In the midst of a near-nationwide lockdown that has drastically shifted the consumer market for seafood in the United States, companies of all sizes are adding direct-to-consumer sales outlets.
In early March, as most restaurants across the country closed or limited to doing take-out only due to social distancing restrictions imposed to prohibit the spread of COVID-19, a huge chunk of the nation’s seafood market disappeared within the space of a couple of weeks.
From seafood giant Pacific Seafood, to aquaculture producers such as Kingfish Zeeland, to distributors like True World Group and Samuels and Son, on down to individual fishermen on docks from California to Maine – for these companies and individuals that relied on the foodservice sector as a primary buyer, direct-to-consumer models have filled a gap and created a new avenue to income that has become suddenly vital to maintaining operations.
For Clackamas, Oregon-based Pacific Seafood, which typically registers more than USD 1 billion (EUR 922 million) in annual sales, the loss of foodservice buyers was a “major hit,” according to vice president of domestic sales Tyson Yeck.
"Most of our business on the foodservice side has absolutely disappeared," Yeck told KGW8. “We've had to get creative.”
Besides shifting its focus to retail, which has been booming during the crisis, with Pacific’s sales to the sector up 200 percent, Pacific Seafood just launched a new direct-to-consumer website. The online store is offering a variety of West Coast-caught seafood ranging from Alaskan sablefish, to petrale and dover sole, to rockfish, Dungeness crab, and Columbia River steelhead. The company is also selling assorted collections ranging from the SnoMist Pack, which contains tilapia, shrimp scampi, and Atlantic salmon for USD 199.99 (EUR 184.64), to the Diamond Pack, which includes sockeye, salad shrimp, Dungeness crab legs, sablefish, and halibut, for USD 369.99 (EUR 341.60).
“The Diamond box is our best selection of wild caught and farm raised seafood. From wild-caught Alaska sockeye salmon and sablefish, to the delicacy of the northwest, Dungeness crab, our Diamond box is sure to satisfy even the most discerning seafood connoisseurs,” the company wrote in its description of the pack. “These are the species that you would find in top-tier restaurants around the world, and at just over USD 6.00 [EUR 5.54] per serving, you can open your own restaurant for your friends and family.”
According to Pacific’s website, the company is harvesting, processing and packing its products daily for its home delivery service. It’s offering 10 percent off for first-time orders and it will soon be adding a customizable box option.
"Some absolutely beautiful, beautiful products that we pack here ship directly to your doorstep and you can put directly in your fridge or freezer," Yeck said.
Elsewhere, Rockleigh, New Jersey-based True World Group, a specialist distributor of seafood to Asian markets and sushi restaurants, which has seen its traditional business drop by as much as 80 percent, is experimenting with direct-to-consumer sales of frozen sushi-grade fish and seafood and grocery items for residents in Atlanta, Georgia, where it operates a warehouse. Orders can be placed at the True World Foods Atlanta website for next-day home delivery three days a week in select neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area. There is a USD 50.00 (EUR 46.15) minimum with free delivery for orders above USD 100.00 (EUR 92.30), with the company’s special Sushi Box selling for USD 127.00 (EUR 117.23), and containing enough seafood to feed four to six people. The company plans on expanding its service to other U.S. cities in coming weeks, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento, it said in a press release.
“Selections range from a variety of rice and noodles to frozen tuna, yellowtail (hamachi), scallops, fish roe, broiled eel, octopus legs, marinated seaweed salad, nori, wasabi, and pickled ginger,” according to the company. “Many items are ready to use or cook without needing sushi-chef knife skills, and all products feature the same premium quality and food safety controls as those sold to restaurants.”
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based wholesale restaurant supplier Samuels and Son Seafood has also gotten into the direct-to-consumer game as a result of the coronavirus crisis, according to marketing communications manager William Bradford.
“While it’s been an arduous several weeks, we have been very successful marketing to at home consumers,” Bradford told SeafoodSource. “We are advertising our retail market, Giuseppe’s Market. We also debuted the market’s website, giuseppesmarket.com, where people can order online for pick-up or home delivery. While practicing very strict social distancing measures, we welcome shoppers to pick up seafood, meats, chicken, breads, and other prepared foods. We also began a home delivery service for people in our region that has garnered very positive response. We offer boxes that range from a Grill Box, Bread Box, Sushi Box, to even a Pasta Box.”
