Mile-high efficiency

Nov. 1, 2007
One would expect the Seattle Fish Company to have a lovely water view, as Seattle, Washington, is right off Puget Sound. But this 90-year-old company

One would expect the Seattle Fish Company to have a lovely water view, as Seattle, Washington, is right off Puget Sound. But this 90-year-old company is far from the water, situated in an industrial area, more than 1,300 miles away in Denver, Colorado. Nevertheless, it is one of the largest wholesale distributors of fresh and frozen fish and seafood west of the Mississippi River.

The Seattle Fish Company brings in, by land and air, fresh seafood and fish from three coasts, as well as from port cities around the world. Truckloads of product arrive every week, and shipments are flown in seven days a week. Roughly half of the products come by truck, the other half by aircraft.

A wide variety of products include catfish, caviar, salmon, shellfish, trout, tuna, and fish from the East Coast, West Coast, Gulf Coast, and Hawaii. The company's slogan, since almost its beginning: “If it swims, we have it.”

“All of our fish is top of the catch, and quality is assured,” said Derek Figueroa, chief financial officer and manager of operations for Seattle Fish Company. Its inventory turns “very quickly,” with high-volume products brought in weekly.

Half of the company's business is with supermarkets — both national chains and independents. The other half is with restaurants, hotels, and foodservice operations. About 80 percent of the business is fresh fish and seafood; the other 20 percent is frozen. The majority of its customers are in Colorado.

“Our business has changed considerably over the years,” Figueroa said. “Beyond the change in product mix from mostly frozen to mostly fresh, we used to do significantly more retail sales, and even had our own retail store. As our business with such traditional retailers as grocery stores and fish markets grew, we didn't want to compete with them.” Seattle Fish Company shut down its retail operation in the late 1980s.

Shipping modes

Seattle Fish Company gets three truckloads on Thursdays and Sundays. Seattle, Washington-based Port Side Trucking brings in product from the Northwest. Colorado Atlantic of Boston, Massachusetts, transports product from the East Coast. Product from the Gulf Coast is hauled in by Lakes Trucking of Miami, Florida.

“The nice thing about shipping fish and seafood by truck is that it is packed in ice and then placed in refrigerated trailers where the temperature stays more consistent,” said Figueroa. “We've also found that trucking is a lot more consistent with delivery times than are the airlines.

“Shipping by air takes less time but is not as reliable. There are times when our shipments get bumped for higher priority shipments, such as mail and flowers.”

For air shipments of seafood and fish, the product travels in special shipping containers. Rather than being packed in ice, refrigerant gel packs are used to keep the product refrigerated or cold.

These only work for a finite time, Figueroa said. If delays arise with truck transport, the product can be re-iced, which helps to maintain peak condition.

Receiving process

All fish received at Seattle Fish Company go through a series of quality checks before being inventoried or processed. Whole fish, such as salmon, tuna, and swordfish, is cut into fillets, loins, or specialty cuts by the company's 14 cutters. These pieces then go to packers who package them.

“This is one of the ways we can add value,” said Figueroa. “We buy in large quantities and produce smaller packages of fish according to customers' requirements.”

The company uses an information system from Astra Information Systems in Weston, Florida, which includes bar coding for inventory control and measurement. The software also is used for order entry, order picking, and loading product for deliveries. All loading is done at night.

After any product claims are settled, any bad fish or seafood, along with bones, skin, and other non-useable fish parts produced from the processing of fish, is trucked about five miles to a rendering plant.

Some 65 people work in Seattle Fish Company's warehouse and food processing facility.

Assigned routes

The business operates a delivery fleet of 19 refrigerated trucks with 20 drivers. Scheduled deliveries are made Monday through Saturday.

Trucks are assigned to a driver, as are the routes, which are switched when business dictates. Drivers are crossed trained on routes so any changes won't cause too much disruption to the delivery schedule. For the majority of deliveries, product is either carried or hand-trucked into customers' places of business.

“By having assigned routes, our drivers really get to know our customers, and how they want their deliveries handled — say just stacking the product, or putting it away for them,” said Figueroa. “Our drivers are the face of our company, and we want them building strong relationships with our customers.”

Truck drivers also pick up arriving fish and seafood at the nearby Denver International Airport, the fifth busiest airport in the United States. Before drivers receive any freight, they check the temperature and condition of the product and packaging to make sure there are no problems.

