Chuck Bundrant is the owner of Trident Seafoods, the largest vertically integrated seafood company in North America. In, The Fallacy of Instant Success, I wrote about how long it took some intelligent fanatics to reach their inflection point. Chuck Bundrant founded Trident Seafoods in 1973, but it would take 16 more years to truly hit the inflection point. Let me tell you the story.
A few decades ago Alaskan Pollock was considered a trash fish. The thought of eating Pollock in the 1970’s was similar to how consumers viewed Lobster in the mid 19th century when it was considered the poor man’s protein. 150 years ago, Lobster was only fed to prisoners and the poor. How times have changed. Chuck Bundrant and Trident Seafoods changed a similar perception of Alaskan Pollock and now it can be found in different iterations on most menus and in most stores. But changing consumer perception isn’t easy.
In the book, Catching A Deckload of Dreams, author John van Amerongen tells the story of how Chuck Bundrant finally got the Alaskan Pollock into consumer’s stomachs:
By 1989, Long John Silver’s (LJS) had built its reputation on Atlantic cod. But global currency issues and the collapse of the cod resource in Eastern Canada forced them to start buying Pacific cod from Alaska. In addition to producing Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) pollock filets, the Akutan plant was packing a small amount of Pacific cod fillets individually wrapped in cellophane. It was a foodservice product form developed in Iceland and known in the market as “cello cod”. It was extremely convenient in the kitchen, so when it was available and affordable, it was Long John Silver’s first choice.
To switch to individual fillets and quick-frozen Alaska pollock – known in the market, if it was known at all, as “IQF pollock” – LJS would have to gamble that pollock would meet their customers’ flavor expectations and perform similarly in the kitchens of its 1,400 franchise restaurants. Since the restaurants were owned by a mixture of large and small franchisees, a protest against the shift from a popular and well-known species like cod to an unknown species like pollock could have been very loud and disruptive to the business. On the other hand, the discovery of an acceptable, affordable, and available substitute for cod would have been a godsend.
John Tobe was the chairman of the board of LJS in August of 1989. He and his head buyer, Ron Cegnar, were bound and determined to keep buying codfish, not pollock, when they visited the Trident plant in Akutan.
“I made five trips back to their headquarters in Louisville,” Bundrant said, “and all they wanted was cod. It’s pretty discouraging when you go back there with your hat in your hand, and you’ve got a beautiful product they don’t want. We had an R&D relationship in downtown Seattle with the Harbor Club. They had some pretty good chefs down there, so we had them cook up some pollock in 19 different ways. We brought the LJS folks out here and we trotted it out, and again, Ron Cegnar said, ‘No, we don’t want that; we want codfish.’ So they called me up about a week later, after they’d all gone home, and said, ‘John Tobe, chairman of the board, wants to go up to Alaska to take a look at your plant and your codfish.’ Well, I wasn’t going to tell the chairman of the board he could go to hell, but I was upset that he wanted to go see codfish.”
Bundrant continued, “I met him in Anchorage at six in the morning, and I noticed this guy Tobe was a pretty robust individual, and all we had to eat at the airport was one Danish pastry. By the time we get to eat again, at Akutan, it’s three o’clock in the afternoon Alaska time. We’d been running around the plant for hours, with me trying to show him pollock and him trying to look at codfish.
Finally, he says, ‘Boy, don’t you ever eat?’ I figured three o’clock in the afternoon in Akutan was about seven o’clock his time, and he hadn’t had anything to eat but the little Danish roll that morning. So I ordered up some pollock. Dave Abbassian was the cook in the galley in those days, and he deep-fried some crispy pollock. One thing I learned that day was if you’re going out to sell something, make sure your customer’s hungry. Well, this guy was hungry. He started into eating that pollock and said, ‘That’s good cod. I’ll take it.’ I said, ‘That isn’t cod. That’s pollock.’
“He said, ‘You’re shitting me,’ and he looked over at Ron Cegnar, the guy who’d been wearing me down all this time. Cegnar said, ‘This is fresh fish. It’s not going to taste the same when it’s frozen.’
“And that is where Dave Abbasian steps in, and I wanted to give him a thousand dollars and my left arm. He says, ‘I beg your pardon, sir. It tastes just as good frozen.’ So he goes and gets a box of frozen, and he and John Tobe are sitting in the back of the Akutan galley cooking the stuff up.”
“And the next year we sold them something like 10 million pounds of pollock, and we were off to the races.”
You can read more articles on Chuck Bundrant [HERE].
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