ASPA Member Feature: Tommy’s Seafood
The seafood industry has a strong reputation for generational blessings where a trade is passed down through father-to-son lineage. In the case of the Delaunes, who operate Tommy’s Seafood in New Orleans, it truly is a family affair: Tommy, owner and president; his wife, Maria, secretary and treasurer; and their four sons, Chalin, vice president, 24; Sean, operations, 26; Ryan, public relations, 33; and Christian, accounting, 20.
However, before their brood came along, it was just Tommy and Maria, who began the business in 1982: “We started so young, before the boys were even born, therefore, this was our first child,” Maria says. “This was not a business we suddenly took over. We learned it from the beginning, and just like having a child, you learn how to nurture it from the beginning.”
In Tommy’s case, he didn’t come from a seafood family. In fact, his introduction to the industry was a crash course that turned into an opportunity of destiny. When he was 32, he was hired as a manager of the Fish House in New Orleans, a retail and wholesale seafood business that specialized in a diverse product line of shrimp, crabs, oysters, crawfish and fish. Local customers enjoyed the fresh selection of a daily catch, and customers as far as Baltimore, Maryland, also got a hearty taste of Louisiana seafood, particularly crabs.
With no background in seafood, Tommy learned everything he could on a fast track pace that involved a lot of long hours building a strong customer base. Even though business was thriving, after only seven months, the company partners decided to go separate ways, and the Fish House closed its doors for good, which forced Tommy to make a big decision about his next career move.
After some pondering and catching a glimpse of what it would be like to own a business, Tommy took a risk that was “kindled by the fire of ambition,” and decided to stay the course: “I saw the opportunity in the seafood business, and I just couldn’t see myself going back to a regular job of working for someone,” Tommy says. “I knew where to source seafood, and I was already connected to the customer base, so I went to the bank and got a personal line of credit, bought a 79 Dodge pickup truck, and went into business for myself.”
And that’s how Tommy’s Seafood was born. Knowing a good reputation goes a long way, he always kept his promise to customers, and the business began to grow substantially.
By 1989, Tommy and Maria incorporated the business and started looking for new ways to expand, especially since their own family was expanding. In 1991, they eventually bought a marina with a dock in the neighboring city of Chalmette and lived in a one-bedroom / one-bathroom apartment above the marina office until their new home could be built. For a growing family, those are some tight quarters, but Chalin says that didn’t matter at all because as a young adventuresome boy, living on the bayou gave him some of the best memories of his life.
“The bayou was like our salt water pool,” Chalin says. “There was never a dull moment, whether that was fishing or taking a pirogue and exploring the marsh to see all the wildlife. I even had a pet pelican named Macarena! This type of culture was engrained in me from a young age and it set the course for my life. I knew from the get-go I was going to stay in the family business.”
Chalin may be young, but he knows this business inside and out. His knowledge of the industry is impressively extensive, and he can rattle off landing numbers, stats, etc. It’s evident he has paid attention to Tommy’s guidance over the years and has gleaned from his father’s passion for an industry whose voice matters significantly when it comes to standards and regulations that affect the seafood business on a daily basis. At only 24 years of age, Chalin is a member of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board and the Crab Task Force.
There’s a lot of joy in this family that’s undergirded by a strong faith, which has served them well in the good times and the bad. In 2004, the Delaune family bought their current processing plant and completed major renovations to change it over from a produce plant to a seafood plant, but the next year Hurricane Katrina ravaged the 20,000-square-foot facility located right off Jordan levee on the Industrial Canal.
“We had file cabinets turned over and floating with wet documents and personal things like birth certificates, passports, any kind of I.D., and all of our insurance papers,” Tommy says. “We got the stuff out and had to carry it over our heads, through the water, up the levee, and when we got home, we spread all the papers out on a driveway and used a hairdryer to dry everything.”
Product loss and accounts receivable loss cost the company $2.5 million. In times of devastation like that, when looking at the loss of years of hard work, one of two decisions can be made: close or keep going. Without hesitation, Tommy knew what the next plan of action would be: “We only had a decision to keep going,” he says. “There wasn’t any other decision. Closing our doors for good wasn’t an option.”
When hit hard in 2010 with the BP oil spill, especially after a recently acquired 42-grocery store chain contract had to be put on hold indefinitely, yet again, the family’s faith carried them through. Four years later, the generational blessings continue to abound, and Tommy’s Seafood maintains a resilient path of success.
“On our old box tops, we used to have a psalm that said, ‘Those that go down to the sea in ships, they do business in great waters. These behold the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep,’” Tommy says. “That was our insignia, our emblem for years and years. It was just an acknowledgement of God’s abundant blessings. That’s important to me. I feel our lifetime here is a tenure of stewardship or responsibility for something that’s been entrusted and put in our hands. In this case, we are stewards of natural resources.”
They offer a diverse product line, which includes shrimp (head on, headless, EZ peel, and PDTO: peeled, deveined, tail on), shucked oysters, fish fillets, and crabs (whole, crabmeat and gumbo crabs). As far as shrimp are concerned, there are no peeling machines onsite because Tommy’s Seafood prides itself on being a hands on processor.
“Our workforce is our best equipment,” Chalin says. “We have employees who are dedicated day in and day out to make sure they are doing the best possible job to provide the best possible product from a reliable source. Quality and consistency are our strengths.”
Customers range from distributors, grocery chains, food service and restaurants who all benefit from advanced packaging technology, allowing custom packing that meets customer specifications with the option of private labeling. Shrimp are available in 20-pound and 50-pound bulk packaging, but creating a custom pack for retail is a company specialty.
“We use the best packing equipment available to ensure nature’s perfection and best remains that way,” Tommy says. “We have vacuum pack machines, we have a cryogenic tunnel for quick freezing (IQF), we’re using ozone water treatment, and we do everything we can to ensure and control sanitary operations of the plant so that the healthiest products can be packaged. We abide by EPA standards, FDA standards, and the Department of Health and Hospital standards.”
In addition to the processing plant, the Delaunes still own the marina/dock called Gulf Atlantic Fisheries, and also own and operate Redemption, a French Creole restaurant in New Orleans, and Tommy’s Fish House, a seafood restaurant located right outside Baton Rouge. It helps to run multiple businesses with ease when all the family members are cross-trained to assist in whatever capacity is needed: Chalin manages the Baton Rouge restaurant and Sean manages the dock.
“I’m so proud to see my boys working so hard and that they are so involved,” Maria says. “It’s just a very beautiful thing to see your kids taking over the business. It’s a dream come true for parents.”
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