Equipment mix

Seattle Fish Company has two gasoline-powered Chevrolet W3500 trucks with 14-foot Kidron insulated bodies and Thermo King refrigeration units. These trucks, equipped with automatic transmissions, are used specifically for downtown Denver deliveries because of their maneuverability on the city's crowded, congested streets and small alleyways, Figueroa said.

The two vehicles were purchased at the end of the lease because “they had very low miles and the drivers really like them.” All maintenance is handled by Sawaya Body & Truck Repair in Denver.

Two new Kenworth conventionals, leased from MHC Kenworth in Denver, recently were added to the fleet. They are equipped with 20-foot refrigerated bodies from Morgan and Thermo King refrigeration units.

Fifteen conventional International trucks are leased through Ryder Truck Rental in Denver. Fourteen have Kidron 14-foot refrigerated bodies. Two have 20-foot insulated bodies by Timpte. Thermo King refrigeration units are on all of the trucks.

MHC Kenworth and Ryder, both less than a mile away, handle vehicle maintenance.

Seattle Fish Company's trucks don't require a commercial driver license because they are all under 26,000 pounds gross vehicle weight. “That helps us when it comes time to hire drivers,” Figueroa said, “and that isn't too often. We have a lot of drivers who have been with us a long time.”

Delivery scheduling

All trucks have assigned parking spaces, which helps expedite the loading of trucks and saves valuable time.

“Loaders don't have to walk around our yard looking for a particular truck,” said Figueroa. “They simply go to the appropriate space, pull the truck into the loading dock, and then return it after loading. Drivers always know where to finds their trucks.”

Upon return to the assigned parking space, the truck's reefer is plugged in. When a driver arrives to begin his route, he picks up his paperwork, unplugs the reefer, turns it on, and is on his way.

Routing is done by hand, although the company is investigating the RoadNet 5000 routing and scheduling software program. “Our routing is getting more complex. It's not just the geography we have to be concerned about, it's the timing of deliveries as well,” Figueroa said.

“We have just put GPS units on our trucks. The nicest feature is that we can track our drivers to make sure they are making good use of their time. We also can see where we're hitting our deliveries from an overlay. We found that we had three trucks delivering to the same general area on the same day.”

To communicate with drivers, the company issues them Nextel cell phones.

An emphasis is placed on workplace and driver safety. The company holds quarterly safety meetings and has a program that rewards drivers for accident-free driving.

Like all of its employees, drivers must go through Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) training. This covers safe food handling processes and practices.

In late 1989, Seattle Fish Company was one of the first in the nation to voluntarily adopt the US Department of Commerce's HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) program, which provides methods and procedures for food safety assurance. A component of the program is on-site supervision by quality control technicians and inspectors.

The facility

Seattle Fish Company is housed in a 70,000-sq-ft facility, of which some 35,000 square feet is temperature-controlled. There is a 5,000-sq-ft cooler for fresh seafood and a 10,000-sq-ft freezer for frozen products.

It leases 20,000 square feet of freezer space to Okami, which makes fully cooked, extended shelf-life sushi.

The fish processing area of the warehouse, some 20,000 square feet, is cooled, with two temperature zones: a 38° F production area and a 33-34° F holding area.

Family owned

The Seattle Fish Company was begun in 1918 by Italian immigrant Mose Iacino who opened a fish market in downtown Denver. He named his business the Seattle Fish Company because he brought in salmon and halibut from Seattle, Washington.

It took a week for his fish to come by railroad. The fish was packed in ice. At each stop on the train's trip, the ice was replenished.

Since its founding, the company has been owned and operated by the Iacino family. The family attributes the business' longevity and success to good business practices, an enduring commitment to product quality, outstanding customer service, and long-standing relationships with vendors and customers.

Beyond that, said Figueroa: “It's a great place to work because what you do really does make a difference. There is plenty of opportunity for advancement. And that's one of the many things that make us different.”

Seattle Fish Company at a glance

Location: Denver, Colorado

Founded: 1918

Fleet: 19 refrigerated straight trucks

Drivers: 20

Annual miles in 2006: 771,552

Annual deliveries in 2006: approximately 95,000

About the Author

David Kolman

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