Foley Fish navigating the pandemic with retail, direct-to-consumer sales

Published on
December 1, 2020

Like most other seafood processors and distributors, New Bedford, Massachusetts, U.S.A.-based Foley Fish had to quickly pivot when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States in early March.

The 114-year-old company supplies retail, foodservice, and consumer accounts across the country, but the coronavirus proved an existential threat to the company's existence.

“We lost 85 percent of our business overnight,” Foley Co-Owner Laura Ramsden told SeafoodSource. 

Ramsden said the primary processor has been facing a new wave of potential lost foodservice businesses as states and municipalities shut down indoor dining due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. Recent indoor dining closures in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Rhode Island are currently hitting the distributor the most, Ramsden said, and restaurant customers waiting to hear if the closures will expand to their area are also holding off on placing orders as to avoid spoilage.

While Foley has taken a huge financial hit in foodservice sales, to the point where it had to temporarily closed its facility in Boston at the start of the pandemic and operate solely out of its more modern New Bedford facility, it has survived thanks to its retail accounts and key pivots it made at a critical time.

The processor has some strong retail accounts – including Mansfield, Massachusetts-based Roche Bros., which operates 21 grocery stores –that have experienced a bump in demand for seafood since the start of the pandemic. Roche and Foley, which have a 40-year partnership, teamed up to increase seafood shipments to its stores.

“When COVID-19 started, there was a shortage of beef, pork, and other proteins, but we never had a shortage of seafood protein,” Josh Naughton, Roche’s director of deli, seafood, and specialty cheese, told SeafoodSource. “We gained a lot of customers because of [switching proteins] and [customers] are hooked on seafood now.”

Roche’s seafood sales surged 25 percent during the spring and summer months, and now are still up 15 percent over the same time last year, according to Naughton.

In addition to all types of fresh and frozen seafood, sales of value-added items such as marinated fish “went through the roof,” Naughton said.

“That segment is up close to 50 percent since COVID-19 started,” Naughton said. Among other items, Roche offers a dozen different marinades, including its popular Bourbon Glaze, for fresh fish and shellfish.

Naughton said he believes the Foley-Roche partnership works so well in part because of Foley’s dedication to local, sustainable products.

“Everyone knows Foley and they hold them as the standard of what they want to be," Naughton said. "They dedicated their business to only selling sustianable, all-natural product."

Sustainability is important to Roche’s shoppers, but they are more concerned about the “locality of where the product is coming from,” Naughton said. Roche, which implemented a QR code traceability program with Foley eight years ago, carries around 10 local New England species weekly.

In addition to its increased reliance on its retail accounts, the company has turned to new revenue streams, including direct-to-consumer channels and e-commerce sales, to help it cope with the unprecedented economic challenge COVID-19 has presented.

It began selling “Protein Packs” on its website, shipping packs of salmon, fish, and shellfish nationwide via UPS. The variety Protein Pack includes two Bay of Fundy Salmon fillets, 16 ounces of Foley All-Natural Sea Scallops, two six-ounce packs of Acadian redfish for fish tacos, and two eight-ounce packs Atlantic cod for USD 55 (EUR 46). 

“The Protein Packs helped keep the lights on,” Ramsden said.

Ramsden said the company delivers the Protein Packs to residences in Massachusetts and Rhode Island twice a week. Soon after the deliveries began, “people responded like it was religious.”

“They said that they have never had fish this good and have never had frozen fish like this,” Ramsden said. “It just reinforced what we are doing here: We are putting all natural fish out in the markets."

Photo courtesy of Foley Fish

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