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Case Study: Selling with an expert edge

Old-fashioned independent fishmonger makes retail seafood work in the mountains

Situated between chains, independent Tom's Seafood
    thrives on quality and service. - Photo by Doug Reese
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 direction.

"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 their shadows.

"[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 that."

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 or so.

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 stick at."

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 grocery store.

"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 downtown Denver.

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 old.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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