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What's in store: Seafood storytellers

Canadian retailer leans on local, traceable and value-added seafood

Thrifty Foods has increased the value-added offerings in its seafood cases.   - Photos courtesy of Thrifty Foods
By Christine Blank
October 01, 2011

Anyone living along the West Coast of Canada knows that eating sustainable and local food is a way of life. It is no surprise, then, that the 26-store Thrifty Foods chain, a division of 1,300-store chain Sobeys, has been selling sustainable seafood for several years.

“We had a sustainable program long before the big players in the industry. Officially, we have been running a sustainable seafood program since 2006,” says Dave Sherwood, seafood category manager for the chain that is based in Saanichton, British Columbia.

The retailer’s latest sustainability effort goes beyond sustainable seafood purchasing. The Thisfish program, provided through Ecotrust Canada, allows Thrifty shoppers to trace their fish back to the ship that caught it, the method by which it was caught, and the waters in which it was harvested.

Thisfish works like a bar code or tagging system, with a unique numerical code assigned to each catch. Customers can input the tag — a sticker on the paper wrapping of fresh fish — into the “trace your fish” field on the Thisfish website and learn their fish’s story. “You can even access photos of the boat and crew, along with details from the captain’s logbook and a map showing where the catch took place,” says Tasha Sutcliffe, fisheries program director, Ecotrust Canada.

The program has been in place since 2008, and Thrifty began offering it to shoppers in August of this year. “Right now, we are using it for Wild Red Spring B.C. Spring Salmon, but we will have Thisfish on all of our salmon and halibut by December. We will add lobsters and other species later,” says Sherwood. While sustainably caught seafood is vital to the health of the oceans, Thrifty customers also really like the ability to see which ship and captain their seafood comes from, says Sherwood. “It attaches a story to your dinner. I can see this [type of program] moving to beef, produce and other industries.”

Providing local seafood is also a big part of what Thrifty Foods is known for. About 75 to 80 percent of the seafood sold at its counters is from Canada. For example, Komo Gway Oysters from Baynes Sound, Vancouver Island, are available exclusively in its stores. “We also carry Atlantic lobsters and scallops from Nova Scotia, as well as cod, snapper, sole and other fresh fish from the West Coast,” says Sherwood.

Live tanks have been a part of most of Thrifty’s stores and are popular with shoppers, especially at certain times of the year. “It does real well for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and throughout the summer. For the rest of the year, it is more of a draw rather than a huge item,” says Sherwood. Live Dungeness crabs are most popular among Thrifty’s shoppers, and the tanks also feature live prawns, mussels and other shellfish, depending on what is in season.

Thrifty’s service cases feature between 60 and 100 products at all times. Of its fresh items, value-added is a fast-growing part of the retailer’s business.

“A few years ago, it was a decent category but, for the past few years, it has just exploded,” says Sherwood, who believes the growth has come from customers who want to save time preparing seafood and save money by eschewing restaurants.

As a result, Thrifty offers between 25 and 30 different value-added items daily. Some are made in-house and some by third-party vendors. Thrifty’s popular value-added items include Halibut Phyllo Stuffed with Roasted Garlic, Bacon Wrapped Oysters, Sockeye Salmon Burgers and seafood skewers. “From September through March, we do a massive business in stuffed fish. In the summer, skewers are popular,” says Sherwood.

Thrifty’s value-added frozen offerings have also climbed to around 30 SKUs in its small, 12-foot frozen seafood sections. “Carbon footprint is becoming very important to [our customers]. They like it from a once-frozen source in Canada or the United States, although in some cases you don’t have that choice,” says Sherwood.

Sherwood expects Thrifty’s value-added offerings to increase, along with its local, sustainable offerings. Maintaining a low carbon footprint and utilizing only sustainable species will always be part of the small retailer’s culture, as it continues to partner with the Vancouver Aquarium’s OceanWise and the Thisfish programs.

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.
October 2011 - SeaFood Business

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