ALBANY, Calif. -- During the prime holiday selling season just past, storms rocked the Pacific fisheries of Dungeness crab, wreaking havoc on supplies and the local market.
But that did not stop Andronico's Park & Shop, based here, from offering Dungeness crab in all its units, while competitors ran short of the regional favorite, and prices soared because fishermen were unable to keep pace with the heavy demand.
"We paid over $4, and we didn't beat our supplier up on price," said Darren Horton, director of meat and seafood for the chain. The net result: Andronico's shoppers got their crab, as they knew they would.
"Our customers want their fish, and they count on us to have the variety they expect," Horton told SN. Andronico's was able to pull off the crab coup because when the seas got rough, the retailer had such solid relationships with its vendors it kept its departments afloat.
In an interview with SN, Horton said such an anchor for his supermarket seafood program is crucial -- a sage observation, given the fact that, as a fresh food segment, seafood is probably the most volatile business of all in terms of supply and demand.
This upscale retailer operates under a strategy of carefully cultivating its seafood vendors, working in concert with them for the long term so that sudden emergencies and opportunities work to Andronico's advantage.
The partnerships can start when a vendor wants to show you a new product, teach or tell, according to Horton.
"A supplier may be heavy with salmon one week. We work together to reduce the price, feature the item, reduce the vendor's inventory and move more salmon. Then when we needed a favor -- getting Dungeness when it was short -- we knew we could count on our vendor," Horton explained. "We have a 'team relationship' with suppliers and it pays off well."
The strategy cuts across species. Scallops are another item that Andronico's Park & Shop specially sources. A chemical-free brand is the only one Horton is interested in.
"Our customers may not know all the impacts regarding chemicals, but when they taste these scallops the taste makes all the difference in the world. We may be the only retailer specially selecting Nova scallops on our order, but our vendor is happy to work with us to meet our needs today because we have worked with them in the past.
"Our size makes it perfect to take advantage of opportunities," he continued. "A supplier may have 50 to 60 pounds of great sole to sell. Spread that through a 100-unit organization and it would get lost, but with our seven units we can jump on the chance."
For its part, Andronico's keep its needs simple. "What we want from a vendor is service and value," said Horton. "We rarely complain about price; we look at value and often pay top dollar. We don't lie and we don't play games."
Andronico's Park & Shop also relies on department managers to play an active part in the vendor-retailer partnership and to work through the inevitable mistakes that happen. Courtesy goes a long way, Horton said.
"When orders come into the department that contain errors, our managers are expected to be gracious. Then when we err, it is the vendor's turn to return the favor," Horton said. "If we have a situation where an out-of-stock may result, our managers can call and ask vendors directly to help divert the situation.
According to Horton, the strategy continues to improve his operations. One of the operator's newest stores, a unit purchased and renovated by Andronico's in Los Altos, claims the highest percentage of all the seafood departments in the chain.
The Los Altos seafood department sales distribution ranges from 5% to 6% of the total store generally, with the recent Christmas and New Year's holidays boosting that to double digits.
"To achieve this kind of success, you have to be the best all the time," said Horton.
Andronico's seafood stands feature 100% boneless fillets, shellfish and prepared items all laid out on ice. "The ice keeps fish fresh," he explained.
No seafood item is warehoused with Andronico's. Fish and seafood is direct-store-delivered at a rate of about 12 deliveries per week, one from each supplier six times.
"You have to go through steps to warehouse," Horton explained. "This costs time and freshness. Our fish, ordered in the morning, is received three to four hours later."
The department also says "fresh" with a live split tank containing New England lobsters and Dungeness crab. Any way the customers want their lobster, crab, shellfish or fish prepared, they can have it. Items are packed for travel. If a consumer wants a lobster or crab prepared, the sales associate will take the crustacean to the deli to be steamed.
"We will prepare an item any way a customer asks without any extra charge," Horton said.
In-store chefs in the deli department also supply the many sauces and marinades used in the seafood department. The lemon and garlic marinade is a recipe supplied by Mrs. Andronico, for example, while tartar sauce and cocktail sauce are produced by Andronico's chefs.
While Andronico's carries the typical offerings -- including trout, tilapia, finnan haddie, shark, halibut -- more exotic species or traditional favorites with a special flair are also on the stand in the product mix.
"All seafood stands have marinated catfish," said Horton. "But how many have marinated ahi or marinated swordfish or marinated sea bass?"
Between 300 and 400 oysters are sold in the shell at Andronico's seven Park & Shop units per week. Shrimp range from salad shrimp to fresh-water four- to six-counts. Prepared seafood kabobs are created in-store with salmon, seabass, red and green peppers and red onions.
Fin fish enjoys a comfortable 60% to 70% of total stand sales at Andronico's. This bodes well for the future, Horton said. "Anybody can move shrimp, but once you have a customer eating fish, you have a business future."
Seafood cake varieties are a popular item with customers, according to Horton. The vendor-supplied line was selected over in-store prepared varieties because of its excellent, consistent quality. Scallop cakes, salmon cakes, crab cakes and shrimp cakes provide not only variety, but color to the seafood display.
"It is not unusual for this unit to do $500 per week in crab cakes alone and $1,000 in the seafood cake category," Horton noted.
Other vendors supply specialty items that the retailer believes cannot be duplicated by in-store personnel. A local smoker supplies smoked peppered salmon, tuna and cod. Two out of three items are on display on a particular day. Another local vendor supplies seafood sausages in several varieties.
"They are unusual and great for grilling," Horton said, adding that, unfortunately, sales are directly linked to good weather.
All this extra care and planning does cost, but the Silicon Valley shoppers in the Los Altos unit especially expect to pay for quality.
"Our customers are conscious of what's healthy. If they want to buy an item, they prefer to buy it from a service case and they want to ask somebody how to cook it. They want to believe it is the freshest product they can get. With service people behind the counter it endorses that belief. The final proof is if it eats well," Horton said. "They know how to make business decisions, now they are learning to make food decisions."
Training hinges on the importance of good customer service and how to keep customers loyal, Horton said.
"We look for enthusiasm, excitement and pleasant qualities in our counter people," he said. "A culinary background is nice, as our Los Altos unit seafood manager Richard Myers has, but not necessary."
The day SN visited the unit Myers had "cooked" up some Italian-style marinated shrimp and was aggressively sampling them with customers who window-shopped his department.
"We do pay over scale," Horton said, referring to the union scale. "We want our people to stay with us.
"It is the touches that make our seafood stands special," Horton continued. "And the attention to details. We act on what we think will work. If it doesn't, we cook it up and give it away to customers and try again until we get it right."