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Top Story - She & Him
The Buyer’s Turn: A combination of consciousness, competitiveness earn Tracy Taylor, Jim Ulcickas amazing results
by James Wright
July 01, 2012
The Buyer’s Turn is back. SeaFood Business’ annual feature that shines a light on outstanding retail and restaurant seafood buyers — our core readership — turns to two industry veterans who again, on the surface, couldn’t be any more different from one another. But Tracy Taylor of Ahold USA and Jim Ulcickas of Bluewater Grill have a lot more in common than you might believe at first glance. They’re both savvy buyers and big thinkers with years of experience and they’re both sponges for knowledge who are more than willing to share their expertise at industry events. The way they go about their business, along with their practical and intelligent approaches to sustainability, is what makes them worthy of celebration.
Name-brand recognition is not something money can necessarily buy. You can put a price on advertising and marketing, but customer loyalty, one true measure of success, is earned over years of dedicated service and an unwavering commitment to quality. That’s how you build a brand.
In New England, there are a handful of businesses that merit such allegiance, where the name alone conveys a message of dependability or value. Dunkin’ Donuts and L.L. Bean come to mind. So does Stop & Shop (which also has stores in New York and New Jersey).
The supermarket has tremendous market share in the region for both value and virtue. Stop & Shop’s parent company, Ahold USA (based in Carlisle, Pa., and Quincy, Mass.), was one of the very first food companies to partner with an environmental NGO — Boston’s New England Aquarium — to ensure that its seafood was being sourced from responsibly managed and sustainable sources. That commitment began in 2000 and the partnership remains strong.
Ahold USA leans on the aquarium’s consultants as it strives to meet its lofty goal of sourcing all of its seafood from certified-sustainable (Marine Stewardship Council or Aquaculture Stewardship Council) sources by the year 2015.
The company also depends on Tracy Taylor, seafood procurement manager, to source product for approximately 780 stores under the Stop & Shop, Giant Food, Giant Food Stores, Martin’s Food Markets and Peapod brands. Ahold USA is one of the 10 largest U.S. food retailers with $25 billion in annual sales (the company does not disclose department-specific sales figures).
Taylor, 38, has been with the company for 16 years, the past 10 in retail seafood, working out of the Pennsylvania office. She’s in charge of all frozen seafood procurement and on top of her buying duties has been the corporation’s point person on seafood sustainability since 2005. With a company this size, it’s no small chore.
“Our customers expect us to be responsible stewards to the environment and social issues,” says Taylor. “It’s our responsibility.”
Taylor’s work and dedication have certainly not gone unnoticed. She’s a regular panelist on retail seafood sustainability issues at the International Boston Seafood Show and is the chair of the Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI) Sustainable Seafood Committee.
“Tracy has led and actually was instrumental in the creation of the committee — a group of 22 retail seafood executives whose mission is to identify and prioritize the key issues,” says Jeanne von Zastrow, FMI’s senior director of sustainability and industry relations. “Tracy is a well-loved and respected leader and without her tireless dedication and wonderful style and sense of humor we would not have accomplished all we have in the past six years.”
The FMI group consists of “some of the most passionate people in the industry,” says Taylor, and over the past three years it has become a full standing committee, not just a working group, which reflects on the importance of the issue for retailers. Earlier this spring, the FMI Sustainable Seafood Committee released its Sustainable Seafood Toolkit, a free resource for the industry that provides guidance for integrating and implementing sustainable seafood procurement policies and procedures. The committee meets in person twice a year.
“We want to serve a role in providing resources for the greater FMI membership and, in some instances, the industry at large. We also know that there are some issues that are better addressed as a group as opposed to individually,” Taylor says. “As more retailers start asking for the same types of information and taking similar steps toward sustainability, the less confusing it will be for the industry to work on sustainability issues.”
Although it may not always seem so, life for Taylor is more than vendor meetings, commodity reports, committee conference calls and constant contact with industry colleagues and suppliers. The middle child of a close family, Taylor grew up all over South Carolina and Georgia but calls Greenville, S.C., home. Her accent may have faded a bit, but her mom’s hasn’t (“Now Tracy, tell me all about that sall-mon!” she’ll say, pronouncing the letter L).
