The following story was written by Heinen’s partner Elaine T. Cicora.
It’s nearly 4,000 miles from the frigid waters near Anchorage, Alaska, to the communities of Northeast Ohio. Such distances can make the proposition of fresh, direct overnight seafood delivery seem like a logistical fantasy – even for an industry pro like Marty Gaul, Heinen’s long-time Director of Seafood.
Yet in the decade since that first FedEx driver dropped off a box of pristine “Alaskan gold” to Heinen’s Bainbridge location, Marty has been instrumental in bringing that fantasy to life, by helping launch the grocer’s Direct Overnight Seafood program.
In fact, Marty recalls, it was 10 years ago, on a Thursday morning, when she finally gave in to friendly persuasion, from Anchorage supplier Favco, to give their overnight delivery program a try. “I just couldn’t see how this could be possible,” she says. “To deliver fresh fish from Alaska overnight? It doesn’t make sense. But finally, I agreed to let them ship a box to our Bainbridge store to see if they could fulfill their promise. So I am standing in the store on Friday, at 9:30 a.m., when the FedEx driver comes walking by. And – son of a gun! – there was our fish! When we opened the box, it truly was ‘Alaskan gold’: gorgeous cod, rockfish, halibut and wild salmon. And I thought, ‘Oh-oh. I have a really good problem here!’”
With the blessings of co-owner Tom Heinen, Marty quickly forged what has become an enduring relationship with Favco, ensuring that every Heinen’s location receives direct overnight deliveries of Alaska’s freshest fish. That includes a seasonal lineup of salmon starting with the wildly popular Copper River variety in May, to sockeye and king in the summer, followed by coho into the fall. “It has elevated our seafood program to a whole new level,” says Marty. “In terms of quality, freshness and availability, it has been a wonderful enhancement for our customers.”
Once Heinen’s relationship with Favco was cemented, Marty was determined to discover what other logistical feats she could perform. Soon, Alaska was joined by Washington State, where Foods in Season began providing direct overnight access to wild salmon, Petrale sole, rockfish, halibut and black cod; and Hawaii, where Hawaiian Fresh Seafood began offering year-round supplies of mahi-mahi, opah, monchong and ahi/yellowfin tuna. “These are all fresh, not frozen,” Marty emphasizes. “They are pulled from the water, processed quickly, put on a plane and sent directly to Heinen’s stores with as little time out of the water as possible. If I hadn’t seen it myself, I still wouldn’t believe it! The suppliers are so efficient, it’s amazing.”
Since its inception, the Direct Overnight Seafood program has proven deeply popular with Heinen’s customers, who know they can count on their local Heinen’s for the best, freshest fish available. Whether customers rely on signage in the seafood case, or conversations with the well-informed seafood associates, it is easy to determine which of the day’s selections are part of the Direct Overnight Seafood program.
“Our customers are very engaged and definitely want to know where their fish is coming from,” Marty explains. “And the flipside is that they trust us to do the right thing: in terms of quality and freshness, of course, but also in terms of doing the right thing for the environment.” In fact, Marty says, an essential part of her job is being certain her suppliers treat their fragile resources with the utmost respect.
“Heinen’s is extremely sensitive to environmental and animal-welfare issues,” she says. “But – in my heart – it’s a personal thing for me as well. I am an animal lover and I want to be certain we do right by them, both for their own sake and for the sake of generations yet to come. If not, what will be left for our children and grandchildren?”
And if “doing the right thing” also means a better-quality product for Heinen’s customers, that’s just fine too.