Fresh Seafood Shipper The Buzz


Got a hankering for halibut? Crave crab? Call your favorite seafood shipper and have it shipped directly to your door! Seafood sales are happily swimming along -- and that's good news for the people that sell and ship fresh seafood.

Although many people love fishing, it's much easier and faster to purchase your favorite seafood selection from a restaurant, grocery store or fish market. The middlemen between the cold blue ocean and your dinner table -- and the people who sell fish directly to you or your retail store -- are seafood shippers. These specialized shippers come in many business sizes, from multinational corporate entities to your local mom and pop fish market.

Seafood processing companies like Tyson Seafoods or Starkist are multimillion-dollar companies with mass-scale distribution. These companies catch, process, sell and ship their own fish nationally and internationally.

Other companies rely on aquaculture, or fish farming, for their sales supply. Both processing and aquaculture companies demand a highly trained staff and specialized education, and both present daunting financial realities.

"Start-up costs are in the multimillions," warns John Fiorillo, editor of SeaFood Business.

However, there is good news. Despite the competition in the multimillion-dollar seafood business, Fiorillo says there are opportunities for seafood entrepreneurs. "Seafood has thousands of suppliers," he says. "It's very diverse -- there are no dominant players."

How does a person with a hankering for both self-employment and seafood get their piece of this fishy pie? Sometimes smaller is better.

There's a legend in the seafood industry. "Once you get in, you can't get out," quips Fiorillo. People who get involved in this business tend to be netted for good. After that, a career that doesn't involve fish is unthinkable.

Greg "Pineapple" Caluya, owner of Ohano Seafood Market in Bellevue, Washington, is a prime example. An 18-year seafood veteran, Caluya ships fish from his small business to local and international destinations. "We ship mostly in the States. We also ship to Japan and some parts in Europe," he explains.

Small-scale seafood shippers compete directly with supermarkets. People are used to one-stop grocery shopping, which makes it difficult for specialty shops to compete.

However, smaller businesses can ship directly to consumers and provide competitive products. Caluya believes the quality of his products is what keeps customers coming back and encourages word-of-mouth advertising.

"My success in competing is that I carry very good quality. You have an edge over the bigger companies because you have better quality control and know your suppliers," Caluya explains.

He carefully handpicks his suppliers and buys his fish locally (from Alaska and Hawaii). If he doesn't like a company's quality, he looks elsewhere. "You have to have the best quality seafood [to ship]," he explains.

Another edge for small-scale shippers is the ability to provide excellent customer service. Caluya hires knowledgeable seafood experts to help his customers. These experts provide unsurpassed service, and are always there to help a customer if something goes wrong.

"To be successful in shipping fish, you have to be able to handle any problems when they do arise. In other words, do whatever it takes to make the customer happy and satisfied," he says.

Keeping the customer happy and satisfied will mean long hours for the self-employed shipper. Self-employed shippers usually work more than 40 hours a week and may face some very long days. "Christmas is just nuts," reports Caluya, who typically works 12-hour days during the holidays. "You're beat to the max," he adds.

Caluya's "normal" routine is anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week. "That's what it takes to be successful," he says.

There are some rewards, however, including money. Although a first-year entrepreneur may not net a huge amount due to start-up costs and marketing expenses, seafood shipping is still a good catch.

"When I started in 1978, I took home -- after taxes -- about $300 per week."

Caluya says both his business and his income have grown substantially. Depending on sales, Caluya reports an income ranging from $30,000 to $80,000 a year.

Interested in being a seafood shipper? Get out your checkbook. Although a small retail shipping business is probably the least costly way to get into the business, future shippers still face expensive start-up costs.

"I would say start-up costs -- if you're starting from scratch for equipment and everything, including products -- are anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000. It all depends on what kind of a set-up you want," explains Caluya.

Add to these costs your "fish education." Successful shippers need to know shipping rules, regulations, and even the difference between various species of fish. Working in the seafood industry for a processor, supplier or market, or finding a shipping mentor to teach you the ropes, will help future shippers avoid costly mistakes.

"Listen to the people that have been there a long time and pick their brains. In other words, learn all you can from the old-timers," stresses Caluya.

Fiorillo recommends direct industry experience before striking out on your own. "There are always entry-level positions through large suppliers," he points out. Working for one of the "big guys" will give you a broad overview of the industry, plus provide fantastic experience.

Other advice for the seafood shipping entrepreneur? "You need a sound knowledge of markets, processing technology, a strong business background and a multi-species niche-market approach," advises Dave Smith, a West Coast commercial fisheries development officer.

A future niche market might be a marriage between retail business and current technology. Caluya has a website complete with fish prices, ordering information and recipes. Seafood buyers anywhere in the world can send Caluya an order by e-mail and receive their fish within a few days.

Whether successful seafood entrepreneurs choose a retail store or an electronic one, the future of seafood shipping is happily swimming along.

Links

SeaFood Business
Trade magazine detailing seafood trends and tips

National Fisheries Institute
U.S. seafood information