Baldor’s Kevin Lindgren: Seafood has a branding problem
Baldor Specialty Foods Director of Merchandising Kevin Lindgren thinks seafood has a branding problem in the United States.
Many U.S. customers have lost trust in seafood as a sustainable protein, he said, and a lack of brand names to provide the protein with flagship representation has turned some customers off of seafood altogether, Lindgren said.
“As well as a lack of transparency that's associated with a brand, people just don’t know which seafood is going to be great-tasting, sustainably raised, supporting the local economy. For people who care about those things, or who have been scared by Netflix documentaries – which may not be fair in the way that they frame things – they can’t figure it out,” he said.
Bronx, New York, U.S.A.-based Baldor Specialty Foods was founded in 1991 out of the expansion of a New York City-based specialty produce store, quickly establishing a reputation “as the purveyor of choice for fine-dining establishments,” according to a company history. The company opened warehouses in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 2006, Jessup, Maryland, in 2012, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 2020, and as part of an ambitious expansion plan, now serves as a foodservice distributor to more than 5,000 restaurants in a region that stretches from Portland, Maine, to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Manassas, Virginia.
Lindgren said the company is still building up its seafood category, but that it’s on track to double in total sales for each of the next three years, with continued 50 to 60 percent growth for the three years beyond that.
“Our president has a saying that in the farm-to-fork equation, we're not the farm and we’re not the fork, we’re the ‘to.’ We’re in charge of getting the product from point A to point B,” Lindgren said. “But we don't want to be just another commodity [shop]. Everyone thinks of us as offering the best produce in the world. And we want to try to build out our animal protein categories and our seafood categories in the same sort of way – we want to offer premium products and not just have the same commodity that everybody else has.”
Lindgren said his job is finding proteins Baldor can feel good about championing. And he said that meshes well with what the company’s foodservice customers are demanding.
“They're getting more knowledgeable and more demanding in making sure the food they’re buying and serving align with their values. Our consumer is very educated and very much cares about what what's going on with their food. They want to know where it's coming from, and they want to know how it was raised and how it is getting to their restaurant,” he said. “For us, branding the product is about providing transparency and consistency to the customer. We're not selling the brands – we're really selling the people and the story behind the brands and our transparency comes in highlighting them. My main job is to find great partners, and then highlight them to our customers. And our customers really respond when we connect them with a story and with a place where the product is coming from.”
For seafood, the number-one trait chefs are looking for is third-party certification, according to Lindgren.
“Our customers – and especially our high-end customers – really like to see [certifications]. When you have a third party coming in and guaranteeing a product meets standards, it really gives what they want, because they know that they're getting what they pay for,” he said.
Certifications also address what Lilndgren described as the biggest problem facing the lack of transparency many consumers face – and dread – when they’re considering buying seafood.
“The biggest problem that seafood has in general is transparency and understanding what actually is going on with the product and what actually is best for the fish and for the for the environment,” he said. “Branding can help with that, but if you're branded and you're not telling the whole story of the product, I feel like you're really selling the product short and the consumer short.”
Environmental and labor certifications, along with provenance, are now pillars of Baldor’s seafood category strategy, Lindgren said.
“Local, local, local has been huge for 10 to 15 years now, and our thing is we offer a huge selection of local produce and local protein and local specialty items. And we thought it [is] really important for us to have a domestic product, and even more specifically, a local product,” he said. “When we say local, you're not going to raise Atlantic salmon off the coast of Long Island [in New York]. It's just not going to work. So how close can we get to the source? How close can we get it to us? And how do we educate the chef on, ‘Hey, this is about as close as we can get this for reasons X, Y, and Z.’”
Thanks to hard work done by the industry, distributors, and consumers’ own efforts to educate themselves, trust in seafood brands is growing, and Lindgren said that is already manifesting in the hotel, restaurant, and catering (HORECA) sector beginning to list brand names on menus.
“I think you're going to see more and more branding on menus as we kind of get people a little bit more comfortable with the seafood brands that are doing things right,” Lindgren said. “If you bring something to chefs once, they're not going to put it on the menu right away. They want to kind of make sure, ‘Hey, is the supply chain good? Is the quality going to hold up over the course of a couple of different weeks or month or seasons?’”
Baldor hopes to continue to play an integral role in building bridges between the seafood industry and its customers, Lindgren said.
“The goal for the seafood category at Baldor is to provide a tremendous amount of transparency and try to raise just the overall industry standard,” Lindgren said. “Whenever we can source a really nice product and be totally transparent about where it's coming from, we’ll do that. And then we let chefs decide what they think is the is the best product out there.”
Photo courtesy of Baldor Specialty Foods