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  • 1. ARI: Now I’m talking to Michael Mondello, who is the President of SeaBear Wild Salmon. Hi, Michael. Thank you for talking to me. MIKE: I’m thrilled to be here. Thanks so much. ARI: I’ll tell you, I found out about your product, and I’m not sure where, and I tried it and I loved it, which is the reason that I wanted to have Michael on here. First of all, let’s talk about what SeaBear is and what you do. MIKE: SeaBear is a specialty seafood business that started in 1957 up in Anacortes, Washington, which is about 75 miles north of Seattle. We sell a whole range of high-end specialty seafood, mostly direct to consumer through the web and catalog. We’re grounded in smoked salmon and wild salmon dinners, but we have wild Alaskan halibut, crab, tuna, shrimp, appetizers, chowders, a whole line of things for entertaining, gifts, and healthy dining. ARI: Let’s talk about what sustainable fish really is, because a lot of people hear about grass-fed beef and that’s very popular now, but wild-caught fish is medicine as far as I’m concerned. MIKE: We buy virtually all of our seafood from Alaska, and Alaska is an extremely well-managed natural resource. You’ll find wild Alaskan salmon, for example, at the very top of the Monterey Bay Aquarium list of good choices. They are extremely diligent about it. They’ll shut down a fishery if it’s not having returns in a given year that look right, and they’ve done it for 45, 50 years. The state has just done a tremendous job of making sure that it is not an over-fished resource and that it’ll be there for generations to come. ARI: Right. First of all, let’s talk about some of the health benefits of fish. Do you eat a lot of fish? MIKE: Well, of course I eat a lot of fish. Yes I do. ARI: When I was dealing with chronic illness and inflammation and became a vegetarian and then reintroduced fish to my diet, the difference to me was noticeable. Really noticeable, and I eat as much fish as I possibly can. Generally speaking, what are the health benefits that people should expect to see from fish? MIKE: As you I’m sure are quite aware, there’s tons of research available that talk about everything from heart benefits to brain to eyes to skin to avoiding Alzheimer’s. It’s sort of a miracle food. We’re not doctors and we don’t make any health claims on our products, other than it is a great natural source of omega-3 fatty acids, and the medical community can tell you how great that is for your health. We like to follow the American Medical Association guidelines of twice a week or more for eating a fatty fish like salmon. What we even do, with our employees, we give them what we call SeaBear Bucks so that they can buy – or actually just get free – salmon to build into their weekly menus for healthy eating. ARI: That’s wonderful. So then I’m assuming you actually have a pretty healthy staff then. I do want to talk about a specific product, which is the Ready-to-Eat Wild Salmon. When I first saw this, I was like, “Okay, it’s packaged salmon, whatever.” But I tried it, and it’s amazing.
  • 2. As much as I love salmon and I love fish, it’s usually not as convenient as just pulling, for some people, a slice of turkey out of a package or something. You do have to prepare it somehow. But these pouches – actually, why don’t you tell everybody what these ready-to-eat pouches are? MIKE: The pouches are pure wild salmon with just a touch of sea salt, dropped into these pouches that – actually, that pouch technology is something that our company created many, many years ago. We just vacuum out the air and then cook the salmon in its own juices under pressure. Think of it like a big pressure cooker, as though you were making jams at home. So that pouch is essentially a flexible can, but as you know, it’s much, much thinner than a can, so you don’t need to cook it as long. It’s infinitely more convenient than a can, and the salmon doesn’t have to be just dropped in in a big chunk. It’ll stay good for many years. As long as that pouch is not opened or leaking or punctured in any way, that salmon, we’ll tell customers that it’ll be good for 4 years or more. And frankly, that’s conservative, because it’s a natural process. There’s nothing in there but the salmon and salt and its own juices. ARI: That was kind of amazing to me. How is that even possible that you don’t have to refrigerate it? How is that possible without preservatives? MIKE: Well, again, think of it like a can. We’ve taken out all the air and then cooked it in there, and that process, exactly like as if you were canning – if you were canning tuna fish in a can. It has the same properties of just stopping any bacterial growth, so the product in there is as good as it was when it went in. And again, if the package isn’t damaged in any way, it’ll be good for many, many years. Totally natural process. Flexible canning is the best way I can describe it to you. ARI: How involved – well, I’m assuming you’re very involved, actually, in the fish selection process. You’re getting it mostly from Alaska, but are there particular fisheries that you work with? Or how are you selecting? What’s the criteria? MIKE: We make ourselves kind of pain-in-the-butts. We establish a very high quality standard, and we’ve sent back fish many, many, many times that have been promised us to be #1 “A” quality and they show up and they’re not. They can range from anything to be not very good at all to just below that level, but that’s not what we expect. We’re pretty diligent. We do buy from a range of sources. We don’t have our own fishermen; we buy from processors and different co-ops and things like that. Just over the years, setting a quality standard, the market understands what we’re looking for. And that’s really important. You can’t have great food without great raw material. ARI: Of course. I don’t want to make you reveal some sort of proprietary process, but I am really curious. To me, so often – to me, a bad salmon is they get very mealy, and the texture doesn’t seem to hold up. Are you seeing the fillets coming, are you seeing the whole fish? What do you look for? MIKE: Sure. Overwhelmingly, we buy what’s called H&G fish, headed and gutted. It’s the whole fish minus the head and the guts have been taken out. So we do filet it. We do everything by hand. We start with that product, we hand-filet it, hand-trim it. At that process, we’re seeing the meat right away.
