Experts question value of "premium" seafood

At the beginning of the panel on premium finfish at the 2019 Global Seafood Market Conference in Coronado, California, on 15 January, moderator Derek Figueroa, the chief operating officer of Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.-based Seattle Fish Company, flashed a slide with the definition of both “premium” and “premium seafood.”

  • Premium: Noun – a high-value or a value in excess of that normally or usually expected. Adjective – of exceptional quality or amount.
  • Premium seafood: Species or product form whose attributes drive product preference over and above the norm.

Figueroa clarified that the second definition had been created by the seven panelists themselves, and then, amidst updates on the status of species such as mahi, tilapia, sea bass, and barramundi, he curated a discussion on how the panelists arrived at their opinions on how they define “premium” seafood.

“What can we do to position seafood as a premium product?” Figueroa asked the panel. And, more provocatively, he added, “And do we want to?”

James Berger, the director of national sales for Jacksonville, Florida, U.S.A.-based Beaver Street Fisheries, seemed to struggle to answer Figueroa’s question.

“Is premium defined by price? Is it determined by the fact that you can’t find it – that it’s rare? Or is it defined by some stigma due to its cool Hawaiian name or that it comes from South America? I don’t know the answer,” he said.

Figueroa identified seven characteristics that can help define a species as premium: branding, price, sustainability, harvest method, country of origin, story/provenance, and whether it’s local or regional. He also pointed out the fact that harvesters, suppliers, retailers, and consumers each have their own distinct ideas of what defines a species of fish as premium. For harvesters, it could be demand, seasonality, and the labor involved. For suppliers, it could be harvest methods and availability. For restaurants or retailers, price, flavor, versatility, and sustainability play a role. For consumers, price and whether a fish is wild or farmed appear to be the main factors.

For Leigh Chase, the seafood sourcing and merchandising manager for Hannaford Supermarkets, premium is the equivalent of local.

“We’re in this unique position where we have the North Atlantic in the back yard of most of our grocery stores, so it’s very important that a lot of the fish we’re harvesting is coming from the Gulf of Maine, and that we have a lot of fresh product available,” Chase said. “We’ll have what call premium finfish as our local finfish, and that will be highlighted but there are customers who want value as well. There is a place for all these finfish within our assortment.”

Ellen Clarry, the chief supply chain officer for Ruby Tuesday Inc., which operates 540 restaurants worldwide, said her identification of a certain species as premium came down to the ratio of a fish’s price to how a customer perceives its value.

“A USD 1.50 [EUR 1.31] per pound difference in price between fresh and frozen tilapia results in a huge difference in menu offerings, [and] tilapia does not have the price elasticity to be able to drive the volume that we would want at higher cost,” she said. “It’s a little bit different in a retail case, where consumers are looking at all the options and trying to make a decision based on price-per-pound. But on the restaurant side, that difference in cost of goods is going to be triple by the time you get it to a plate, and so … that definition of premium is the price-value relationship of a product.”

In response, Berger cited the example of mahi, which he said had shifted over time between the premium and value category. 

“It went from a rare cool fish with a Hawaiian name to [being able] to find it at every restaurant. Ultimately, that demand drove prices and supply to go up to the point where last year we saw prices go into the USD 10.00 [EUR 8.75] range. Restaurants were selling mahi for USD 19.99 [EUR 17.48],” Berger said. “I don’t know that I would necessarily call mahi a premium fish just because it costs USD 19.99, because it used to be ubiquitous, and be in every restaurant and go in fish tacos.”

What the story of the mahi reveals about how “premium” is defined is that “it’s the consumer that answers that question for us,” Berger said.

Danielle Charette, the vice president of sales at Bensenville, Illinois, U.S.A.-based Fortune Fish and Gourmet, warned against thinking that the U.S. consumer is monolithic in its tastes.

“Premium is regional. What somebody thinks is premium in Florida is not necessarily what someone in Chicago thinks is premium. You have these different parts of the country where customers see things differently for many species. In the Midwest, we will pay for whitefish or walleye – no matter how much it costs, we’re going to sell it all,” she said. “That’s part what makes this business so difficult, is figuring out where it all fits in, and definitely [incorporating] that regional component.”

But Charette added that aquaculture has the potential to change that dynamic.

“What has been really interesting to watch over the course of my career is seeing the stories coming out of aquaculture – there is some really incredible aquaculture taking place. It used to be [premium] was only wild-caught, which meant you couldn’t put it on [menus] because you didn’t have the supply,” Charette said. “One of the big success stories was red drum when it [started to be] farm-raised in China, because other than that, red fish is only a wild-caught fish. It’s very desirable in parts of the U.S., and you couldn’t get it because you couldn’t guarantee you could put it on the menu. So, for those of us in the restaurant space, a lot of those [species] are almost considered a luxury fish that now we have access to.”

The professionalization of the aquaculture sector will help lead to better and more coordinated marketing of certain species, raising their profile and allure, Clarry said.

“As more producers started investing in marketing and helping us as distributors sell product, [aquaculture] has begun to be seen as premium,” she said.

Chase, of Hannaford, went further, arguing that some farm-raised seafood is already sold at a premium thanks to better marketing efforts. 

“You have an advantage with farm-raised seafood where you can promote it on regular occasions and tell the story and really get it in front of the consumers. In our stores, we have the platform where we can tell the story, whether it’s videos or its in-store promotional materials, or in the weekly flyer…storytelling is critical [for selling farmed fish as premium],” she said. “If you want to get a premium price, we have ability to speak to certain attributes about that fish that allows you to get certain price-points, but overall, it’s storytelling.”

Ultimately, Chase said at the end of the debate, the premium label is really a stand-in for quality and trust.

“I’d like the word ‘premium’ to go away,” she said. “If anything, I want it to be about seafood I trust. We want the consumer to trust that we’re doing the right thing when it comes to seafood. We do a lot of work to tell that story … and we are doing all the right things, vetting our seafood and ensuring it’s sustainable and that there’s good safety practices in place, that it’s not being treated and that what’s available in our stores is as transparent as possible. There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure we’re doing the right things and have the best practices in place. And if you’re doing that all, then they are going to have to pay a little bit more for those particular items. At the end of the day, we are competing with poultry and beef players and right now it’s tough because they’re selling at an all-time low in prices, so that’s why we need to tell the stories, keep working to create that trust, and ultimately, that will result in selling more seafood.”


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500