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Swimming in business, sustainably

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As the daughter of an Oregon fisherman, Laura Anderson spent enough time on boats to learn and respect those who make their living at sea. She also learned such a life wasn’t for her. But a few years traveling the globe—first in the Peace Corps and then working as bookkeeper in Vietnam—conspired to reconnect her future ambitions with her salty past. She eventually returned to Newport, Oregon to earn her living from the riches of the Pacific Ocean, much like her father did.

“Dungeness crab, king salmon, fish prized around the globe and it’s all right here in Newport,” Anderson, 44, says. “Some of the most valuable natural capital of the world – in both quality and quantity – is right here outside our doors.”

Good catch, bad pay

Anderson never shirked from a challenge of succeeding in two industries—restaurants and fishing—that are like the aftermath of great battles, littered with carcasses of those seeking success.

BoatsFormer business partner Al Pazar says when Anderson approached him about a fish market/restaurant across from the marina that would pay for the catch directly, she caught him on the right day. He had just come in with a pristine load of salmon only to find the price paid to him less than half of what a catch like that should warrant.

“I was pissed,” he says. “I just worked really hard and took care of them and got nothing for them.”

He said yes on the spot. Anderson originally was going to work for Pazar. But her dad convinced her to ask to be a 50/50 partner in respect to her unique experience, education and role in operations. Local Ocean Seafoods was born.

“That was definitely the best advice I’ve ever been given in my life ever,” Anderson says. “That was game changing. I would never had the gumption to ask to be a partner.”

An effective supply chain

Pazar helped recruit other fishermen to provide the stock. For fishermen like Lincoln County Commissioner Terry Thompson, the match was ideal. As he grew older he no longer wanted to spend weeks at sea, he says.

“I was looking for something I could fish for a few hours,” he says. “I thought they’d never take all the fish I could catch. Well, I ate my words.”

Another vital piece fell into place when local fish buyer Amber Morris came aboard as the designated “fish goddess.” Her local knowledge and exacting standards helped build the company’s reputation, says Anderson. Thompson agrees, crediting Morris as a vital tie between Local Ocean and the fishermen on the docks.

“She knows who to get and where the best fish are,” Thompson says. “They make sure that I can still sell my fish. It’s a give and take.”

Making sustainable and local profitable

Instead of braving rough sea, Anderson braved a battered economy to forge a thriving seafood restaurant and fish market that has become the state’s standard bearer for locally caught seafood and sustainable fishing practices. Local Ocean is built on Anderson’s own deep roots and the state’s longstanding fishing economy.

“I’m a believer in what she’s done and the model they have there,” says Thompson.

Laura Anderson of Local Ocean SeafoodsHe’s not alone. Pazar credits Anderson’s resolve for the company’s success.

“The reason why Laura was a perfect partner is that she has no fear,” Pazar says. “With that kind of confidence you can’t fail.”

The company combined Anderson’s various interests and experiences with Pazar’s connections to the fishing community. Pazar, a fisherman by trade, is also a successful entrepreneur. The partnership was one of shared philosophy and a strong sense of place.

“That’s kind of the allure of the place,” Pazar says. “It’s a nice blend. You look at the fish while you are waiting for the table. You can take fish home and you can look out and see the boats that caught it. You can roll down the windows on a nice day and feel like a part of the bay front.”

A seafood experience

Anderson agrees, saying the entire experience from sustainable catch, fair wages to fishermen, to sound business practices that benefit the local economy all add up to the unique success of Local Ocean.

Seafood“The vision really has not changed in the ten years we’ve been in business. We give them the best seafood experience they’ve ever had in their life. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear our exact mission statement come out of people’s mouths,” she says.

Though the original idea was a fish market with small deli attached, it quickly reversed into a restaurant with a fish market attached. Interest in sustainable catch helped the company thrive.

“I had no idea when we started this how successful it would be. We’ve exceeded those projections of 10 years ago 20 times over by now,” Anderson says. “They say in business things don’t work out how you plan, and in this case that’s a good thing.”

Pazar says the business still stands for his philosophy that ensures the highest quality. He calls it a “vertical integration” that in effect tells the story of a given fish that’s sold and eaten.

“If you have chain of custody from the minute it’s caught until it’s on a guy’s plate, you are solely responsible for that quality,” Pazar says.

The fisherman have bought into the story as well, he says.

“People are very proud to have their name on a tag on the fish in the case. It’s a big deal. People take pictures of it and it speaks to value, quality and sustainability.”

Ready to scale?

Anderson bought out Pazar a few years back, which Pazar says went reasonably well for a profitable business both felt so passionate about.

“We had an exit strategy built in. We’re both reasonable people. It went well. It was tough letting it go, but I’m still very attached to things I built and that promote my philosophy of seafood and marketing. I know it’s in good hands. It’s a pretty good gig,” he says.

So good that the question is often asked: is this lightning in a bottle or is it ready to scale? It’s a question Anderson herself can’t answer, at least not yet.

“There are no shortages of requests for us to replicate this,” she says. “My gut sense is we have this serendipitous thing here. Local Ocean Portland, for example, may not have the same feel, that kind of terroir that makes this work so well.”

Fishing economy done right

Anyone connected to Local Ocean is connected to the local economy and the greater issues of sustainability. As fishing is threatened around the globe, they say Oregon has set an example for fishing done right.

Boat“What Oregon does better than anybody else is to try to have sustainable fisheries,” Thompson says. “I think it’s up to 95 percent of the fish in the state of Oregon is certified sustainable. That’s a big accomplishment.”

Anderson is as much a part of the advocacy for sustainability as she is a business owner (“I like to think I’m a voice of reason, not an activist,” she says). Her platform adds to consumer knowledge. She is so integrated into the entire ecosystem she never considered cutting corners, she said.

“For me its inherent in who I am, and it comes no doubt from my legacy of fishing with my family. I feel this almost over-arching protectionism toward the industry,” Anderson says.

Part of improving that distribution chain, Thompson says, is changing laws, improving the supply chain and continuing education of fishing practices. All of it has to work together for both sustainability and profitability.

“There’s a big challenge in the state of Oregon,” Thompson says.

So much so that in coming years, Anderson would like to be involved in the ongoing issue of improving delivery of the riches of the Pacific Ocean to inland markets.

“My next step is making that link between valley and coast. Distribution hubs and microprocessing,” Anderson says. “There’s a big disconnect in distribution for the small guy. That’s where I see myself. Is it related to Local Ocean? Yes. But is it the heart of our business? No.”

It seems a safe bet that one way or another Local Ocean and Laura Anderson will be involved in the challenge.

For more information, visit http://www.localocean.net/, follow Local Ocean on Twitter, or like Local Ocean on Facebook.

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Andrew Bolsinger

Andrew Scot Bolsinger won more than two dozen press awards during his journalism career. He is a freelance writer and author. He founded www.criminalu.co, which is focused on prison reform.