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Case Study: Petaluma’s seafood makeover

Merchandising veteran hand-selects fish to give market an edge

Petaluma Manager Bob Drobatz drives to San Francisco
    to hand-select fish. - Photo courtesy of Petaluma Market
By Lisa Duchene
February 01, 2008

Talk about instant gratification. Bob Drobatz, a veteran seafood merchandiser who is making over the seafood department at the Petaluma Market in Petaluma, Calif., didn't have to wait long for customer feedback on his biggest change.

During his second week as the market's new manager, Drobatz was 40 miles away at the San Francisco wharf, ice chest in tow, hand-selecting swordfish, tuna, petrale sole and rockfish. Within 30 minutes of returning to the store with fresh fish a customer ordered 50 pounds ($600 worth) of A++ grade swordfish for later in the week.

"Going down there and hand-picking fish is going to pay dividends," says Drobatz. "That's what's going to really turn us around."

In 1987, James Agius, Jr. purchased the market with two friends. In 1992, Agius and his wife, Maureen, bought them out and have owned the market since.The market has a selling space of about 900 square feet and is known for its fresh produce and meats, homemade deli items and community atmosphere.

In late summer, as the market celebrated its 20-year anniversary with three days of events thanking its loyal customers, the Agius family looked to jump-start its business. Drobatz had just ended a 21-year run as the meat, seafood and poultry buyer for Mollie Stone's, an independent grocer that had grown from one to eight stores during that time. Drobatz worked with Petaluma first as a seafood consultant late last summer.

"What [Petaluma] had was a bunch of meat people who were very good at meat who were just putting seafood on a platter and putting it in the case," says Drobatz. "They really didn't have a seafood expert."

Drobatz' first suggestion was to take the fish off the platters and display it on ice. Then he angled the display up in the back to create a fuller-looking presentation.

Since those changes were made in mid-September, seafood sales increased at least 25 percent, 
says Drobatz.

The next thing he did was hire a seafood expert. Greg Tarantino, another 20-year seafood merchandising veteran from Mollie Stone's, joined Petaluma in the fall as its meat and seafood manager.

Next, Drobatz tackled the procurement. "Buying and ordering [seafood] are two different things," says Drobatz. "Ordering is just looking at what you need, what you sold before and replenishing." Proper buying takes into account the value of the product, past history and the relationship with the vendor. "You have to be picky and your receiving is just as important as buying," says Drobatz.

Three times a week, Drobatz packs ice-filled coolers into his pickup truck and drives to the long warehouses at Pier 45, which sell many Pacific Northwest species. He looks for petrale sole and sand dabs at one company. Another company always has top-notch swordfish. Another has fresh mussels, clams, oysters and scallops.

"Everybody has their specialty and generally I'll buy an item from the person for whom that's their specialty," says Drobatz.

He also draws upon his history with the purveyors. For his first 10 years or so at Mollie Stone's, he dealt daily with the same purveyors. Once the chests are loaded with 200 to 400 pounds of fish, he drives back to Petaluma.

The buying change has allowed Drobatz to expand Petaluma Market's product assortment by about six species, representing 20 to 30 percent of sales. To the farmed and wild salmon, rainbow trout, red snapper, tilapia and tuna the market offers, Drobatz added local halibut, escolar, swordfish, fresh tuna, opa and ono and an array of shellfish.

He buys as much local fish as possible. For example, from December to January the store sold fresh-cooked Dungeness crabs.

With the arrival of Tarantino and Drobatz, Petaluma has the expertise to butcher whole fish, so it is also merchandising whole rockfish; (or rock cod, a group of about 100 Pacific fish known locally as canaries, red widows, boccaccio and greenies); wild salmon from Alaska, Canada and the Pacific Northwest; farmed salmon from Canada; and Pacific flounders like sand dabs, rex sole and Petrale sole.

"When you have a whole counter of fresh fish, it just jumps out at you," says Drobatz.

He and Tarantino are working to train employees behind the counter, encouraging them all to know one simple way to cook each kind of fish the store regularly carries.

"Before, [seafood] was just a side thing for them," says Drobatz. "It was 'Just put it on platters and throw it down.' And now [seafood] is a source of pride for them."

He intends to win the trust and favor of the locals in the 60,000-person town. "This is where they're going to want to buy seafood because it's the store that has the best quality seafood," says Drobatz.

He also envisions the market's seafood operation as a destination.

"This is true around the country," says Drobatz. "If you are a fish-eater, you will travel to a store that has fresh, high-quality seafood. If you're going to be one of the companies that takes pride in [seafood] it will show dividends."

The market's goal is to be a community-oriented store offering the highest-quality products at the best prices.

"People like to come to a market where they know who's waiting on them and know the other people shopping there," says Jim Agius III, the owners' son who helps manage the store. "That's been pretty consistent from the beginning."

There is no shortage of specialty retailers serving the Sonoma County community. Three other independents, along with two traditional supermarkets and the specialty chains Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Market, are all located within 30 miles. When asked about the secret to competing with so many other retailers, Agius III chuckles and says his answer will sound trite but it's true.

"You hire people like Bob Drobatz who really know their stuff," says Agius. "You get good people and you pay constant attention."


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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