The happy marriage of Sea Watch International and Bar Harbor Foods
On 7 September, Maryland, U.S.A-based clam processor Sea Watch International announced a major investment in Maine, U.S.A.-based Look’s Gourmet Food Company and Bar Harbor Foods. SeafoodSource interviewed Sea Watch International COO/CFO Jerry Gordon (pictured, far left) and Look’s/Bar Harbor CEO Mike Cote and to learn more about the new partnership and what the future holds for the two companies.
SeafoodSource: Can you provide some background on your companies?
Gordon: Sea Watch International is the largest clam processor in the world. Our headquarters are in Easton, Maryland, and we have four production facilities: One in new Bedford, Massachusetts, one in Milford, Delaware, one in Easton, Maryland and a fourth one in Mappsville, Virginia. We [also] have 35 clam fishing vessels, all based either in Atlantic City, New Jersey or New Bedford, Massachusetts. Our primary offering is clams, but we also manufacture other value-added products, including frozen and canned products. We do a significant amount of co-packing of products under the licenses of other companies, including a variety of soups.
We’re a privately held corporation, and we’ve been under our current ownership since the mid-1990s. About 95 percent of our raw material comes from off the East Coast of the U.S. All our work is done inside the country and we employ about 600 people.
Cote: Look’s Gourmet Food Company, doing business as Bar Harbor Foods, currently produces, from its Whiting, Maine production facility, all-natural, shelf-stable seafood chowders, bisques, seafood juices and stocks, sauces, and fancy-packed seafood meats. We make a great corn chowder, a unique Newburg sauce, what we’re told are the best gourmet baked beans available, and a traditional New England dessert, Indian pudding; but the crux of our portfolio is sustainable seafood-based products. We now have a national presence in approximately 40 percent of grocery stores in the U.S., including mainline grocery stores as well as specialty, natural retailers.
SeafoodSource: Mike, you’ve led Look’s since 2002. How did you become involved in the company and what was your vision when you took it over?
Cote: I’ve always been intrigued by premium, top-quality brands throughout my food career. My professional experience, managing stand-out brands, has always focused on quality, working first with Pepperidge Farm and later with Odwalla/Fresh Samantha, the all-natural, organic juice company.
I left Odwalla, after the company completed a successful sale to Coca Cola, and decided to parlay my experience into building a brand and company of my own. In mid-2002, I learned that the A. M. Look’s Canning Company had become available. After many years of more than 43 seafood canneries dotting Maine’s coastline, Look’s had become one of the last still in operation. Through extensive due diligence, it became clear the unique opportunity that presented itself, so in April 2003 I purchased the assets of Look’s and renamed it Look’s Gourmet Food Company.
Our mission became the revival of traditional Maine specialty food products made with high quality, all-natural, sustainable ingredients. I believed we could bring renewed relevance to an untapped space in the shelf-stable wild-caught fish and seafood product category. We immediately reformulated the historic product line to insure we complied with the current all-natural standards, which at that time was being led by Wild Oats Markets and Whole Foods. Realizing shelf-stable products needed to garner the consumer’s attention in a sea of competitors, my experience told me the products would also have to resonate with high-quality, great flavor and a stand-out label. “Sustainably harvested” quickly appeared high on my radar, and I decided we would only use sustainable, wild-caught fish and seafood in our products.
SeafoodSource: Mike, how did you grow Bar Harbor Foods from a local to a national brand?
Cote: The former operators [of Look’s] had attempted to capitalize on the all-natural, homemade look in the packaging for Bar Harbor. We continued the mission with a redesign of the logo and label, using Green Seal-certified, recycled paper stock printed with vegetable-based inks. The infinitely recyclable can already provides the most environmentally friendly packaging and with the new matte-finish fiber stock and minimal colors, the labels popped by default amidst the sea of color on the retail grocery shelf.
The company owned two brand names, Look’s Atlantic and Bar Harbor, and we hit the street with Bar Harbor, which has to-date been more of a gift shop-type of brand. It had played only a minor role in the company’s portfolio, but I looked at leveraging the Bar Harbor brand to create a point of difference within the seafood category. I focused on sustainable and wild-caught fish and seafood products and that yielded a big change in formulation – the new products were made with all-natural ingredients as well as sustainable, wild-caught seafood.
