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One on One: Chris King

By Steven Hedlund
November 01, 2007

Chris King isn't crazy about titles, especially his own. As seafood specialist for Town & Country Markets for the past three-and-a-half years, King is in charge of purchasing, merchandising, quality control and pricing at the retailer's six western Washington stores. But ask him what he does for a living, and he'll likely say he's a "people specialist."

King, 49, honed his people skills while learning the ins and outs of the seafood trade at an early age. In 1974, King took a job packing orders and loading delivery trucks at Pacific Fish Co. in Seattle. He worked there on and off during high school and college, eventually dropping out to work full time. "I liked the money better - fast cars, fast women," quips King, whose father was an Alaska salmon fisherman. "It became a career."

In 1979, King landed a job at Seattle's Pike Place Fish Market. He started out bagging clams and stocking salmon in the display case for $50 a day and worked his way up to become one of the market's managers.

In 1992, King gave the corporate life a shot, as seafood-department manager of Top Foods in Tacoma, Wash. But it wasn't for him. "I wanted to get out and sell rather than spend time in an office," he says. In 1995, Queen Anne Thriftway (now Metropolitan Market) offered him a position at its Tacoma location. "When I started, [co-owners Dick Rhodes and Terry Halverson] said, 'Chris, you know what you're doing, just go do it.' That was refreshing."

After a second stint at Pike Place Fish Market beginning in 2001, King joined Town & Country, a locally owned retailer that operates three stores under the Town & Country banner and three under the Central Market name. Central Market boasts 30- to 40-foot fresh-seafood cases and 30-foot frozen-seafood cases, while Town & Country's seafood departments are more scaled down. The family-oriented company is committed to its employees, customer service and high-quality seafood, says King.

I spoke with King to discuss retail seafood, the importance of customer service and Town & Country, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

 

HEDLUND : What draws you 
to seafood?

KING: People. I have a passion for people, then food. I'm a people person. I love developing relationships with customers, having a great time selling a great 
product.

I'm really simple. All you have to do is be honest and integral and have a sense of humor. There are far too many serious people out there. That's not me.

 

What sets Town & Country apart from the competition?

[The owners and board members] involve everyone in everything they do. They'll ask first before they make a move. We're building a new [Central Market] store in Issaquah [scheduled to open in 2009]. Most corporate [executives] say, "We're going to open it. Here's the blueprint." Our process is the opposite of that. The owners have been going around to what we call cross-store meetings, where all the department heads meet - seafood, produce, etc. - and asking us what we see in the future.

 

Who are your competitors?

No. 1 is ourselves. We compete against ourselves and our own limitations. But we pay attention to Whole Foods Market, we pay attention to Metropolitan Market, we paid attention to Larry's Markets when they were around. [ Editor's note: Larry's was split up in bankruptcy court last year. ]

 

Why do most conventional 
supermarket chains maintain 
loss-leader seafood departments?

They're there for show, and that's intentional. They're not there to make money. It's pretty common in grocery stores. But that's not common for us. It's not about higher gross margins. It's about offering value of the best products to our customers. In other words, we're not putting chemically treated scallops on ad. We're using what we have. If it's troll king salmon, sockeye salmon or [dry] scallops, that's what we're putting on ad. We reward our regular customers for shopping with us. If we continue to think we need to get top dollar for everything we sell then we're missing the boat. We don't have to hit a gross on everything we [sell] to make money. It's a fallacy.

 

What's the biggest challenge 
you face as a seafood retailer?

Politics. I try not to [get involved] with the politics of the seafood industry. But I do form my own opinion through research on sustainability. The reason I don't align myself with anyone is because the information changes so quickly. What's true today is not true tomorrow. The first concern for me is people, and the second is fish. We can't have people without good fish. I'm about people. If I have a question, I call my vendor.

Aligning myself with integral [vendors] is really what it's all about. They say, "This is all we can get for now. That's because we're maintaining the fishery." My seafood-department heads don't freak when they can't get something, whether it's because of a weather issue, sustainability issue or quality issue.

 

How does Town & Country ensure the Chinese seafood it sells is free of illegal veterinary drugs?

Eastern Fish [in Teaneck, N.J.] already had the testing in place [before the Food and Drug Administration's import alert on Chinese seafood]. So we've been proactive, working with Eastern to procure quality product. But politics kick in. It's the flavor of the month right now, and we have to ride it out. Some of it's good, because it uncovers [Chinese seafood producers] that aren't integrally operated.

 

Why does Town & Country not carry farmed salmon?

Our company took a stand to carry only wild salmon before I got here. But I will say it's probably something that needs to be looked at again by our company. The truth is sustainability and price come in different forms, and if we're not looking at all of it then I think we're missing the boat.

 

Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com

 

 

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