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Q&A: How Chicken of the Sea is catering to customers’ evolving seafood needs

Bryan Rosenberg, president and CEO of Thai Union North America, parent company to Chicken of the Sea International and Chicken of the Sea Frozen Foods, discusses the findings of a survey of food executives and buyers, how Chicken of the Sea has adjusted amid the volatility of the last two years and how the brand stays connected to its customers.

(Image credit: Knut Troim/Unsplash)

This post is sponsored by Chicken of the Sea.

Global supply chain disruptions, inflation and fluctuating consumer demand have taken a toll on the food industry, forcing manufacturers, restaurants and retailers to adapt. To learn more about how the seafood industry is viewing and responding to these changes, Chicken of the Sea surveyed 100 retail grocery and foodservice buyers and executives and published the findings in the first “Chicken of the Sea Industry Insights: A Deeper Dive.” In this interview, Bryan Rosenberg, president and CEO of Thai Union North America, parent company to Chicken of the Sea International and Chicken of the Sea Frozen Foods, discusses the survey findings, how Chicken of the Sea has adjusted amid the volatility of the last two years and how the brand stays connected to its customers.

Thai Union North America President and CEO Bryan Rosenberg

What effect has the increase in consumers eating at home driven by the pandemic had on seafood sales in grocery retail?

Consumers stocked their freezers and pantries with healthy protein options during the pandemic, driving up seafood consumption at retail. While shelf-stable seafood sales held up well over that period, we are seeing a reset in demand for frozen and fresh seafood after the highs of 2020-2021. This is due to hyperinflation in several key product categories, and we expect demand to continue to fluctuate.

In our survey of food buyers and executives, there was some optimism for our industry – 71% felt that the seafood industry was best positioned to handle unexpected challenges, such as supply chain disruptions, compared to other protein categories.

What types of products are most popular with consumers looking for a restaurant-like experience when preparing seafood at home?

When people go to a restaurant, they want a meal they could not have prepared at home, either because they do not have the ingredients, or because the preparation is too complicated. Thanks to the rise of home cooking, consumers are more comfortable with core commodity seafood like shrimp and salmon. But half of those surveyed told us that people are still trying to recreate the restaurant experience at home.

Our solution was to introduce products with a unique stuffing and breading to a historically limited breaded shrimp and fish category. The Crispy Stuffed Shrimp products can be prepared at home in an oven or air-fryer and feel and taste like an appetizer found on a restaurant menu.

How willing are consumers to try new and innovative seafood products, and what can retailers do to help encourage them to try new products? How will seafood exploration change how foodservice operators cater to their clientele?

The food executives and buyers we surveyed were surprised by the high number of consumer requests for value-added (44%) products, ready-to-eat (42%) and ready-to-cook items (42%). Our innovation team recognized this opportunity even before the pandemic and had been working on solutions.
Consumers tend to avoid ordering prepared seafood to go. This was not just a consumer challenge, but one for our customers that had to pivot their business to support a spike in take-out and delivery.

We developed a proprietary breading system that stays crispy longer to solve the problem of breaded seafood getting soggy in transit. We launched our Perfectly Crisp Shrimp and have started to see retailers merchandise it in their deli sections, where consumers are purchasing prepared food on the go, but seafood-related offerings are underrepresented. The back-of-house cost and time savings will also serve the needs of our foodservice customer partners.

What is driving increased consumer demand for sustainable or responsibly sourced seafood, and what steps is Thai Union/COS taking to improve seafood sustainability?

Historically, consumers have been reluctant to pay the premium costs for products with sustainability claims, partially due to a lack of clarity around what they mean. But there is no question that the tide is shifting, thanks to increased awareness and conversations around topics like climate change and responsible sourcing. Nearly half the people (47%) we surveyed have been surprised by consumer requests for sustainably caught or raised seafood and 73% have seen an increase in demand for these items in the past 12 months.

As consumers seek out more sustainable products, we have made our SeaChange strategy and resources available to our customers by providing responsibly sourced seafood options, traceability programs and partnership opportunities with Fishery and Aquaculture Improvement Projects.

We also recognize that part of sustainability is discovering alternative sources of protein. We are actively working on several projects in this area, and I am excited to see where that takes us.

What other factors are important to consumers when purchasing seafood?

Convenience is key for consumers – they want easy items without sacrificing quality or flavor. This was an important consideration while developing our Crispy Stuffed and Perfectly Crisp products, but we see convenience as a wider opportunity than new product development. There is still a barrier for higher-end shellfish like lobster and crab. We have addressed this through preparation and packaging options so consumers can be more confident when they are spending more on these items. For example, our pasteurized crab meat and cooked lobster meat are ready-to-eat and available in smaller packs to accommodate for the higher cost and facilitate portion control. These items were historically purchased for special occasions or when dining in restaurants, but now can be incorporated as healthier, unique options for everyday dinner or entertaining.

Why is it important for retailers and foodservice teams to find a strategic partner that fits their needs as the industry adapts to the challenges in today’s food marketplace, particularly pricing challenges?

The commodity seafood industry is highly fragmented and transactional. Strong and supportive supplier and customer relationships have been part of the foundation of our company’s success. During the pandemic and subsequent supply chain disruptions, those partnerships have been even more critical as we navigate these issues together. I think more businesses – across all sectors — will look to move from transactional relationships to deeper partnerships. Each company brings something to the table. Chicken of the Sea brings our global production and sourcing capabilities, industry-leading quality assurance program, market intelligence, demand planning resources and sustainability leadership – and our customer partners really value that.

As President & CEO of Thai Union North America, Bryan Rosenberg is responsible for its two key operating companies, Chicken of the Sea International and Chicken of the Sea Frozen Foods. Under his leadership, COSFF has become the largest importer of frozen shrimp and crab meat in North America, selling into all channels of trade.

Rosenberg serves on the Board of Directors of the Seafood Task Force (coalition to combat human rights and environmental issues in the seafood supply chain) and the University of California Santa Barbara Department of Economics Board of Advisors.