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Case Study: Selling with an expert edge
Old-fashioned independent fishmonger makes retail seafood work in the mountains
By Lisa Duchene
October 01, 2008
When Tom Butler opened Tom's Seafood and Specialties on the
outskirts of Denver a decade ago, he purposefully chose a shop
a quarter-mile down the street from a King Soopers grocery
store. A Safeway store is a quarter-mile away in the opposite
"I planted myself in the middle on purpose," says Butler.
One practical reason was that he'd worked as a manager at the
King Soopers store and wanted his loyal customers to find him.
But he also wanted to prove to chain grocery executives that
seafood knowledge, quality product and great customer service
can combine to make an independent, one-pop shop thrive in
"[My customers] can't go anywhere in town and get what they
can from me and they know that," says Butler. What makes
seafood shopping unique for Butler's customers is not only
quality product and Butler's attention to customer service, but
his ability to take them by the hand, build upon whatever
seafood background they have and lead them to experience a new
species, preparation or flavor. "I've turned so many people
onto fish who before they came here didn't eat fish and now I
can get them to eat damn near anything in my case. I love doing
The store's fresh case is full of 20-plus species, primarily
wild except for farmed trout, catfish and tilapia. From the
East Coast Butler carries cod, haddock, striped bass, P.E.I.
(Prince Edward Island) mussels, littleneck clams and New
Bedford scallops (Butler says he's a "chem-free, dry-packed
kind of guy"), along with the occasional black bass, ocean
perch and swordfish. From the Gulf Coast, Butler sells grouper,
snapper, oysters and shrimp. He is such a Gulf shrimp fan that
it's the only shrimp he sells, supplementing gaps in the
availability of fresh with frozen product. He sells Alaska
halibut and salmon, and will special-order farmed salmon for
customers who really want it. From Hawaiian waters, Butler
carries ono, opah, opakapaka, mahimahi and escolar.
On any given day, the two-dozen or so species in the case
range in price from $14 to $20 a pound depending on market
conditions. To avoid shrink, he never orders more than can fit
in the case so when it runs out, it's gone until the next day
When an item is sold out, Butler uses his seafood know-how
to turn his customers onto another, similar fish.
"I like to dazzle them with insignificant trivia," says
Butler. Know how a lobster determines up from down? Butler
does. He also dazzles them with simple, nearly fool-proof
preparation techniques. "Once [customers] get me going, they're
in trouble, because I've got more stories than you can shake a
That's because Butler, raised in landlocked Denver, has
nevertheless been fascinated with all things under the sea ever
since he learned to scuba dive in college.
"I hadn't spent enough time in the water to figure out I
probably should have been a marine biologist," he says.
Instead, he skied competitively and started working in the
ski industry. In 1980, despite knowing virtually nothing about
seafood or retail seafood and never having lived in a coastal
culture, Butler purchased The Seafood Landing in Denver.
The shop already had a great local reputation and Butler
vowed to raise the caliber of its customer service. He started
waiting on customers even if it was a little before opening
time or after closing time. He learned about seafood from the
two employees who came with the business and made plenty of
mistakes - like failing to hire a lawyer for the store's
purchase then finding out 10 days after he opened that the
business owed the Internal Revenue Service $13,000.
"The more I worked and played with fish, the more my
interest was piqued. I'd see something and ask 'why?'"
Six years later, when he learned the local supermarkets were
opening service seafood counters, Butler feared for the
business and sold it. Soon after, he went to work as a seafood
clerk, then seafood manager, at the King Soopers, owned by
Cincinnati-based Kroger. He brought a small-shop mentality into
the supermarket setting, which worked well for about a decade
before he and King Soopers' management butted heads and parted
ways. His supermarket experience of putting price points above
product quality made Butler realize there was still a void in
the area's retail seafood landscape that he could fill.
When he opened Tom's Seafood and Specialties in 1998, Butler
promised his King Soopers customers continued service and
better-quality product than they were finding in the local
"I was in the black right away, making money and paying my
bills, because people were starved for that," says Butler.
"They're still starved. Any new customers are usually ones
trying to shop at grocery stores and looking for [quality].
They say, 'We've been looking for a place like [this].'"
In the long run, the location in Lakewood, Colo., is not in
Denver's most affluent neighborhood, but it works. He draws
customers from a small, upper-class community in the foothills
and is on the way home for many people who commute to work in
The business is not always easy. When Whole Foods opened
nearby in December, Butler's business took a little hit and
he's worried about the escalating price of seafood in a
struggling economy. For now, he's seeing an upsurge of new
business following a late June story profiling him in the
Denver Post, which dubbed him the "prof of the piscatory." This
traditional fishmonger who delivers honest customer service
intends to hold onto every one of his customers - new and
Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte,