Chris Rosenberger working to keep Inland Seafood relevant, thriving amid market turbulence
Chris Rosenberger is the president of Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.-based Inland Seafood, which was founded in 1977 and has grown to become one of the largest seafood distributors in the country. It is a leading packer of Maine lobster and a supplier of seafood and non-seafood specialty products for thousands of restaurants and retailers.
SeafoodSource: Inland Seafood has been through a lot in the past three years. How has the company survived through the COVID-19 pandemic?
Rosenberger: Until January 2020, when [former U.S. President Donald] Trump did the [Phase One] deal with China, our lobster business took a USD 30 million (EUR 27.7 million) hit in sales because we couldn’t export to China. We got through that. And then in February 2021, we lost one of our largest retail accounts, which cost us USD 6.2 million (EUR 5.7 million). A lot of people questioned us back then. I got a lot of calls from international people and local people wondering if we were going to be OK. My competitors all said we would never make it – there's no way we could take a hit that large. Well, we got through it and I thought we were going to be good. And then the pandemic hit. One of the things I think I've prided myself on over the years is that we never laid a person off, and I hung my hat on that. We survived everything. But when COVID hit, I personally stayed at work with my HR department and signed 240 slips letting people go. I went home and I had tears in my eyes. The great news came two-and-a-half weeks later when we qualified and got our PPP, and I was able to hire everybody back. And that was probably one of my proudest days, to be able to bring everybody back.
SeafoodSource: After you got the PPP loan, what was your strategy for pivoting to adapt to the changing markets created by the pandemic?
Rosenberger: During that time, everybody was trying to figure out how they were going to scale back. We were trying to figure out how we're going to grow. You can only scale back to a point and then all of a sudden, there's nothing left to cut. So we actually had a lot of projects going on. We'd already started upgrading to new software system, and I wanted to put a building in Nashville, because Nashville is the gateway to the South from the North. So that was a strategic move for us. And that building is doing really well. We opened up Orlando in the same two years and then we built a manufacturing business to do all our value-added items in Cumming, Georgia.
Having a big retail presence – which if you talked to any of my competitors before the pandemic, they would have said was too big – helped us a lot. In April 2020, all of a sudden, it was like holy cow, retail is going to carry us through this. And so my approach is always to balance the business. I need restaurants and I need retail – I’ve got to have them both, and they support each other.
To all those people who doubted us, I want to let them know we're still here. We're stronger. We're better. We learned a lot about our business in the pandemic. Other companies, they saw the money to be made and they just pushed sales, sales, sales, to the point where they really weren't watching costs. But at some point, the sales aren’t going to be there, and they’re going to say, uh-oh, how are we going to redo this? For us, after getting hit three times like that, we’ve learned those lessons and we survived.
SeafoodSource: What retail trends helped you through the pandemic? Do you think those trends are lasting, or are they fading?
Rosenberger: We deliver six days a week to over 5,500 restaurants and retailers, so I like to think we have a finger on the pulse of where the public is getting the ideas of what they should be eating, before they go to the grocery store. The big thing in the retail business has been grab-and-go. Consumers want convenience, but they also want really good food. And there are ways to do that. But you go into the frozen section of every grocery store and you see all those 299 items and you grab the shrimp in the pasta. There's like three shrimp and a lot of pasta. If you look at our stuff, we're really focused on the protein, and we do original items. Most people on the value-added side only did farm-raised fish like salmon and trout, because they knew it was readily available. We were one of the first to jump out and do wild-caught fish. Everybody thought we were crazy. Our sea salt mahi hit the market and then we did swordfish, and those have been successful, and we're going to continue to do innovative things like that. But it’s important to find the right consumer.
In our business, when you look at the retail sector, most people who shop at the fish counter probably aren't shopping in the frozen food section. It's a very small percentage and vice versa, who are shopping in the frozen food section and also buy at the fresh counter – I would say it’s an 80-20 split both ways. So we've got to get the flavor profiles that are up and coming. Bourbon salmon for us has been a big item we started back in the 90s. It's still our number-one item. But asking what's next is something we’re constantly doing.
For us, it's important to be fluid. We've got to stay with the times we've got to know what’s out there and what people are purchasing and eating, whether it's at restaurants or hotels, in grocery stores, whatever. We've got to adapt. I'm now an old guy at 60 years old, and it’s important for me to have a group of younger people that are coming into our business who can talk to me and say, that's not cool anymore. These days, everybody wants value, but they still want it to be really, really good. We’re aiming to always be that company that fills that gap.
SeafoodSource: How has the Ukraine situation impacted Inland?
