Captain Black's recipe for success: cheddar with salmon bits
It's an all-in-the-family operation on Camano Island. With no hired help, the Blacks are sometimes shocked by the size of orders from grocery chains.
Seattle Times business reporters
Leo Black of Everett is hardly the windswept sea captain depicted on packages of Captain Black's Seafood. In real life, Black is an 83-year-old former salmon salesman who waited decades to begin his entrepreneurial dream of marketing cheddar cheese with bits of smoked salmon.
Black retired last winter from a 24-year career selling Alaska Smokehouse salmon and persuaded his son, Wendel, to retire after 22 years aboard a factory trawler in Alaska called Northern Glacier. They and Wendel's wife, Kym, now spend hours chopping salmon and slapping labels on blocks of cheese at a plant on Camano Island.
Leo and his wife, Francine, spend hours every weekend handing out samples. The cheese is sold only in the Pacific Northwest at 75 QFC stores, 32 Haggen and Top Food stores, plus several Thriftways and Red Apple stores.
So far, Captain Black's has sold about 14,000 pounds of cheese, which retails for $6.99 for five ounces and also is available in an eight-ounce package. It comes in three flavors — plain, chive and dill.
The Black family chops the Alaska smoked salmon and ships it to Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wis., to be embedded in chunks of white cheddar cheese. After the cheese comes back, they apply the Captain Black's labels.
With no hired help, the Blacks are sometimes shocked by the size of orders from grocery chains.
After one huge order, Kym said, "I'm thinking, what have we gotten ourselves into? Did you not hear that we're a small startup company?"
Captain Black's cost about $20,000 to start, and the family expects sales below $100,000 this year. To help pay the bills, Wendel also works full time as a 787 mechanic at Boeing.
The name was Wendel's idea, a reference to the fishing industry and their last name. It took a while to convince Leo, though, who does not want to mislead customers into believing he's a captain.
Kym, a longtime fisherman who met Wendel aboard the Northern Glacier, said marketing did not come easily to her. Still, it was her sales efforts that saved the company last year after it was forced to find outlets besides farmers markets to carry the cheese. The farmers markets they were counting on told them last fall that they could not carry cheese made in Wisconsin.
So, she walked into a Haggen store and pitched the cheese.
"That was scary. I was just a fisherman, and I don't have any business experience," she said. "I'm more comfortable in my overalls and a T-shirt."
Ten Haggen stores began stocking Captain Black's last December, and this summer it won second place for smoked cheese at an American Cheese Society competition.
Leo always knew the product would make it. He used to sell a similar cheese from Mount Vernon to local restaurants "that went wild about it," but the company stopped making it around 1980. "I said, 'This is such a good product, someday I'm going to make this cheese.' "
One Black who is not thrilled with the company's early success is Leo's 9-year-old grandson, Max.
"We've had to be up at the plant quite a bit," Kym explains, "and he says, 'You know, I wish Grandpa never would have invented that cheese.' "
— Melissa AllisonTidbits
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Retail Report appears Fridays. Melissa Allison covers the food and beverage industry. She can be reached at 206-464-3312 or email@example.com. Amy Martinez covers goods, services and online retail. She can be reached at 206-464-2923 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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