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Behind the Line: All in the family

Massachusetts' Turner's Seafood changes through generational shift

By Lauren Kramer
September 01, 2009

It's often said one should never mix family and business, but there are some instances when that mixture just seems to work. The Turner brothers of Melrose, Mass., are a perfect example. Three of the four Turner brothers are deeply entrenched in the same industry their grandfather entered in 1954 when he began Turner Fisheries, a wholesaler supplying New England seafood to restaurants nationwide.

James F. Turner's timing had been impeccable. As the commercial airline industry took off in the 1960s, Turner Fisheries quickly became a pioneer, flying fresh seafood to America's restaurants and clubs. When Turner died in 1964, Bill Stride was appointed to lead the company and in time, Turner's son, John F. Turner, was promoted to help him run the business. They led Turner Fisheries until 1990, when the tide changed and new fishing regulations made it impossible for Turner Fisheries to continue functioning. The doors closed on that chapter, but a new one opened in the form of wholesaler J. Turner Seafoods of Gloucester. The business is 15 percent the size of its predecessor, with 
50 customers and annual sales of $3 million.

Today, the business also includes Turner's Seafood Grill & Market, a restaurant in the family's hometown of Melrose, Mass., and a retail store in Gloucester that opened in 2006, called Turner's Seafood Market and Fish Fry. (The upscale Boston restaurant Turner Fisheries at the Westin is no longer linked to the family.)

"There was no pressure for us to go into the family business," recalls Jim Turner. He and his brothers spent their summers during high school and college working in the business their father took over from his father. Though there was no predetermined plan to follow the elder generation's career path, all four sons gravi tated back 
 to the family 
business after completing college. One broth er, John, later left the business to move to Stowe, Vt.

Today, Jim, Joe and Chris share the business responsibilities with their spouses. It remains very much a family affair, but without many of the problems that plague similar businesses. "I attribute that to how we were brought up," Jim says. "We were brought up with the understanding that nothing is really as important as the relationship we have with each other.

"We're not ones to scream and argue," he continues. "If there's frustration between us, in time it goes away and we gradually get back to normal. But it doesn't happen all that often, probably because we give each other a lot of space and respect in the jobs we are all performing."

Jim sources product for the wholesale company and the restaurant, while his wife Kathy is the business' accountant. Joe is general manager at the restaurant. Chris is in charge of facility maintenance and purchasing at the restaurant, and his wife Shelby runs the front of the restaurant, managing the service staff.

One advantage of maintaining a relatively small, family-owned operation is the level of attention the brothers can give to the business. "We're out early in the mornings checking the quality of the seafood we use and processing things ourselves," Jim says.

Crabs, for example, undergo an eight-point inspection with a family member overseeing quality, storage, processing, portioning and preparation. Fish are inspected by a Turner buyer at the dock, again as it's unloaded, re-iced and stored in the cooler and again before it's processed.

"All fish are scrutinized as they are individually skinned, boned and in some cases, candled," says Jim. "Then they are hand-
selected before packing under ice and shipped in refrigerated trucks."

When deliveries are made to Melrose, receivers and prep cooks inspect the fish before portioning them for the market or kitchen. The head chef performs a detailed line check before lunch and dinner service, and during that service all chefs, line cooks, expediters and servers are trained to ensure that all the products meet Turner quality standards.

Running a restaurant is hard work and the hours are long, Jim admits, but it's more profitable than the wholesale operation. "It just seems that customers more easily understand and value quality in the restaurant versus the wholesale business," he says. "Especially in this economy, there is tremendous pressure to keep wholesale prices down."

That pressure was one of the reasons the restaurant was created. J. Turner needed a new customer for its wholesale business and it made sense to create a new restaurant to fill the gap.

"There's a tremendous challenge in the wholesale business when it comes to finding customers who truly want quality seafood and are willing to pay a higher price for it," says Jim. "Everyone starts off talking quality, but when price is brought up there is almost always a resistance to the price difference."

That's because in the wholesale fish business, there always seems to be someone selling the same species for less money. "The temptation to go with the less expensive product is incredible," he continues. "Those customers who truly valued quality and were willing to pay for it were clearly the most successful and this fact is what gave us the motivation and courage to open our own restaurant."

While the hours are more preferable in the wholesale arena, Jim says he and his brothers truly enjoy both aspects of their business. "To us they are so connected it's impossible to separate them," he adds. "We wouldn't operate the restaurant if we weren't supplying its seafood."

 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

 

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