Brad Blymier started as a small pedestrian farmer on the eastern shore of Virginia over 12 years ago. Very quickly he realized his natural gift for connecting with chefs and farmers and started helping neighboring farms sell their product. Within a couple of years, he decided to focus solely on the distribution side of the business. Since then, War Shore has grown into one of the largest specialty shellfish distributors in the “DMV” (DC/MD/noVA). Today they deliver oysters, lobster meat, scallops, clams, mussels and other specialty creatures of the sea to a growing array of chefs and major supermarkets. With their new Maine buying station (Maine Oyster Initiative) they are one track to buy over 1.5 million Maine oysters this year which is about 15% of their overall oyster sales.
We caught up with Brad to see what we could learn about distribution and what should farmers know about working with a distributor.
Why should a farm work with a distributor?
The majority of shellfish are sold through a distributor because it lets you (the grower) focus on what you do best…farming. If you don't like making sales, fielding tons of small orders, maintaining trucks and drivers, delivering product, dealing with customer service, and worst of all, handling collections, you are probably best off working primarily with a trusted distributor(s). The opportunity cost is great when a grower is trying to do both.
What kind of farms don't need a distributor?
I would say Small farms that produce just enough product for a few nearby restaurants don't need a distributor, or just might need a smaller in-state distributor like our neighbors at Upstream Trucking here in Portland, Maine. George and Rick do a fine job outfitting Portland with quality product. If I were a local grower in the Casco bay, I would 100% put my eggs in their basket and let them place my oysters in Portland. But If you want to scale you need to get your product to different geographies--and for that you will probably need a distributor with a greater reach that serves multiple markets. Doing this also puts your oyster in a different category competing with hundreds of varieties around the country and Canada.
What role does a distributor play?
A good distributor is your sales and fulfillment team. They are out in the market, building relationships with that new chef, understanding what their needs are and delivering reliably for them. A good Shellfish Distributor always has their finger on the pulse of what sells, where it sells, and the price it sells for.
What distinguishes War Shore?
We don’t’ use the oyster as a trojan horse to penetrate a restaurant with the goal of selling them fish, or other products with a higher profit margin. 65% of our overall revenue is oysters. We carefully vet farms and then create a curated Oyster Portfolio to present to our chefs and new prospects, and then we help manage their ongoing oyster program. We are very proactive in the market, meaning that we do not wait for a chef to ask us to find a particular oyster, then seek that farm out and buy form them one time, or sporadically throughout the year. Our approach is relationship driven. If I start a relationship with your farm, I am making the commitment to buy from you 52 weeks of the year, or as long as you can supply me. Rather than representing hundreds of farms, we focus on a limited amount of partners and build their brands with the buyers (chefs).
What are the keys for working with a distributor?
Be a good partner and expect the same from the distributor. This is a handshake, no contract business. If you say you are going to deliver 10,000 oysters every Monday, do that. And if you agree on a price to sell your oyster to that distributor 12 months out of the year, do that. Also, play the long game with a trusted distributor. Do not get hung up on the perceived value of your oyster based on the price you charge for it. A good Distributor will show you how a competitively priced oyster will go a lot further then a highly priced oyster in many markets outside of your state. If you want to make more money on your oyster, work on creating a more efficient farm, and cut cost where you can. I find success working with farms who create a consistent oyster, but more importantly can scale their farm exponentially without losing that quality of that oyster. 2021 has been a very bizarre year so far…oyster shortages everywhere, but this will not last forever. Mid-late Summer growth will be putting an influx of oysters in the market late Summer and into fall/winter. This is when you will need your partner distributors the most to kick in and help you unload oysters off your farm. States like Maine are seeing lots of new farms coming online each year. Farms that want to thrive and grow will need to look at a variety of revenue models, and it won’t be a “one size fits all”….in my opinion anyway.
How do I pick a distribution partner?
Interview them: Ask what they are going to do for you? Will they commit to purchases every week or is this a one-time purchase to fill an immediate need.? What else in their portfolio? How many other oysters will be competing with yours in the same space? There are only so many slots at every restaurant and you want to be unique. Where do they sell geographically? Don't get hung up on just the price, that is only one part of the equation. And don't hesitate to ask for references.
How can a farm be successful?
Grow a great product, be fair on pricing, run an efficient operation, and build a few strong partnerships.
Final words of wisdom?
Growing up in Pennsylvania, I thought Hershey's chocolate was the best in the world and could not understand how anyone could disagree. I still think it is the best, but I understand that there are tons of other chocolates as good as, and surely better. This is also very true with oysters. It’s a very competitive landscape. Partnering with a good distributor(s) can help you successfully compete in a ever growing market.