"On Special" is a monthly look at top store categories and the retailers that specialize in them.
When it comes to grocery store seafood offerings, Roche Bros. may be king of the ocean.
The family-owned chain, which operates 20 grocery stores in Massachusetts under the Roche Bros., Sudbury Farms and Brothers Marketplace banners, features local New England catches delivered straight from the boat six days a week, including mussels, Maine lobsters, fresh sea scallops and wild-caught haddock. For New England shoppers who know their seafood, Roche has become a destination.
Roche Bros. is experiencing a surge in demand for oysters, which Josh Naughton, director of deli, seafood, bakery and specialty attributes to their growing popularity in the U.S. at restaurants and supermarkets. To capitalize on this trend, Naughton has worked with a local oyster farm to obtain private label oysters exclusively farmed for Roche Bros.
The Duxbury Dragon Oyster will be sold at Brothers Marketplace locations, while the Hammer Island Oyster, which is also grown in Duxbury Bay, will be sold at Roche Bros. stores. These exclusive oysters will also be available at Roche Bros. Oyster Fest, which will take place this summer and feature 20 different oyster varieties.
Another notable trend, Naughton said, is value-added seafood — particularly grab-and-go meals. The seafood department is now assembling full meals with a protein, a vegetable and a starch, available in bags that can be microwaved or oven-cooked.
Salmon fillets. The grocer offers salmon sourced from Nova Scotia as well as wild salmon out of Alaska, which changes seasonally. Naughton said the seafood counter offers value-added, pre-portioned salmon servings with different flavor profiles and marinades, which helps shoppers who are intimidated by cooking seafood or don’t know how to gauge serving sizes.
The second-best seller at Roche Bros. is all-natural, deep sea scallops from Georges Bank off the coast of New England. Codfish or haddock fillet come in third, which Naughton said are fresh, responsibly fished catches.
A destination department
Depending on the location, seafood comprises about 3 to 5% of store sales. But when viewed as a trip-driver, it carries far more weight, said Naughton.
"That’s a hallmark of what we’ve done, and we’ve done it for 40 years and we’ve maintained that philosophy that whole time," he said.
A word on Wegmans and Whole Foods
Whole Foods is a direct competitor for a handful of Roche Bros. stores, and Wegmans also overlaps in some communities. What helps Roche stand out, Naughton said, is its partnership with Foley Fish, now going on 40 years. Foley is a renowned local fish distributor that's more than 100 years old — and very picky about who it partners with, said Naughton.
In addition to sourcing, processing and distributing seafood for Roche Bros., Foley Fish conducts extensive training for Roche Bros. staff and store level associates.
"We go over a plethora of topics from species identification, flavor profiles, proper handling, proper merchandising, proper packaging, cooking, how to talk to our customers and convey why they should be buying their fish at Roche Bros. instead of any of our competitors," Naughton said.
On sourcing transparency and sustainability
The seafood counter posts a daily sheet with a QR code that details what was delivered that day. Customers can scan the QR code to learn which boat a product was caught on, the name of the boat and the captain and what they usually fish. Naughton said Roche Bros. has been doing this for six years.
Although customers want local and sustainably caught seafood, sourcing options that meet both of these criteria can be challenging. There are restrictions on what can be caught, and boats can only fish a set amount of days to maintain the sustainability of certain species. Naughton said that can make it difficult to always get the product he wants.
Why customer education is key
"You know, I find a lot of times customers shy away from [seafood] because they remember when they were a kid, their grandmother or their mother cooked some cod in the oven in their kitchen and the whole kitchen ended up smelling like fish. That’s because they didn’t cook it right," Naughton said.
To help customers have a positive cooking experience with seafood, Roche Bros. offers handouts, recipes cards and other tools to put shoppers at ease.
Which wine pairs with swordfish?
Roche Bros. boosts seafood penetration through cross-merchandising. Naughton said the department features a rotating "recipe of the week," and will position products like Panko bread crumbs and green beans or asparagus near the seafood section to offer a complete meal suggestion. They may also promote a bottle of wine to pair with swordfish or cod and stack several cases near the seafood counter.
"[We’re] just trying to capture every sale other than the customer coming to the counter," Naughton said.
The state of seafood
- Seafood generates almost $12 billion in sales for retailers annually, and when shoppers buy seafood, their basket is triple the average size.
- Retailers including H-E-B, BJ's Wholesale Club, Ahold Delhaize and Schnucks have committed to seafood sustainability through partnerships with the Environmental Defense Fund and the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative.
- According to a report from nonprofit Eating with the Ecosystem, retailers offer the same five species of seafood more than 50% of the time: cod, haddock, scallops, clams and lobster.