By Jamie Siebrase | May 03, 2015
Last year, Seattle Fish Co. sold more than 10 million pounds of seafood to about 1,100 customers in the Rocky Mountain region -- and that figure's expected to reach nearly 11 million in 2015. Business wasn't always booming, though.
The company's story began a century ago with Iacino's grandfather, Mose, pushing a cart around downtown Denver selling fresh oysters from Seattle. His brothers offered up a small corner of their meat market -- that's where Mose sold whatever fresh seafood came through town on the trains.
In 1918, the 16-year-old Mose, an Italian immigrant with a second-grade education, ventured out on his own. Nearly a century later, his Seattle Fish Co. is still here -- and grown in ways its founder never dreamed.
Iacino's father, Edward, eventually took over the family business, and built Seattle Fish Co.'s current facility in 1982, "That took it to next level in terms of growth and distribution," says Iacino, and also allowed Seattle Fish Co. to capitalize on new technology.
"When we started, there was no freezer technology," explains Iacino. Mose's fish was 100 percent fresh, packed in ice and sawdust. Freezer technology gained traction during the next generation, and Edward's seafood stock was 80 percent frozen, 20 percent fresh.
"Now, it's my turn," says Iacino, "We've flipped those numbers. Being able to fly it, truck it, and get it here from the four major coasts in 48 hours means most of our fish is fresh again." Iacino, in fact, doubled the company's fresh volume in five years, which required altering the 65,000-square-foot supply space to accommodate demand.
"Any chef in the city can call us up until 8 p.m. and order most species of fish for the next morning," Iacino says. Seattle Fish Co. leases 24 trucks in Colorado that start daily runs as early as 2 a.m.
The push towards fresh fish took place in an unlikely era, says Iacino. "During the recession, we invested in branding and developed more tools to communicate with our customers. We knew it would pay off when the economy rebounded."
Seattle Fish Co.'s clients are almost evenly divided between restaurants and retailers like Whole Foods, King Soopers (the company is the chain's sole fresh seafood provider in both Colorado and Utah), and Marczyk Fine Foods. Next time you're at Red Lobster, ask to see the fresh fish menu: you'll get Seattle Fish Co.'s high-quality stuff there, and at most local white-tablecloth restaurants and The Cheesecake Factory, among others.
The company's geographic footprint is impressive -- from Denver, it distributes west to Salt Lake City, north to Montana, and south to New Mexico. To the east, Seattle Fish Co.'s decade-old Kansas City plant covers St. Louis and other markets in the Midwest.
"We will never be anywhere near water," Iacino says. "We're landlocked, and we do fresh seafood really, really well."
From tuna fishmongers in Mexico to specialty snappers at Hawaiian auctions, reputation is everything in the seafood industry. Seattle Fish Co. maintains its good name by keeping close relationships with hundreds of suppliers.
"We find the best quality product from people who have generally been in business a long time, and we stick with them," Iacino says.
Seattle Fish Co. is a leader in both education efforts and sustainability. Iacino brings chefs in for tours and classes. The company also sponsors Chefs Up Front that in turn supports Cooking Matters, a program impacting the lives of more than 26,000 families at risk of hunger.
Iacino's company was the first in the region to earn certification by the Marine Stewardship Council as an official chain of custody supplier of seafood certified as sustainable from catch-to-cook. And, the company hosts an annual sustainability conference to educate others about sustainable practices.
Says Iacino, "We try to be leaders in sustainability both externally and internally." In 2010 Seattle Fish Co. installed a solar system at its Denver facility, and recently switched to electronic ballasts for its fluorescent lights, thus reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 338,910 pounds annually. Other ongoing practices include the use of non-waxed recyclable boxes and seeking out energy-efficient fleets.
As for bad press about mercury in seafood, Iacino's calling B.S. "We have the leanest, healthiest protein on planet," he touts. "You'd be surprised by the number of myths surrounding seafood."
Challenges: Supply is a major challenge. "There's a lot of consumption, and we're playing in a global market," says Iacino. "There are 7 billion people on planet, and beef and chicken are going through this, too. Without aquaculture, we'd be in big trouble." That said, fish is the only protein that still has wild stock, and he doesn't take overfishing lightly. "If we sustainably manage what we have, I think we can manage for the growth that's coming."
Opportunities: Product diversification. Seattle Fish Co. recently announced a partnership with Tender Belly, a Denver bacon provider. "Because our strength is fresh distribution, we'll be distributing their product to the mountains," says Iacino, adding, "I don't want to be all things to all people; I'm looking to add specialty goods that augment our seafood offerings."
Needs: Seattle Fish. Co. is hiring, and looking for long-term, talented people. Everything at Seattle Fish Co. is hand-cut, which means there are no machines. "It's cold and wet and tough here, and we need fish cutters who can grow with us," says Iacino. "Our employees are the key to our success, and we have a lot of loyalty with an average tenure of 14 years."