It’s been a little over two decades since Vital Choice Wild Seafood & Organics began bringing the finest seafood to customers throughout the nation in August of 2001. And now they’re part of the 1-800-Flowers.com, Inc. family of brands. Founder Randy Hartnell and President Dave Hamburg look back over years of challenges, growth and…the pleasures of no longer nearly getting killed on the job.
My first question, gentlemen: Does it really feel like it’s been 20 years?
Randy: In some ways it seems like only yesterday I was meeting Dave over at the Colophon Cafe in Bellingham and telling him about my plan. But in other ways, it has been a very long, mostly enjoyable journey.
Dave: It’s been really gratifying to see how many people we’ve met and served. And it’s also been gratifying to have helped raise the consciousness in the marketplace about seafood sustainability and healthy eating.
You both were fishermen yourselves, right?
Dave: I started running my own commercial fishing boat in Alaska about the time I graduated from high school, paid for college, and continued the operation for another 20 years. Along the way I ended up with degrees in engineering and business from Stanford and worked for more traditional sorts of companies during the offseason.
Randy: I started going to Alaska when I was in college, and fished fulltime from the early 1980s until I sold all three of my fishing boats in 2001.
It’s a tough way to make a living. We both know many people who died, and I had my share of close calls. Once, a three-thousand-pound steel trawl-net door came over the side of the boat and fell on me. For a few seconds I thought that was the end, but thanks to my fast-acting crewmates I managed to survive with injuries that sidelined me for a couple of months.
And then there was the time we almost sank (see photo). That was terrifying!
Dave: In my career we dodged a few bullets, many that include tough weather, shallow water, and heavy nets. Despite many “adventures,” none of my crewmembers have ever been injured fishing.
Let’s talk about the slightly safer world of business start-ups. What gave you the idea to ship wild seafood all over the U.S.?
Randy: In the late ’90s, the prices paid for our wild salmon collapsed due to the global proliferation of farmed salmon. By 2000, our industry was under siege, I was broke and needed to figure out another way to make a living.
About that time, I was invited to accompany two fishermen-friends who faced the same challenges and had begun traveling to grocery stores around the country. We’d set up our barbecue, cook wild Alaska salmon, and tell its remarkable story to store patrons. We explained the dramatic differences between wild and farmed salmon — how wild salmon is more natural, more nutritious, more sustainable, and tastes better too. Then we’d let them try it themselves and more times than not they were hooked!
Was there a specific moment when the idea for Vital Choice was born?
Randy: Well, during one of these events a woman named Helen listened intently and then asked, “How can I get this wild salmon when you guys are gone? They don’t stock quality wild salmon consistently in the stores here.”
I thought for a moment and said, “I can send you some,” though I had no idea how to send frozen salmon to Kalamazoo or anywhere else. Eventually I figured it out and shipped it to her.
Randy: Back on the West Coast, I was fishing near San Francisco when my boat’s engine failed, which at that point was the last thing I needed. While rebuilding it, I happened to catch a public broadcasting program featuring Dr. Nicholas Perricone. He was promoting his book, The Wrinkle Cure, which recommended eating salmon several times a week for its many anti-aging benefits.
When I returned home to Bellingham, I wrote Dr. Perricone a letter telling him about my plan, sparked by that experience with Helen, to start a business shipping premium wild salmon to U.S. consumers’ doorsteps. I explained that our company would make the world’s best salmon available to his entire American audience. Long story short, he loved the idea and pledged to endorse our company in his next book.
While we were excited, at that time Vital Choice was little more than a business plan. His book was due out the following August, so we had six months to build our company.
It was a huge task, but the following August we launched our website, and his new book, The Perricone Prescription hit store shelves. True to his word, Dr. Perricone recommended Vital Choice in his “Resources” section. Almost immediately the orders started flowing, and to this day they’ve never stopped. Over the years, Dr. Perricone published many more books in which he continued to recommend us.
What did the company look like then?
Dave: The first product line was pretty basic. We had some sockeye, halibut, smoked salmon, and lox. We also created a line of “Perricone Prescription” diet packages that included all the seafood needed to comply with Dr. Perricone’s various dietary programs. At his request, we added our first non-seafood item: wild organic blueberries. These became so popular that we still offer them today. (Dr. Perricone once referred to these salmon and blueberry combo-packs as “the grizzly bear diet.”)
As the years went by, we attended many health and wellness trade shows to continue to get the word out. And we developed many relationships with other health and wellness experts who appreciated our products and personalized service. These included two prominent physicians, Andrew Weil, M.D., and William Sears, M.D. Both are still enthusiastic supporters all these years later.
As we grew, our guiding principles kept us on course. We aim to give customers anywhere in the U.S. the opportunity to purchase the best quality wild seafood, fish oils, and organic products such as premium beef and pork, soups and berries.
The company is famously committed to social and environmental responsibility, how did that originate?
Dave: We’re not just a retailer. We’re also an active advocate for protecting wild fish resources and the livelihoods of responsible fishers. We feel it personally because that’s the world we come from. The company has been a Certified B Corporation since 2014. That means it meets the highest standards for social and environmental performance. As one person put it, “we not only sell good things, we also do good things.” This includes annual donations to a number of environmental protection and nutrition education groups.
And what about the next 20 years?
Randy: Health and sustainability are two ‘megatrends’ that I believe will continue to gain momentum. Wild Alaska salmon is easily among the most nutritious foods on the planet. Fortunately, the Alaska salmon fisheries are well-managed and remain healthy. In fact, this year’s Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run exceeded 64 million fish, the most recorded since they began keeping records way back in the 1800s.
To ensure the ongoing health of these salmon runs, Alaska’s fishery managers let about 25 million of them swim past the fishing fleet and onward to their natal rivers and spawning grounds.
All things considered, that’s an amazing fact and testament to Alaska’s wild salmon, its pristine salmon habitat, and the many people working to protect both. This includes the fishery scientists who manage the salmon harvests, the Alaska state troopers who strictly enforce the regulations, the fishermen and women who are the salmon’s committed political advocates, and consumers who empower them by choosing the wild salmon they provide.
While it seems counter-intuitive, the fact is that eating Alaska’s wild salmon helps protect them. There is constant pressure on wild salmon from mining, oil drilling, dams, tourism, etc. It’s the commercial fishing communities that depend upon these fisheries that are the wild salmon’s most potent political advocates.
As for Vital Choice, there is competition in our space now that wasn’t there 20 years ago, but I think our intense focus on quality, service, environmental sustainability, and education will continue to serve our company and customers well to 2041 and beyond. Change is inevitable, but our mission and vision will endure.