Retailers recognize that adding value to fresh seafood products represents the best chance to align the department with the opportunities found in the take-home meal category. However, adding value in the store has proven to be a complicated task, with retailers citing time, space and food safety as the primary reasons.
One option for retailers has been to ask third-party vendors to produce many items. Other operators told SN their reputation is built on preparing products on-site, and they will continue to create signature items at store level. In assessing the current state of seafood, it's apparent that value-added covers a whole spectrum of products and attitudes.
One independent, Southwestern retailer is a fan of enhancing seafood, but doesn't like adding the value in the store because of food-safety issues.
"Stores are not built for producing. Unless they have a separate manufacturing area in the background, they're just a food-safety accident waiting to happen," said the retailer, who asked not to be identified. "I think stores should just do what they do best -- serve their customers."
Rick Cavanaugh, regional seafood manager for Thriftway stores in Seattle, agreed that food safety is perhaps the tallest hurdle facing seafood departments looking to boost meal-related sales.
"When food is processed, the facility has to be HACCP-certified, the trucks need to be refrigerated, and all that. That's part of the reason I don't do value-added in the store," he said. "There's more consistency in jobbing out to other facilities."
One option that retailers are finding increasingly attractive is using marinade programs that allow customers to choose their own flavor, and allow associates to simply pump an ounce or two into a plastic bag or tray containing the fresh fillet or steak. This method of adding value requires hardly any labor, costs the store little and gives the customer a range of choices.
"I have high hopes for the program," said Larry Daerr, regional seafood manager for wholesale grocer Supervalu, Eden Prairie, Minn., referring to Fresh Starts, a turnkey program developed by McCormick & Co. The effort was launched in 35 to 40 stores in May and will likely expand soon to 80 stores in the region.
"The stores are doing it right now and it's working really well," Daerr told SN. "The customers are accepting it. There's no extra charge per pound for the marinade. But you're using one or two pumps per pound, so the weight of the marinade is in there when you weigh the seafood."
McCormick's unveiled its program in March, and bases it on two existing brands -- Golden Dipt marinades and Old Bay dry seasonings. Seafood personnel pump marinade from the 32-ounce bottles into the bag or tray containing a customer's seafood purchase, or add dry seasonings, then weigh the package.
"We are suggesting they give the marinade to customers as an enhancement to the seafood department," said Laurie Harrsen, director of McCormick public relations. "We look at it as more of a tasting for consumers who are wondering if they really want to purchase that [retail] bottle of marinade."
As part of the program, stores display retail packages of Golden Dipt and Old Bay products in front of the seafood counter. McCormick, based in Hunt Valley, Md., is providing a training manual, video, on-site seminars, point-of-sale materials such as signage and cooking instructions, ingredients, recipe stickers and merchandising racks.
"The marinade costs you roughly $3.50 a pound, and whatever you marinate costs more than that," said Daerr. "You put a 1-ounce or 2-ounce shot on your fillets, so it only takes one or two pumps. Then the seafood is oven-ready or grill-ready, depending on interest."
There are six liquid marinades: Lemon Butter Dill, Ginger Teriyaki, Cajun, Lemon Pepper, Garlic Herb and Honey Mustard. Dry seasoning flavors include Old Bay, Sweet Basil and Lemon, Lemon & Pepper, Bayou Cajun, Caribbean Island Blend and 7-Pepper Blend. Daerr's stores carry between 2% and 5% value-added seafood products, including "lots of salads and crabcakes, marinated catfish and scallops." He plans to raise the percentage to 10% and expects the McCormick program to help cultivate the selection -- probably in self-serve cases as well.
Another company, Marinade Bay, El Cerrito, Calif., began six years ago with marinated meat. "We put it out in cases at Whole Foods and so many customers came back and wanted it, we continued," said Al Abronzino, a former meat department veteran and company owner.
"In the last six months, we have concentrated on seafood," said Abronzino. "We had one store that routinely sold 200 pounds of salmon a week. We marinated the fillets in honey-ginger soy and the sales went to 600 pounds a week. It worked so well, we went to shrimp and scallops."