The company, which typically handles more than 40 million pounds of seafood annually, is doing what it can to keep its employees on payroll while also attempting to support the local community in the Philadelphia area – and sell through product, Bradford said.
“We are working very hard as a team to keep as many of our employees working while supporting the community that makes us who we are,” he said. “Meanwhile, we remain open for business and have been offering support to our foodservice customers during this time.”
For New York City-based Luke’s Lobster, the coronavirus has hit business hard, forcing it to close all of its 29 locations across the U.S. It has maintained a to-go and delivery business at its Portland, Maine location, but it is primarily leaning on its retail offerings and its new e-commerce platform to survive the downturn.
“Looking to cook with our best-in-class sustainable seafood back in the comfort of your own home?” the company asks on its e-commerce website. “Our seafood is now available in either half-pound containers or as part of our DIY roll kits. By purchasing our seafood, you're helping our friends and suppliers to keep on fishing! Call your local shack to place your order and we will safely prepare it for takeout. We'll also be adding these options to all our online ordering and delivery services.”
In Europe, Kingfish Zeeland, which farms yellowtail kingfish in a recirculating aquaculture system in Kats, The Netherlands, is encouraging local customers to become entrepreneurs by picking up a minimum order of at least five boxes, "ideal for selling on," it said. And fishermen-turned-entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom have been going door-to-door selling their locally-caught product, from haddock to langoustine, according to Bloomberg.
At an even more local level, fishermen up and down both U.S. coasts are banding together to form sales cooperatives or are joining previously-created community-supported fisheries (CSFs). Programs such as Real Good Fish in Monterey, California, Local Catch Network in New England, and Louisiana Direct Seafood are helping fishermen sell directly to the public.
“We’ve got rockfish, petrale sole, spot prawns,” Real Good Fish CEO Alan Lovewell told KQED. “Whatever’s coming in, we put in a box and you get it the next day.”
Lovewell told the Bay Area-based radio station the CSF model is giving local fishermen a better chance to make some kind of return in a cratered market. He said in response to the crisis, Real Good Fish fast-tracked a planned expansion that now sees it sending seafood to seven Western states.
“When this crisis hit, we said, ‘well, we better ramp this up,’” Lovewell said. “Everyone is adapting right now. Everyone's trying to figure out, what does the world look like. Not just now, but what is it going to look like in a week from now, a month from now? And how do I start making decisions to prepare for that?”
However, Lovewell said it’s likely that some fishing businesses may not financially survive the current crisis. Even the CSF’s expanded distribution and growing interest from consumers is not enough to replace the market that existed a few months ago.
“There is still an imbalance with more seafood than subscribers,” Lovewell told the Monterey Herald.
Robert Twilley, the executive director of the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program, which helps manage Louisiana Direct Seafood, said in a press release that his main concern is figuring out how to get local seafood to consumers, which will require rebuilding supply chains on the fly.
“Our focus right now is on shrimp,” he said. “With inshore shrimp season opening in May-June and the freezers being full, the product has nowhere to go unless we can help connect the dots and use our established networks to create new supply chains. We’re talking about 48 million pounds of shrimp; that’s the yearly catch and it has to come out of the water, onto the docks, and somehow find its way to people’s plates.”
Some fishermen, lacking other options, are literally selling off their boats after they come in from fishing trips. In Belfast, Maine, lobster fisherman Noah Ames is selling his freshly-caught lobster for USD 7.00 to USD 8.00 (EUR 6.46 to EUR 7.38) per pound out of the back of his truck, according to Waldo Village Soup.
“My normal buyer doesn’t even have a price for me,” he said.
Ames has been selling out of lobster, but said there’s no telling how the unconventional marketplaces that have sprung up to replace the traditional ways of buying and selling seafood through wholesale and foodservice will impact the industry in the long-term.
“We’re not doing really well right now, but not doing terrible,” he said. “We’ll get through it, but it’s been tough.”
Photo courtesy of Samuels and Son Seafood