Rosenberger: [After the Russian invasion of Ukraine], I said we needed to stop the sale of all of our Russian products, even though we had a big inventory of king crab we bought at the high of the market. And I said, I'm not selling, I’m just not doing it. It's just bad business. It's the right thing to do. And we may get hung with a million dollars’ worth of king crab. If we do, we do. But you know what? Nobody's going to say, at a time of crisis, Inland was out there selling those products because it was a money thing. We have a big, big buyer in the Atlanta market. I called him up and said we're not going to do it. He said, “I’ve got four places with king crab on their menus.” I said, “Here's what I'll do – you want to write a letter to me that says you're OK with selling Russian product, and I'll have a conversation about it.” He called back and he said, “I'm taking king crab off my menu. I'm getting rid of my Russian vodka. I'm doing it because you're exactly right.” And then you know what happened? Biden comes out and bans all Russian imports. The lesson for me was, always do the right thing before somebody tells you that you have to. There'll always be a place for people to do things the right way. You're always going to have those bottom-feeders; We are going to let them play that game and race to the bottom. I don't want to be involved. It's the reason we don't carry a lot of commodity stuff. I'm not going to go out there and bang my head against China. I carry the best product and it costs more. One thing I've never been told is “God, you guys have got great prices.” We're usually the most expensive at everything we do. But we continue to grow because people know when they buy from our company, it's going to be right and the value is there. And some will go to some other place for a little while and they'll come back and go, “Yeah, the salmon was 75 cents a pound cheaper, but I had to return it,” or, “The truck didn't show up on time.” It's all about good business practices. It’s about how you want to be remembered.
SeafoodSource: How are you handling the current pricing situation in the seafood market? Are you absorbing costs or passing them on?
Rosenberger: It has definitely forced us to rethink some things. [Publix Director of Seafood] Guy [Pizzuti] said something to me three years ago at the Seafood Expo North America. He said, “You're trying to make too much money on your fillets.” I said, “But I’ve got to make 30 percent,” and he asked, “Why don't you think in dollars instead of percentages?” That was how we grew up in the business – everything was gross-margin percentage. Now I’ve got to think dollars because when salmon is USD 7.50 (EUR 6.94) per pound versus USD 3.75 (EUR 3.47) or USD 4.50 (EUR 4.16), the margins don't work anymore. So the trend for us is rethinking our business. How can we still have the best products, keep the best people, and offer the best service?
On both foodservice and retail, it's about relationships. It doesn't do me any good to push these guys to a point that they can't be profitable, and it doesn't do them any good to overcharge me to the point where we don't sell anything. Together we have to look at and say where do we need to be so that we can both be successful. So how do you get to those relationships? It comes down to building trust. It’s face-to-face meetings, getting to really know the people you’re working with. To meet the person on the other side of the phone. That's how you build relationships and care about their success, and they care about my success.
SeafoodSource: A few years ago, it seemed like U.S. broadliners were aiming to buy up all the mid-level, regional seafood distribution companies across the country. Did you think about selling? If you continue to operate as an independent entity, how do you compete with giants like Sysco or US Foods?
Rosenberger: There are only a few companies in the middle like Inland out there. It’s definitely a niche spot in the market. To survive, it takes strong, positive leadership status. When I first started in the industry, it felt like there was a consensus that the business model that we have and a few others like us in the U.S. market wasn’t going to work – we were either going to get swallowed or go under. That middle area is very tough to exist in long-term. And those giants tried to buy us. They tried. A lot of companies wanted to buy us, and we could have made a ton of money doing it. And then we had the idea of selling the company to the employees. But it was the right move for us, a critical move for us.
To be truthful, this whole employee stock ownership plan thing has been hard. It's hard to make people understand that everything you do – how good a yield you get, whether or not you let your truck idle and you use up fuel – all those things contribute to how much money you're going to have in your retirement because you're an owner. I work for the employees now, so they are all my bosses. And I take that seriously. It's going to take a long time to pay the debt down. We've had people that have been with us 25 to 30 years. But building that community around shared commitment is now my top mission at Inland.
SeafoodSource: What do you think is coming up next for Inland and in general in the U.S. seafood market?
Rosenberger: I think we've got a really bright future. And one of the things that I'm trying to do is navigate us. How are we going to change with the times? Do we continue to do manufacturing? We’re trying to evolve. What's that next thing for us? Five years, 10 years from now, where are we going to be? It’s always a battle to keep up with the times because change happens fast these days, and lately, the view that the younger generations have of the food industry is changing completely. It's all about doing the right thing. We are investing money in sustainable initiatives. We're participating in fishery improvement projects in Peru, Ecuador, and Vietnam, where we actually give money to the fishermen so they can buy the proper gear to fish so that they're not catching things they don't want to catch. We're working with some oyster people on the coast in the Gulf of Mexico. It makes sense for us to do those things because if I don’t have the resources for years to come, I don’t have a business. And then, for us, it's also about being local in every market. We want local shops to have a local vendor – local is still huge at the shops. But if you're buying fish in Panama City, Florida, and that fish was caught locally but sent to Atlanta and then goes back to Panama City in a truck, it doesn't make a lot of sense. So that's why we're really looking to open more buildings in all the markets we serve.
Photo courtesy of Cliff White/SeafoodSource