Abronzino supplies his all-natural product to Whole Foods, Kroger, Mustard Seed Market, Roche Brothers and several other retail banners.
"Because it's all-natural, its success is really simple -- it's the same as what you'd make at home," said Abronzino. "We make 23 flavors, including a teriyaki garlic and herb, a Korean seasoning, mango teriyaki, Baha seafood and a seafood cocktail sauce."
Abronzino noted retail environments are ideal for such programs because they allow consumers a sense of making the item their own, even though the marinade and the service is provided by the store.
"It doesn't change the cooking style, or the time or anything. It just adds flavor," he said. "Actually, the big hurdle to overcome was the retailer, worrying about labor. But they're already doing all the bagging and weighing, so adding a marinade isn't extra work."
He said Whole Foods now sells $300,000 in marinaded product alone in 17 stores in Northern California.
At the opposite end of the value-added spectrum is Chris Gogos of Morton Williams Associated Supermarkets. In his West 57th Street store, next door to the Hard Rock Cafe, "in one of the busiest areas of Manhattan," Gogos employs 33 chefs who work hard to produce a wide variety of prepared foods for the food court, deli and other departments. Their seafood case contains around 25% value-added products.
"We buy flounder fillets we get for $3 to $5. We process them ourselves, and we make more money. The margins are great, the customer is happy," Gogos said. "It is not in our interest to have them done outside. We pay more."
To protect profits, items are watched carefully and used in a cooked item prior to their expiration. For example, oysters that don't sell in two days are cooked and made into cakes, which might prolong their salability by two or three days, Gogos said.
Similarly, the retailer makes crab cakes, breaded scallops and oysters; it seasons mussels for use in seafood gumbo.
"In this particular store, we sell salmon like crazy -- we put 50 steaks out and it goes every day."
Salmon and shrimp are the only things we don't do anything to, he added.
"Shrimp doesn't go if you play around with them. We tried stuffed shrimp with crabmeat and it didn't move. I guess it gets complicated if there are too many instructions. People like simple," he said.
In more traditional market areas, retailers are trying to find the right balance between outsourced programs like the marinade venues and creating a destination item that makes the retailer shine.
"We're still looking to use more value-added items," Thriftway's Cavanaugh said. "Signature items are the ones that give you a chance to differentiate from the competition. Benchmark products are one of the things people compare you to other stores on. If you are going to put your name on it, a signature item has to be done consistently and be of high quality."
As an upscale independent retailer, Cavanaugh acknowledges Thriftway can't compete with chains on price alone, so they compete on quality.
"We do some things in the store, like cioppino, although we job out the base-cooked prawns and crabcakes." In fact, cooked prawns are one of the chain's Top 5 items. In the four years they've offered them, sales have gone up three times, he said.
"They've plateaued now, but they're still up there. Some months it's No. 2 in the whole department," said Cavanaugh.
At Andronico's, Albany, Calif., Marc Kane, vice president for seafood, said they are "attacking value-added" and making the items in the stores. The chain has 11 full-service seafood departments with at least five value-added items at a time in each store, comprising about 15% of the fresh case. But it's always a work in progress, he said.
Kane recalled that a few years ago, the chain's president, Bill Andronico, saw stuffed salmon roasts in a store in the East. He returned to California and tried them in his stores, three at the time, but they didn't work, because they couldn't get the right consistency.
"In the last 18 months, we've aggressively gone after this," said Kane. "We put in ads every six weeks and they've done quite well."
Associates in seafood roll two fillets with pesto in the middle so pieces can be sliced off in any size customers want. Other stuffed salmon roast flavors include wild rice and mushroom, corn bread, and a fruit and rice.
Andronico's also offers marinated items, using six to eight flavors of marinades from Bobby Chong's, on salmon, halibut, swordfish and mahi mahi. They also offer kabobs -- both fresh and marinated, he said.