J. Douglas Hines' path from tuna to TUNO

Published on
April 15, 2019

J. Douglas Hines is the CEO and managing director of AFT Holdings, a diversified holding company and the owner of All About Healthy Foods Holdings and its subsidiary Atlantic Natural Foods, which produces vegan seafood alternative products, including the Loma Linda brand of TUNO products. Additionally, through its subsidiary the South Pacific Tuna Corporation, AFT Holdings owns a fleet of Pacific Ocean-based tuna-fishing vessels, but the company is transitioning out of that business. Hines formerly worked as the chief operating officer and board director of canned tuna firm Bumble Bee Foods, and held executive positions at Chicken of the Sea and Mitsui.

SeafoodSource: How did you move from catching and trading tuna to focusing on vegan products?

Hines: I acquired Atlantic Natural Foods back in 2010 – it came as part of Bumble Bee’s exit from the Castleberry business, and after exiting Bumble Bee in 2011, it was a nice fit and opportunity for me. It had uniqueness and opportunity, and it made sense to me looking at the seafood business and its statistics on sustainability and the world’s rapidly-growing population. We only have so much protein available on the planet. You can cannot create enough fish to feed the world. By 2050, the global population is going to be at 9 billion people. With our current levels of protein production, the world can only support 9 to 11 billion people. If you’re not looking at plant protein now, you should be, because we can’t feed the world the way we have been.

SeafoodSource: What is the focus of Atlantic Natural Foods and the Loma Linda brand?

Hines: We’re focused on shelf-stable seafood alternatives. Not frozen or refrigerated, but shelf-stable, because we think there’s a bigger opportunity there for feeding the world. There’s a lot of places in the world where you can’t easily keep food frozen or refrigerated. So we created a product, TUNO, that had the same omega-3 content as tuna using seaweed and algae. We tried to have it taste as close to tuna as possible, and I think we’ve done a pretty incredible job of that.

SeafoodSource: What do you see as the potential of these products in the marketplace? What are your key market segments? 

Hines: There’s a much larger market emerging – we’re seeing 25 to 30 percent growth per year. The flexitarian market in the U.S. is over 200 million people. These products are not just for vegetarians; it’s more the healthy, functional food market. What we’ve seen is that this market is looking for meal-solution products, and we’re targeting it with more than 60 items total, including Mexican and Asian cuisine products, and home and hearth products as well.

SeafoodSource: Why are these products drawing more interest?

Hines: It’s about people wanting to eat better. Loma Linda Foods is named after one of five so-called “blue zones” in the world, where there are an inordinately high percentage of centenarians [people over 100 years old]. What they’ve found is in all of the blue zones, there’s a common tie of food and lifestyle. These folks are primarily vegetarians, they eat lots of nuts, and they walk everywhere. It’s studies like those of the blue zones, and others showing we should primarily have a plant-based diet, which you supplement with wild-caught seafood for the DHA and omega-3 content. So the first thing is, I think more people are switching to a diet that is primarily plant-based, with lots of nuts, oils, and seafood.

The second thing is, these new products are tasting so much better. They used to be terrible! I think the people that were creating them had never tasted anything besides tempeh – that stuff was sturdy enough to build a house with. With more people looking for food protein alternatives, the challenge is going to be bringing them products that are health and that have the sustainability credentials they’re looking for. But they also have to taste good – that’s a key component.

SeafoodSource: What do you think about the controversy about companies like yours being called out by the industry as a threat?

Hines: We don’t have to call it fish. We can let the market and the consumer decide what it’s going to be called. Tuna has a species designation; salmon is the same. The same debate is playing out in the case of alternative milks, such as almond milk or soy milk which are currently defined as plant-based under USDA’s lactates category. But plant-based food is not magically going to disappear. More and more companies, even traditional meat companies, are investing in this space. It has become a part of the protein chain we all have to accept.

I don’t think they need to view us as a threat. We will never sell enough product to worry about seafood world as we know it. We’re not competing against them. The undeniable part of the debate is that people are getting into these products, no matter what they’re called. And the reason is, seafood companies have to change way they operate, because consumer doesn’t have any confidence in them right now. Which isn’t to say I don’t give a lot of appreciation to the companies and individuals in the industry working to solve those problems. But today’s consumer wants a sustainable, healthy product, and they don’t think they’re getting that right now. So [seafood companies] have to do a lot to change themselves and fix those issues first before worrying about us little guys.

SeafoodSource: You’ve hired a lot of seafood industry veterans at Atlantic Natural Foods, such as Mike Easterbrook of Princes, William Soto of Chicken of the Sea, and Bumble Bee Foods’ Gabe Montesano. Is that because of your personal familiarity with them, or because you’re using a marketing and sales strategy taken from the seafood industry?

Hines: I approached them because I know they understand how to produce food. The processing techniques they’re familiar with from the seafood industry are the same basic processing techniques we employ. And they know how to build shelf-stable products and brands. And I admit I did target some of them intentionally because there’s nothing better than an old fish guy – they get their hands dirty.

Additionally, I think to be successful, you have to believe in the cause of what you’re building. We’re trying to build something different and new and so the composition of the team you bring in is very important. I’ve known Mike for many years and he has the same interests I do. That’s true for many, if not all, of the people working with us. They’re interested in creating long-term sustainability in the food sector, and thinking about how we can make a difference.

SeafoodSource: You’ve already had a storied career in the seafood industry. Why start over with a new venture? 

Hines: I’m older now, and for me, at this point, a good chunk of it is personal, though I believe you can’t make a difference if you don’t make money. I think what we’re doing is going to be around a lot longer than I am. I have 10 grandkids, and I think to myself, what are they going to eat? How are they going to live? They’re going to be facing years when they’re not going to have accessibility to proteins like seafood, so we better start creating some things now. And I think that philosophy extends to the people who work here. We all take a certain amount of pride in what we’re doing.

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