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4 min read

Meet a Distributor: War Shore

By Chip Terry on Jun 1, 2021 10:36:40 AM

warshore logo squareBrad 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.

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1 min read

Printers & Supply Chains

By Chip Terry on May 5, 2021 9:09:47 AM

Supply Chains are the lifeblood of our economy.  From how a shellfish gets from the tideline to the table, to how a semi-conductor chip gets from a factory in Asia to a printer on a farm.  

As many of you know, We have been dealing with printer issues for the last few months.  Turns out we have the same issue as the Ford F-150 factories.  A shortage of inexpensive semiconductor chips is holding us up.  Fortunately we haven't had to stop production, we just had to switch printers. 

For our tagging and distributor clients, we will be shipping new Zebra Printers instead of the TSC printers we have been doing so far.  The TSC printers are great, but we we just can't get any. The Zebra printers are just as good so and seem to have a better supply. We are now certified resellers of both TSC and Zebra printers, giving us resiliency in this time of supply chain disruptions.  As always, they come with a 2 year warranty.  

As part of the switch, our line up of printers now includes:

1) Mobile printers: Ideal for printing less than 150 tags per day especially in remote locations. TSC Alpha 3r and Zebra 521Q.  The benefits of the mobile is they run on batteries for 2 days and are pretty durable (certified for 5' drops).  The drawback is the paper is thinner than other tags.

2) Industrial Printers: Ideal for printing more than 150 tags per day The Zebra ZT411.  The industrial holds ~760 to 950 tags per roll and prints on a thicker paper.  

Both printers work directly from the phone via Bluetooth--no need for cables.  Both use thermal printing so there is no smudging or ink to worry about.  You can easily switch between the two printer types: for instance if you want to print some tags on the boat and others back in the plant.  

 

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3 min read

Working with Distributors

By Chip Terry on Sep 25, 2020 3:06:40 PM

tagsAlmost every farm starts out selling to local restaurants, but as they scale distributors (aka wholesalers) play an increasingly important role. You will make more money per shell at a restaurant, but there is a limit to how much restaurants can buy. If you are producing more than a few local restaurants and some consumers can absorb, you are probably going to need to work with distributors.  We've been talking to a lot of distributors lately and here are some of the things farmers should know.

To start with, understand the different types of distributors 

Global full line distributors: The Syscos, US Food and others who sell everything to everyone. Unless you are huge they are unlikely to be your customer directly. 

National/regional seafood wholesalers Companies like Stavis, Inland Seafood and Samuel & Sons sell everything from swordfish and lobster to tuna and oysters. They do a lot of volume in shellfish, but it is a small part of their business. Many of them are quite interested in carrying a range of product, but they may not be near your farm.

Shellfish Specific players: There are folks in most major markets that focus on being great at shellfish.  Companies like Pangea, War Horse, and Hog Island know a ton about shellfish and are always looking for great product.  They love having boutique farms with a good story and often run the oyster program for restaurants in major metropolitan areas.

Local buyers: In almost every region there are folks who buy from local farmers/harvesters and then sell either to restaurants or other distributors.  Many of these folks are also farmers themselves and do this as a sideline. They can be the easiest to work with.  

So what should a farmer do?  

1) Find your potential buyers.  Unless you have a truck and a cooling system, you need to find someone who will either pick up at your farm or you can drop off at easily.  Take a look at the Interstate Shellfish Shipper's List. Any company that ships across state lines must be on this list.  If you are going further afield, you may need to work with a local reshipper who can get your product to the distributor.

2) Build a Few Relationships: Find a few distributors who serve different markets that you can work with for the long haul. Find the hole in their product line you can help fill (are you unique based on your location, cost, story?). Don't stretch yourself too thin. You need to invest in the relationships.  Don't get overly caught up in a few pennies more or less for the product.  Better to move a consistent amount every week.

2) Don't sell to their customers: When you have a distributor, be careful to not sell to their customers.  No one wants to be undercut by the farm at a key account.

3) Build a brand: Have a story that is unique and well told. Promise the consumer something unique: The taste of Maine.  A sweet Chesapeake oyster with an especially deep cup.  A pacific gem that has been tide tumbled. Easy to shuck oysters.

4) Be Reliable: Distributors and restaurants want consistent sellers. If your product is only intermittently available they can't build that following.

5)Have a clean consistent product: A product that shows up with clean shells and no dead animals. If something goes wrong fix it quickly.

6) Help them Help You: Many of the better distributors will want to bring chefs on tours, train staff and generally help position your product. Be available and helpful.  

Bottom Line:  Distributors play an important role and most farms work with them.  Treat them well and they will be your best allies.  

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1 min read

NOAA Grant: Tide to Table Traceability and Marketing System

By Chip Terry on Jul 9, 2020 10:38:17 AM

We won (a grant)!  In a stroke of great luck and a testament to the awesome team at Oyster Tracker, we have been awarded a grant from National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

This federal grant is to prove the technical and commercial feasibility of an easy to use, and inexpensive system to track shellfish from farm to table to improve food safety and meet the growing demand from consumers to know more about the sources of their food.

As one of the reviewers noted: 

The commercial benefit of the proposed technology is abundantly clear. The current system is antiquated and accompanied by high costs associated with utilizing it. With the growth of the shellfish industry and the increasingly educated consumer base the technology offered by this project should be in high demand.

Over the next 6 months, Shellfish Solutions will work with companies in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Virginia to beta test a new solution that utilizes mobile phones, thermal printers, and cloud computing.  The ultimate goal is to build a system that

  1. Saves farms and distributors money/time
  2. Makes it easier for all market participants to comply with federal and state regulations
  3. Builds a traceability chain from the tideline to the table for all shellfish.  

This work build on the success of Oyster Tracker’s current products: Farm Manager and Tagging Systems.  DSC09956 If you are interested in learning more, please reach out.  

 

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