SEATTLE -- At Queen Anne Thriftway here, seafood manager Rick Cavanaugh has been busy redefining supermarket seafood for the past 10 years -- and he's not done yet.
Cavanaugh's 12-linear-foot, four-deck, multilevel seafood case, located towards the front of the store, is his platform for proving to his customers that supermarket seafood can indeed be fresh and of high quality.
There are usually about 30 different kinds of fish and seafood displayed in that space, according to Cavanaugh, but the variety available can reach 40 to 50 during the peak volume season in the summer, with all the selections individually wrapped and packaged.
On a recent visit by SN, the shelves were lined with a dazzling array of deep-red yellowfin tuna steaks; electric-orange Atlantic salmon fillets; 3-inch thick Alaska weatherwave scallops; heaping piles of clams, mussels and oysters; a huge assortment of smoked and wood-roasted salmon; and a variety of innovative and appealing HMR options, like lemon-herb salmon with rice pilaf and pollack in shrimp sauce with pasta.
Cavanaugh said Queen Anne's seafood department steadily accounts for 4.25% of the store sales dollar, a figure which can jump to 7% during summer barbecue season.
This is no small achievement, he reasoned, noting that many stores' seafood departments "are doing a lot less than 1% of store sales."
His seafood department also has "the highest volume per square foot in the store. If the whole store did as much [volume] per square foot as seafood does, it would only be one aisle."
This store, opened in 1962, was the first of three Queen Anne Thirftways in Washington state. The central location, in the upwardly mobile residential neighborhood of Queen Anne -- just outside the center of Seattle and not far from the Space Needle -- is a highly competitive area for supermarkets.
"There are five independent fish markets and four groceries within a 10-minute drive, [but] some of the other stores are not taking [seafood] seriously enough. And sometimes I just let them beat themselves," Cavanaugh explained.
He estimated that since taking over the seafood department 10 years ago, sales have been steadily growing at an annual rate of 6%; and seafood as a percentage of the store dollar climbed up by at least 1%.
Raised by a father who was a county health inspector of fish markets, Cavanaugh decided early to get what he calls a well-rounded education in the seafood business.
"I started in a cannery smokehouse, worked on the docks in Alaska, in the wholesale business and in a seafood restaurant before moving into retail at [Seattle's renown] Pike Place Market."
He looks for the same type of multifaceted background in his staff. "I hire experienced people who don't need much training, preferably with a mix of retail fish market and seafood restaurant experience. You should know how to cook it if you are going to sell it. They have to like fish, enjoy working with it and have a curiosity about it."
He happily noted that he has had zero turnover in the past eight years and stressed that "you are not going to get that for $4 an hour."
Cavanaugh said he sees seafood as "probably the hardest part of the grocery business, because it's a limited resource."
He attributed much of his success in that field to the level of quality and service that he provides, adding that finding the quality he wants is often the hardest part.
"I am very diligent about what I buy," he said. "I find a lot of product at trade shows, talk directly to fishermen, shop wholesale markets and ask a lot of questions. If you ask my suppliers who their pickiest customers are, I'm probably at the top of the list."
He also finds his industry particularly challenging since so many people are hesitant about eating seafood. "And how many people say they don't like chicken?" he questioned.
Besides searching hard for quality, another of Cavanaugh's rules is that "the product has got to look perfect," citing that rule while shuffling through salmon filets until they were perfectly lined up in the case. "Maybe that's the fault that too many fish markets have."
One of the factors that go into making Cavanaugh's seafood look so appealing is the painstaking care with which his staff takes the skin off, trims the filets and removes any dark spots. No water is allowed around the scallops and the salmon is de-boned.
"We use white trays, which allow for better color contrast -- and the other stores, particularly the low-end ones, use blue trays, so I can [also] differentiate myself from the competition."
All the individual packages are then carefully laid out in neat, eye-appealing rows.
These meticulous steps add up to a product -- from tightly wrapped Sitka halibut steaks to colorful packages of sushi -- that not only looks great but, as Cavanaugh defines it, is "noticeably fresher."
