SeafoodSource the goal is to bring some of the better parts of how tech has changed things on the consumer side to the business side to streamline processes.

“One of the things we’ve been really passionate about and really excited about is to bring technology to the food industry,” Cheung said. “The way we experience food as consumers is not the same as it was seven or eight years ago.”

Cheung and his team have a range of experience when it comes to launching an eCommerce platform. Cheung himself was part of the management team at the beginnings of Uber Eats, and staff at Pepper have experience with Uber, Amazon, Google, and other big-name tech companies.

Cheung said the team realized the opportunity to create a new app after getting to know different owners and operators in the food space.

“We just think there's a world of opportunity to be a great partner for them and take some of the techniques and skills that we've learned over the years building technology for consumers and build great technology that can help them build the business of the future through distribution – so that's what we're all about,” Cheung said.

The core philosophy is relatively straightforward: Pepper works with a food distributor to create a platform designed around the company’s needs. Pepper helps the distribution company launch apps, create websites, and do it in such a way that it’s tailor-made for the distribution industry in question.

The app that’s created can then be used by buyers to identify products and order the things they need, in a way that should feel familiar for anyone who has ordered a product from Amazon or another eCommerce site. The app itself can be tailor-made to the distributor in such a way that it could offer up information about products, let customers know what’s available, or even upsell different products.

One of the core goals of the work, according to Cheung, is to all but eliminate the transactional work that sales representatives at companies are doing, so they can spend more time selling and less time entering orders.

Margaret Hancock, who works in business development for Pepper, has experience as a sales person in seafood – she spent a decade working in the seafood industry and has worked with companies like Seattle Fish, Blue Ocean Mariculture, and Ducktrap Salmon. Pepper, she told SeafoodSource, caught her attention while she was working with Ducktrap, and after seeing it in action she said she jumped at the chance to work for the company.

“It really is life-changing for these sales reps, and as a former vendor in the space, it’s really cool to see how we’ll be able to use these apps to upsell products,” Hancock said.

Cheung added that with the increased efficiency, a lot of the companies that have adopted the product so far have seen sales increases.

“On average, when they get up and running, they see a 20 percent sales lift,” he said.

So far, a few seafood companies have already started working with Pepper, and Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.-based Seattle Fish Company officially launched the app on 1 August. Seattle Fish CEO Derek Figueroa told SeafoodSource that the company had multiple motivations for pursuing the app.

“We’ve got two or three motivators. One is to eliminate any of the sort of transactional activity that our reps are doing to get orders,” Figueroa said. With the labor market already tight, freeing up reps from simply putting in sales orders allows for them to be more efficient, and less hassle on behalf of buyers.

“If the customer knows what they need, and we've already talked about pricing and availability, then there's not a lot of value for the rep to just take the order,” Figueroa said.

The second motivator, he said, is meeting customers where they want to be from a self-service standpoint, allowing them to take on as much of the buying as they want.

“It’s easier, and not just for us,” Figueroa said.

Overall, the goal is to free up Seattle Fish’s sales reps so they’re able to actually sell products instead of take orders.

“What is the sales reps highest and best use? For us, that’s going to be building relationships, educating folks, and pursuing new customers,” Figueroa said. In addition, more time for sales reps means they can pursue more in-depth conversations with customers about stuff like seasonality, training waitstaff about seafood, and being more available for busy operators who are already dealing with a constrained labor environment.

“Those are things that I think we can sort of help customers especially in this time of need, where things are pretty tough,” Figueroa said.

When launching any new system that changes one of the most fundamental, and essential, parts of a business, there’s always the question of whether or not customers will be willing to adopt the tech. According to Cheung, Pepper’s goal is to make it so easy for the distributor’s customers that it feels like something they’ve already been doing.

“We heard a lot of questions about that,” Cheung said. “I don’t know what it is about the kind of picture that we have about foodservice operators, but kind of the first instinct is envisioning someone who has been doing the same job in the same way for the last 30 years and is a little bit grumpy when it comes to technology or maybe doesn’t want to change their habits.”

That vision, he said, doesn’t really meet the reality of the market today, or how people interact with buying and selling products. Cheung pointed out that most people have used one form or another of eCommerce app, whether it be ordering something from Amazon or grabbing take-out from DoorDash. He added that the company specifically went through a lot of effort in product design by studying older platforms that people are familiar with and making sure Pepper would match that design language.

“We went through a lot of painstaking effort with our product designers to kind of look at all those old platforms and work with folks that would be buyers today and understand what are the features that are really important for them and need to feel like super easy and intuitive when you use the app,” Cheung said. “The goal is that you don’t need training, you don’t need a manual to get it right.”

That aspect of the app is part of what drew Seattle Fish to it, Figueroa said, as the company is sensitive of any type of new process at a time when vendors and restaurants are already experiencing time crunches.

“The biggest piece is, if you put all this stuff in front of customers and ultimately it doesn’t work, it kind of knocks on your brand a little bit,” Figueroa said. “We’re pretty sensitive to any time that we want to roll something out, ask something of them, ask them to give a little bit of trust or confidence.”

Cheung hinted that other companies in the seafood space are already planning launches of their own, and that so far data points to most buyers jumping on board and continuing to use the app.

“It’s been a crazy couple of years, and it’s still a crazy time in the food industry,” Cheung said. “Things are changing, probably faster than they’ve ever been, so it’s fun to be a part of that.”  

Image courtesy of Pepper


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