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Point of View - Case study: independent retail success

Philip Walsh
By Philip Walsh
September 01, 2013

I recently asked Carl Fantasia, owner of New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge, Mass., if I could spend some time with him as he went through his work day. I wanted to learn more about independent fish markets — what motivates them to go into the business, how they are faring compared to the competition and how they are dealing with the barrage of misinformation their customers are fed. 

Fantasia operates an independent fish market that requires consistent high quality at fair prices and customers who demand the story behind the fish. I wondered why Carl left his career as an engineer to join the family fish market, particularly given its current challenges.

“For me, the corporate world lacked a clear challenge and I found the politics distracting. And I have to tell you,” he laughed, “I didn’t join the business, I dove into it, and I do mean head first. Those challenges you’re talking about? I thrive on them.” 

We were in the Boston Marine Industrial Park in early August, epicenter of marketing and distribution of seafood for New England. Carl was looking over the swordfish in John Nagle Co.’s 80,000-square-foot facility, when I asked him how the business started. 

“My great uncle opened New Deal Fish Market in 1928. He claimed the only reason they made it through the Depression was because they used only the highest quality fish he could find. He sold the store to my father in 1979, and he worked the same program — great fish or no fish,” said Fantasia. “He told me that the least expensive fish would never be the fish that would make him the most money — that distinction belonged to the best fish, and that whatever it cost, he was willing to pay the price.”

Fantasia has three tips for seafood retailers, whether an independent or chain: “First, use only the highest quality seafood. There are no bargains in seafood. Second, if you own fish that isn’t selling and the quality starts to fall off, throw it out. I’d rather toss $200 to $300 a week of marginal fish into the gut bucket than have a single customer say they had a bad experience with something they bought in my store. It takes a long time to build a good reputation and no time at all to destroy it,” he said.

“Third, every part of your program must be able to hold up to close scrutiny, just as every question must be answered with a response ranging from the answer itself to a promise to find out and get back to the customer with the answer,” he added. 

Carl is dead right on all three counts. A good seafood program has no room for “no roll” product. With retail seafood prices at record highs, customers expect — and deserve — only the best quality seafood. Anything less will erode your business. 

As for keeping it fresh, there’s no question that there will be times when seafood must be disposed of, no matter the reason. A seafood department operating with little or no shrink is operating poorly. Shrink is part of doing business, and no shrink means many things, none of them good.

Transparency means everything in a business whose name is synonymous with dishonesty. Thanks to advances in DNA testing and increasingly stiffer penalties for those who practice to deceive, substitution of species has fallen off dramatically, but in spite of that, fish markets in New York reveal a distressing amount of swai being sold as gray sole. In seafood, more than any other protein, customers want to know all there is to know, from the method of harvest through to the best preparation.

Fantasia is also all about transparency. “Customers want to know where the fish comes from, what it’s like, how it’s caught, how to cook it and if it was drawn from a sustainable resource,” he said. “We provide them with all the information they need, and they appreciate it, particularly here in Cambridge. I don’t know about you, but my doctor doesn’t tell me to eat more beef — he wants me to eat more fish,” added Fantasia. “Opportunity’s not knocking — it’s pounding on the door and threatening to break it down. When the day comes that a supermarket customer can have 20 positive experiences in a row at the fresh fish counter, same way they do now with fresh poultry, the supermarket seafood business will grow fivefold. Take my word for it.”

Like Fantasia, today’s retail seafood directors understand the mutual dependency between supplier and customer and that where tomorrow’s fish is going to come from is the most important question they face.

Phil Walsh is VP of business development at Alfa Gamma Seafood in Miami. Walsh is a regular speaker at Seafood Expo North America and a frequent contributor to SeaFood Business. Walsh received favorable reviews for his recently released first novel, The Isle Of Shoals.


   September 2013 - SeaFood Business 

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