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One on One: Stan Crais

National Frozen & Seafood Category Manager, Performance Food Group, West Creek, Va.

By James Wright
December 01, 2008

"We're involved in the purchasing, sales and marketing of everything we do. As a result, we're expected to be experts on everything. We just have a lot of answers."

 

Stan Crais is competitive by nature - he once battled a 38-pound wahoo on a hand line and had it mounted for his son. Such tenacity may explain Crais' ability to endure 35 years in the seafood industry. He joined Performance Food Group of Richmond, Va., a couple of years ago as the national frozen and seafood category manager. Crais' position at PFG, one of the biggest U.S. broadline distributors, requires a busy pace and long hours. But Crais doesn't seem to mind.

"A sense of ownership and pride are probably the best two character traits one needs in this sector of the business," says Crais, 52, who oversees a warehouse that supplies the company's 17 locations nationwide. "It'll never get done right [otherwise]. We're all pretty much Type A personalities - very competitive, even internally."

PFG, which provides everything from frozen shrimp to silverware to more than 41,000 foodservice companies, is poised for growth. Earlier this year, the company was acquired for $1.3 billion by venture-capital investment firms Blackstone Group and Wellspring Capital Management, which already owned distributor Vistar Corp. PFG is now being fused with Vistar's Roma Food, an Italian-specialty distributor, a union that has a combined 31 distribution centers and annual revenues of $10 billion.

Crais, who was previously VP at Atlanta-based food cooperative UniPro, is excited about the opportunities that the growing company offers. Still, he speaks fondly of the days he was a "Bubba Gump" working on a shrimp boat in his native Louisiana, even though the seafood industry of those days is a shell of its former self.

"It was very easy to make money then - you didn't have the high fuel costs. There were very few days when you didn't cover the cost of the boat itself," says Crais. "Today, at $3 plus a gallon for diesel, you gotta catch a lot of shrimp just to break even. When I head down South now, I see a lot of boats just tied up."

These days, Crais is tied up with a daily regimen of at least 130 inbound e-mails and 50 incoming phone calls from customers and within his distribution network. He squeezed me into his busy schedule in late October to talk about frozen food, carbon footprints and, of course, college football.

 

WRIGHT : What does a category manager do?

CRAIS : It's our job to source product, work with our quality assurance team and also be heavily involved in merchandising the product to our distributor sales reps around the country. Our job doesn't end at buying; it ultimately ends when the restaurant sells [the product] to their customers. We're involved in purchasing, sales and marketing of everything we do. As a result, we're expected to be experts on everything. We just have a lot of answers.

 

What products are you responsible for?

All seafood, most of which is frozen, and I oversee everything in the freezer with the exception of meat proteins. Everything else that goes in the freezer would be me, including ice cream, desserts, vegetables and appetizers.

 

What are PFG's categories?

Poultry, meat, grocery, seafood and frozen, canned goods and equipment and supplies. At the end of the day, I'm competing with our other center-of-plate categories. A restaurant operator only has so many dollars to spend, so I'm trying to draw attention to my category.

 

How many people are on your team?

We're lean and mean here. The entire department, including me, is three people. We have a project manager who's responsible for baked goods and another who is the manager for the warehouse itself. He places orders for supplies and oversees outbound shipments as well.

 

What are some of the
latest trends in frozen seafood?

Most of our customers are mid-scale, family-casual restaurants. We're seeing a lot of movement to bake and broil products; they're getting away from frying. If a product is breaded, it's lightly breaded with crumbs. [We use] a lot of ethnic seasonings with tilapia, catfish and shrimp. One thing about shrimp is there are very few menus that [don't feature it] in one form or fashion.

 

How many seafood species do you typically offer?

On an average day, we're involved with about 300 to 400 species between finfish and shellfish. It's pretty in-depth. A large part of our business is shrimp, but we deal with eel, monkfish, tuna, you name it.

 

What's a unique challenge you face?

One of the bigger issues facing us is continually demonstrating to our restaurants that there are times of the year when they really should change their menu. [Certain species are] a better value at certain times of the year. The restaurants that have a harder time at remaining profitable are the ones that don't want to change their menu, which you need to do to bring consumers back for multiple visits. It's one of the drawbacks of a chain.

 

Are consumers' perceptions about frozen seafood changing?

I would hope so. When people buy beef that's 30 days old they can say it's aged. Seafood that's 30 days old is rotten - it doesn't get better with age. But if it's frozen 45 minutes after being caught, when you thaw it out 45 days later, it's still 45 minutes old. Flash-freezing is a form of preservation, not processing. When you just throw leftover fish in the freezer, the cell structure will be destroyed.

 

How's your company's carbon footprint looking?

We were looking at that before it was the "in" thing to do. We want to be as environmentally friendly as possible based on the technology that exists. Our trucks don't go faster than 62 mph because we've determined that's their maximum fuel efficiency. For years, we've been doing things that have impacted our carbon footprint, like maximizing our inbound freight and buying full containers or truckloads to reduce the cost and impact.

 

Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com
 

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