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Originally published November 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 14, 2008 at 9:00 AM

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Retail Report

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."

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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 Allison

Tidbits

Oberto Sausage has launched a new line of dog treats called Bit-O-Luv made with human-grade meat inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and that contains no additives, colors, preservatives or wheat gluten. They are sold online at www.bitoluv.com and at Bartell Drugs and Pet Pros in the Pacific Northwest. They'll be available soon at QFC, Top Food and Haggen. Suggested retail price for a four-ounce bag is $4.99. — MA

New York-based Solstice Sunglass Boutique opens a second Seattle-area location today at Westfield Southcenter, on the mall's first floor near Nordstrom. Its other location is at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle. — AM

Bellevue-based Beauty.com, a subsidiary of Drugstore.com, this week began offering free standard shipping with no minimum order requirement through Dec. 31. Also, Drugstore.com is offering free shipping to U.S. troops serving overseas and in the U.S. — AM

Shoe Pavilion, a Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based discount retailer, will close its remaining Seattle-area stores after completing going-out-of-business sales. Shoe Pavilion entered bankruptcy in July and last month won court approval to hire liquidators to close all 64 of its stores in California, Washington, Oregon and New Mexico. — AM

Sears will begin a new layaway program Sunday to appeal to cash- and credit-strapped consumers this holiday season. The program, available in full-line and hardware stores, enables customers to pay for eligible merchandise in installments. Sears requires a down payment of $15, or 20 percent, whichever is more, as well as a $5 nonrefundable service fee. The last day to add new layaways is Dec. 22, and payments must be made in full by Dec. 23. — AM

Retail Report appears Fridays. Melissa Allison covers the food and beverage industry. She can be reached at 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com. Amy Martinez covers goods, services and online retail. She can be reached at 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Retail Report
Retail Report is a look at the trends, issues and people who makeup the dynamic and versatile retail sector throughout the Puget Sound region. Every Friday with Melissa Allison and Amy Martinez. Send tips or comments to mallison@seattletimes.com or amartinez@seattletimes.com.

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