Taylor graduated in 1995 from Auburn University (she often cries out “War Eagle!” to a colleague who went to Alabama) with a bachelor’s in business management. She loves dogs (especially her Labrador-golden retriever mix, Lacey) and grungy 1990s rock ‘n’ roll with screeching guitars.
Fresh out of school, Taylor landed a job with PYA Monarch, a foodservice distributor later purchased by U.S. Foodservice (at the time owned by Ahold USA; she also was a buyer for retailer Bi-Lo, when it too was in the Ahold portfolio). She’s been there ever since.
Taylor started out buying spices, pizzas and chips and after about a year and a half started to work on retail seafood, purchasing fresh fish for a Zebulon, N.C.-based sister company, facilitating communication between the store and its purchasing department. She’s worked extensively on both fresh and frozen seafood as well as value-added products, and finds the work engaging because there’s an educational opportunity around every corner. For instance, Taylor is investigating new Federal Trade Commission guidelines on green product claims and how they might change what the company carries.
“This is a constantly changing business that keeps our work very interesting,” she says. “This industry and specifically Ahold USA continue to make great strides in sustainability, which is also a passion of mine.
It’s about incremental and continuous improvement: We’re doing good work with farmed shrimp and salmon. There are definitely great stories that can be told, even on the commodity side of the business.”
Working closely with the New England Aquarium and the FMI committee has given Taylor an appreciation of the work required to bring fisheries to their full potential. The company’s sustainable seafood goals were set for 2015 because the necessary changes for some producers simply won’t happen quickly.
“We realize the importance of working with and supporting fisheries and aquaculture operations that are taking the appropriate steps toward seafood sustainability,” she says. “Stepping away from a supplier should be a last resort as it provides no incentive for a fishery or aquaculture operation to take the appropriate steps if it is not supported in the marketplace.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Taylor says Ahold USA works only with about 15 to 20 seafood vendors. Maintaining those relationships is crucial, she says, and she values them as partnerships. To keep product in the cases, she also works closely with Ahold USA’s marketing and merchandising departments on item mix and specifications, and believes in the 80/20 rule (80 percent of seafood sales are on 20 percent of the SKUs). But she also knows you can’t just send the same product in the same volume to each and every store and expect success.
“A good lobster salad is extremely important in New England while the right crab offerings are essential to Maryland customers,” she says. “With procurement, the knowledge required demands a broader scope of understanding about sources, market conditions, cost of goods and so forth. I try to keep my mind open and learn as much as I can from those around me.”
Many find their way to the seafood or restaurant industries accidentally. For Jim Ulcickas, it was more like destiny. After his parents divorced when he was 9 years old, he spent his summers on Maine’s Mount Desert Island (MDI), washing dishes and cooking steamed clams at Abel’s Lobster Pound, which still stands today on the shore of Somes Sound. In high school and college, Ulcickas worked for his sister’s business on MDI, Harbor Bar, which specialized in ice cream sandwiches made with fresh-baked cookies dipped in chocolate. And the man his mother re-married was Curtis Blake, founder of Friendly’s Restaurants.
“I ended up with four parents instead of two and a love for the restaurant business!” says Ulcickas, 50. “Hospitality is in my blood.”
Ulcickas (ull-CHISS-kuss) is now the father of two children (ages 5 and 7) who he and his wife Julie Ann are raising at their home in Santa Ana, Calif. The Williamstown, Mass., native and Dartmouth College alum has been living on the left coast for nearly 25 years, all of them working as a restaurant executive. Bluewater Grill, the restaurant he co-founded in 1996 with business partner and Sydney, Australia, native Richard Staunton, is the culmination of a life in foodservice.
After Dartmouth, where he was an All-American lacrosse goaltender, Ulcickas spent six years with Grace Restaurant Co. in New York and Irvine, Calif., where he worked in finance, marketing, purchasing and operations. Later he joined American Restaurant Group in Newport Beach, Calif., where he was controller of Spoons, a $35 million division encompassing 20 restaurants.
Now the number that “Jimmy U,” as he is often called, cares most about is five — three Bluewater Grill restaurants in Southern California, one in Phoenix and a fifth due to open in Avalon, on California’s stunning Santa Catalina Island, next spring. The Wrigley family (of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs fame), who created the Catalina Island Conservancy that now stewards 88 percent of the island’s land, asked Ulcickas and Staunton to be a part of the town’s development initiatives by opening a restaurant there. “It’s sort of like Nantucket without the million-dollar homes,” he says. “The town of Avalon is a gem. It’s poised for a next golden age, like of the ‘40s and ‘50s.”