Our initial focus was the East Coast and as that picked up, we skipped over the center of the country to the West Coast, where we knew the category for sustainable, all-natural, wild-caught seafood offerings was even more highly developed, figuring this strategy was our best shot at success.
SeafoodSource: Jerry, what initially interested Sea Watch in Look’s and Bar Harbor Foods?
Gordon: Sea Watch is primarily a foodservice provider. Our business is built on servicing distributors, industrial customers and the restaurant trade. We deal with all the major distributors. We sell our products, particularly our soups, to major food companies and do a lot of business with major restaurant chains, but we don’t have much of a presence in the retail sector. Mike Cote and Look’s Gourmet Foods bring this new aspect to the table. The retail opportunities he’s developed will be a nice niche for us. We’re well-known and well-integrated in the foodservice side, but we have not been in the retail side. Mike has the brand, product and presence on the shelf that we think we can expand upon together.
SeafoodSource: And Mike, what did you like about Sea Watch when you initially considered partnering with them?
Cote: Our relationship with Sea Watch International developed from our recognition that it made sense for us to talk to a company vertically integrated in the clam business that could also help us add product development and production capabilities, to satisfy the growing needs of our product portfolio and customer base.
We have known Sea Watch for some time and done business with them. Their company has tremendous capabilities for future product development. The fact that they’re the world’s largest clam producer will benefit our growth capabilities enormously. We’re looking for opportunities to expand our offerings, and this relationship provides the potential for expanded product development, especially in the realm of new and innovative retail and food service, both shelf-stable and frozen.
SeafoodSource: Will Mike’s role change at all under the new partnership?
Gordon: Mike is going to remain in his same role as president of Look’s and Bar Harbor Foods, and will continue to steer the ship there. The beauty of this new relationship is that it represents a perfect opportunity for us to help him grow – we can supply him with fully sustainable, wild-caught product, and he can continue to grow his high-quality retail brand. We can also provide additional expertise with product development and help him as he develops a frozen line and continues to expand his shelf-stable offerings. We’re firmly convinced the sector that he’s operating in – all-natural sustainable – is a growing sector. As consumers become more aware of the positive attributes associated with that, we believe it will grow dramatically.
SeafoodSource: Why do you think a focus on sustainability will work in today’s retail environment, and how do you think Sea Watch can help you capitalize on that market?
Cote: Today’s consumer is more educated about sustainability and more demanding of high-quality, all-natural seafood products that are clean, thus we are excited about the new and innovative products Sea Watch can help us develop to answer those demands. We are looking at new primary processed and also value-added products and Sea Watch brings tremendous capabilities to both of those areas.
We’re going to take it slow – obviously a word not in my vocabulary – and understand the efficiencies they provide for our continued growth. There is great potential in partnering with Sea Watch to develop and introduce product lines we cannot produce in our own plant.
I believe this relationship also represents a nice entry for Sea Watch into the retail sector. Previously, their success has been their focus on foodservice, and I believe this partnership presents tremendous opportunities for joint development of the retail business segment for them and the development of food service products for us.
Obviously, there are opportunities for further development in specific markets in the more than 33,000 national grocery store chains, but we continue to steadily expand with double-digit growth year after year. We also have answered the demand for our products internationally. Bar Harbor brand products are available in several different countries as there is growing demand worldwide for convenient, all-natural, easy-to-prepare products and we are helping fill that niche.
SeafoodSource: Any final thoughts you'd like to share regarding the new partnership?
Cote: We have shared this announcement with our 30 employees and they are very supportive. They are dedicated to our collective success and delighted that Sea Watch has invested in and supports our mission. Sea Watch supports our continued operation in the state of Maine and our mission of maintaining local economic stability within the local and regional fishing communities.
Together, with Sea Watch I know we can accomplish so much more than we can do alone. With focus on continued growth, maintaining high quality standards in our current portfolio and developing new products that encourage consumer interest and loyalty in a fast-growing market segment, we will continue to promote the rich Maine seafood heritage, our original founder, Willard Look, established almost 100 years ago.