  • 3. At that time, our team knows and our operations folks know that you can tell right there if a product’s going to be mealy, as you said, or if it has any significant issues in the flesh, we’ll see it. We’ve rejected plenty of batches at that stage. We’ll just stop filleting and send it back. But also, you can see a filet at that point which looks fine and then have it go through the process and find later on in the steps that it’s either dry or it’s got an off flavor or things like that. We catch those through our – we have a very, very diligent quality assurance program in place. And then at the end of it, we have a daily sampling program where we engage a pretty broad group of our team to taste, and they’ve been trained in how to taste. ARI: Wow. Okay, that’s pretty cool. That sounds like a fun taste-testing job. MIKE: It is a fun job, yeah. ARI: And how long is it typically between catch to package? MIKE: From the time that it comes into our plant to the time it goes in the packages, typically, depending on what the product is – smoked will be about 48 hours. The product you’re referencing, the ready-to-eat, will generally be about 24 hours. ARI: And then what about from when it’s caught to when it gets to you? MIKE: That can be all sorts of things. Much of what we do actually comes in frozen, and that’s the way the industry works. Now, frozen can be – if people freeze well, it stops the biological clock and the product is spectacular. If the product is frozen poorly, it’s terrible. So that’s a big part of the quality game on how we buy. But most of the fish does come in frozen, so it could be anywhere from that week to last month or whatever, but it doesn’t matter as long as it’s been frozen correctly. ARI: Actually, let’s talk about that for a second, because that’s always something that I find interesting. I’ve spoken to chefs about this before and stuff, and I’ve actually heard people say that they would prefer the frozen fish to “fresh caught” fish sometimes, because it’s frozen on the boat, right? MIKE: Yeah, if it’s frozen well, it really does – just think about it: it does stop the biological clock. So that fish, if frozen well and frozen close to the point of catch, is going to be in that restaurant, as you were mentioning, with a chef, it’ll be a fresher tasting experience than one that was caught fresh, never frozen, goes through a distribution channel, and might show up in his or her restaurant 5, 6, 7 days later. So if done well, it can be a higher quality product, yes. Absolutely right. ARI: Great, okay. MIKE: And one of the things that people always talk about is, is it fresh or frozen? Well, the opposite of fresh isn’t frozen; the opposite of fresh is rancid, right? They’re not the same. So you can have a beautiful fresh fish, fresh-tasting fish, that has been frozen. ARI: Now something personal: what’s your favorite way to have salmon? MIKE: It depends on how I’m having it. If I’m having it on the grill, there’s no question – if I’m going to have a dinner of salmon, I’m going to have it on the grill and I’m going to have King Salmon, because it’s
  • 4. a big, big piece. It’s very, very oily and fatty. It’s lovely off the grill. If I’m going to have a lunch, I’d have what you referenced earlier, the ready-to-eat salmon pouches, because they’re so versatile and convenient. ARI: Okay, and then since you said two times or more a week, how often do you actually eat fish? Is it every day? MIKE: That varies a great deal. We have different levels of interest in fish in our family. But I’m probably eating it, because I’m at work, I’m probably eating it for lunch 4 days a week at a minimum. And then some tastings on the side besides that. ARI: Sure, and that sounds really great. The last question I just want to ask you here, which is what I ask everybody at the end of these, and since you’re a businessman – you’re not a fisherman, right? You didn’t come from a fishing background? MIKE: I did not come from a fishing background, no. ARI: Okay, so what are your top 3 personal tips for being more effective in general? MIKE: You mean in a management role? ARI: No, anything. Anything that you’ve ever learned. Eating more fish could be one, but anything that you think that makes you more effective in your daily life. MIKE: One of my favorite things – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Stephen Covey book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? ARI: Sure. MIKE: My favorite of the seven is staring with the end in mind. I think every time we’ve ever had successes, we’ve started with the end in mind, and when we kick ourselves over failures, it’s because we didn’t do that. So I think that’s got to be #1. #2 for me –and this is true certainly at work, but it’s even true in nonprofits or anything that we get involved with – if you want to have a winning team, you have to draft a winning set of players. Again, the failures have come when you have a team that you just know isn’t up to the game and you try and make it work anyway. But when you have the right team, it’s easy. It’s easy to win. And then the final thing, and this applies to anything in life, is if you’re going to do it, do it with passion. ARI: Great. I think those are wonderful. Michael, thank you very, very much. I really, really want everybody to try some of these SeaBear products, because they’re amazing. We’re going to have links to it in the show notes. Is there any particular package that you recommend? Because I just went with the regular – but any of your products, actually, that you’re particularly proud of that people should try? MIKE: You’ve talked about the Ready-to-Eat, but I’ll tell you, it’s summertime, and our most popular thing right now and our favorite thing all summer is what we call our Fresh and Wild program. It’s where we’re getting fresh salmon and halibut from really cool little specialty runs throughout the Pacific
  • 5. Northwest. There’s a different one every week. We bring it in, hand-filet it, and ship it out to people fresh, and it’s just an amazing program. ARI: Great. Thank you again. It was really nice talking to you. MIKE: Nice talking to you, too. Thanks so much for having me.