The new site should bump the company’s annual sales up from nearly $18 million to more than $20 million. Ulcickas says the company’s commitment to sustainability was a major factor in attracting that opportunity.
“Our customers appreciate us for taking the lead, and it helps us stand out from the competition for all the right reasons,” he says. “We believe almost all of the products we sell will meet our definition of sustainable by year’s end. It is not difficult. We are not selling a commodity at Bluewater Grill.”
Ulcickas is the kind of guy who’ll roll up his sleeves: He doesn’t just stack the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch cards on the hostess stand, and the company doesn’t simply parrot talking points from one of the many organizations focused on seafood and ocean conservation. His philosophy, you could say, is his own.
“We use all of the big [NGOs] as reference points but in the end we make up our own mind on what meets our definition of sustainable, since there isn’t yet a universal, agreed-upon definition,” he says. “We try to have an answer for every single product we’re purchasing. For some products, there aren’t any answers yet.”
Ulcickas is unafraid to declare that a restaurateur’s responsibility in providing sustainable seafood involves a lot of work and sometimes confusion. At this year’s International Boston Seafood Show, he presented a conference session, solo, titled “Implementing a Sustainable Seafood Program For Your Restaurant — How to Navigate Through the Sea of Conflicting NGO Information.” Attending were several NGO representatives, who mostly argued with each other; it cemented his argument.
“If we were to use only one reference, we probably would not sell farm-raised salmon or shrimp, two of the biggest seafood products sold in the United States,” Ulcickas says. “That wouldn’t be smart. We need to reward suppliers and producers for moving their industries forward so we can achieve long-term sustainability goals together. By changing the things we control at our restaurants, we can hopefully make an impact on how our guests, employees and vendors make their decisions.”
Bluewater works closely with distributor P&D Seafood in Los Angeles and Ulcickas says that Logan Kock, chief sustainability officer at Santa Monica Seafood, one of the company’s other regular vendors, is one of the “greatest resources in the country” when it comes to analysis.
“Ask Logan what time it is and he tells you how to build a watch,” says Ulcickas.
The seafood products that Bluewater Executive Chef Brian Hirsty purchases are based on a formula of quality, value for the price and sustainability. While the restaurants’ prime waterfront locations (save for the Phoenix site), stylish clientele and elegant décor scream upscale dining, the company keeps prices reasonable. Most entrées are under $25, while some lobster and crab dishes range up to $35.
“For every product there is a maximum price that puts it out of reach for all but the most dedicated customer,” he says. “Not everyone can afford wild Copper River king salmon but everyone can certainly find something in their budget that is equally good for their health and our environment, like Alaska halibut, Maine lobster and farmed domestic tilapia, trout and catfish. This is a benefit of printing our menus daily.”
Because Southern California attracts so many tourists and is home to many transplants from other parts of the country, the restaurants offer items like Ipswich clams, baked stuffed lobster and walleye, partly for the memories they evoke. Seafood, Ulcickas says, is unique in this way.
“It becomes an emotional experience. Have you ever heard a server talk to a guest about how their chicken was caught? I love a great steak and free-range chicken but nobody is risking their lives bringing those products to market.”
In that regard, Bluewater Grill’s signature fish is harpoon-caught swordfish landed each summer and fall by Staunton’s 88-foot boat, the Pilikia (“trouble” in Hawaiian), the official Bluewater Grill vessel. The menu usually features grilled swordfish steaks, of course, but also serves sword in tacos, in Caesar salads, on bruschetta with shrimp or scallops and in its seafood stew. Not coincidentally, a swordfish is part of the company logo.
“We’ll get 50 to 100 fish a year and we can blow those through the restaurants pretty quickly,” he says, adding that a 200-pound fish will be gone in a day and a half at the Newport Beach restaurant alone, which can do about 1,000 covers a day. “We recently took our managers on a three-day trip, fished the whole time, caught about 15 species, releasing all the billfish. There are pictures of sport fish being caught in all the restaurants and many of them are of guests, friends and family members. It’s a great way for people who work for Bluewater Grill to get together. Beats a conference in Vegas.” Email Senior Editor James Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org