Cavanaugh's seafood case also includes a number of Japanese seafood specialties, like black cod marinated in sake kasu -- the sediment from making sake -- and a large variety of prepared food, like canned oysters and clam chowder. The top row of the case offers several varieties of cocktail sauce and Queen Anne brand aioli, along with an assortment of seafood recipe cards from the magazine Simply Seafood.
Currently, Queen Anne's whole seafood department is self service -- a set up which Cavanaugh believes is advantageous for his customers. "This is better than full service because everything has a date," he explained. The system leaves him no opportunity to cover up bad fish. The whole seafood department can be taken at face value, he noted, because "in self service there are no tricks."
Cavanaugh reported a fairly consistent 2% rate of shrink, which is surprisingly low for a seafood department. He claimed that most of the shrink results from having to throw product away. He said that he manages to keep throwaways to a minimum by purchasing small amounts on a daily basis. "Self service allows us to keep a closer eye on the product," he added.
The use of individual packages in the self-service format also allows Cavanaugh to give his customers specific information on every package. Most of them have labels that tell where the seafood is from, like the Monterey Bay calamari; note if it's farm raised, as in the case of the Atlantic salmon steaks; tell whether the item was previously frozen or frozen at sea; and give useful cooking tips, such as the notation on the albacore tuna chunks that indicate they are good for chowder and stir-fry.
The self-service format also leaves Cavanaugh and his staff with more time to devote to customer service and field questions, he said. The seafood staff spent a busy afternoon on the floor the day that SN visited, helping out clientele that varied from a visiting fish monger from Pike Place Market, who was checking up on Cavanaugh's stock, to couples in need of detailed cooking instructions.
Cavanaugh's efforts are supported by a continuing flow of on-going demos in an spot close to the store's entrance way. Featuring everything from cooking techniques to new products,
"We do demos at least twice a week, he said, "and I can't overstate their importance."
Next to the demo area hangs an enticing assortment of recipes for dishes like Dungeness crab salad, shrimp in black bean sauce and mussels in lemon grass, created by a chef specially for the Queen Anne Thriftway.
Seafood department advertising is limited to the weekly circular, which is distributed in the local paper. Cavanaugh also makes use of less-conventional methods of advertising to build repeat business, such as giving out samples ranging from a taste of a ready to eat product, to a full portion of a raw one.
"It's cheap advertising, and if they like it, they are going to come back," he reasoned.
Cavanaugh said there isn't a real budget allotted for regular seafood department promotions, but he improvises and tries to come up with interesting ideas whenever appropriate. One of his old standbys, which he has been promoting in different ways for the past 10 years, is Copper River salmon from Alaska.
In May of 1996, for example, "We worked with a fisherman and had a friend videotape him while fishing. We had the fish air expressed to Seattle and showed the video in the store and explained that the fish was caught in last 24 hours."
During the last promotion, Copper River salmon sales accounted for a 2% to 3% increase in seafood's percentage of store sales," he said.
Even when he's not doing such promotions, turnover is strong enough so that much of Cavanaugh's seafood is less than 24 hours old.
He often marks the big map of the West Coast that hangs over the service window with red pen to show customers exactly where the different species come from.
It seems that 10 years of hard work have paid off in more ways than one: Cavanaugh's seafood department is now due for a remodeling that should double its size, as part of an expansion that is also expected to increase the total square footage throughout the store.
"Our last remodeling was over 15 years ago. We have been opening new stores and focusing on them, and it's our turn now," he said. The revamped, larger seafood department is slated to be a mix of self service and full service.
"The customers in our neighborhood have requested full service. It's just a perception that fish in the full-service case is fresher."
Cavanaugh said he sees it as a change for the best. "It will give us room for a live tank, crab cooler and an ice display. We'll be able to display whole fish and build more impressive looking displays."
Despite his passion for self service and belief that cut fish does better in prewrapped packages, Cavanaugh noted that having both full- and self-service options at his disposal offered some distinct advantages.
"I would like to focus on what's best for the product, and see whether its integrity is best served in full or self service."
So the redefining goes on. Offering a wider product selection, displayed via both merchandising formats, can only support Cavanaugh's self-proclaimed goal of "100% customer satisfaction" -- which is probably the only static element in his 10-year odyssey of selling seafood.