Shawna McAusland’s father Sanford White had an entrepreneurial instinct from early childhood, starting his first business at age 7. “He was one of those larger-than-life characters,” she says. “The police put him out of business the first time because he was making slingshots for the entire neighborhood.”
A later venture capitalizing on White’s interest in cooking and fishing proved more successful. His homemade smoked tuna dip recipe blossomed into a business after it developed a reputation along the Florida panhandle in the early 1970s.
“He would take the dip into parties, and soon was getting calls from people 100 miles away asking, ‘Where can I get this stuff?’” McAusland says. Today she is the president of Gulf Smoked Seafood Inc., the company her father founded in the early 1970s to produce the dip.
The dip, marketed with the company’s trademark as The “Original Recipe”™ Smoked Tuna Dip, remains Gulf’s core business. “It’s a magical combination of flavors and people love it,” she says. One of its strongest qualities is its versatility – the dip is eaten as a salad or used to stuff tomatoes, pasta, chicken and puff pastry, among other uses.
Gulf Smoked Seafood sells to distributors, who place it in restaurants and retail outlets in the Southeast, as well as some Midwestern and western states. “We’ve heard from people in Europe who have paid to have it shipped overnight there,” McAusland says.
McAusland introduced “Skinny Dip,”™ a low-fat version, in the mid-1990s. A four-ounce serving contains 1.5 grams of fat and 20 grams of protein.
“I swore I’d never come out with anything that tasted like a shoebox, and a lot of the low-fat products I’ve tasted do taste that way; they’re horrible,” she says. “Most of the people who’ve tasted this don’t even realize it’s low-fat.”
“Skinny Dip”™ Low-fat Smoked Tuna Dip is a featured item in a Pensacola hospital’s diet program, giving it additional momentum among health-conscious customers.
The recipes for both varieties of the dip are proprietary to the company. “Our products have an incredibly long shelf life, and we do not add a lot of preservatives; we just put out a very unique product,” she says. “We make a gourmet product and use the highest-quality ingredients we can find, and we stand behind our product. People consistently tell me they can really taste the quality.”
Gulf Smoked Seafood sources its tuna from outside of its region, including from Southeast Asia. The dip is produced and packaged in Gulf’s Pensacola facility using large smokers. “With five [production] employees, we can mix and pack 2,500 pounds of product in four hours,” McAusland adds.
Product quality and safety are the company’s most important priorities. “Our motto is if we couldn’t serve it to our children at any step of the way, we’re not going to serve it to anyone else,” McAusland says. “When you read our label, you can see food ingredients there; you don’t need a chemistry degree to understand it.”
The company closely follows HACCP guidelines and exceeds FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. McAusland and her son, Andrew – the company’s vice president – regularly conduct food-handling safety courses for employees. “If our employees are not acutely aware of … sanitary food-handling practices, they don’t stay long,” she says.
Distributors and retailers are an important part of Gulf Smoked Seafood’s success. “We like to have long-term working relationships with our distributors, and see them as our partners,” McAusland says. “We love our distributors and do everything we can to support them; they know we’re not going to try to undercut them.
“They like to have a product their customers will love, and they know we will stand behind ours. Some of our distributors have been using our products for more than 35 years,” she adds. “We have a number of distributors who ship all over the country.”
The company also maintains relationships within its community by donating to area food banks and charity events.
McAusland says the company continues to pursue new distribution opportunities as well as develop new products.
“As it says on our label, our dip is ‘too good not to try,’ so we would like to have more people try it,” she adds. “We would love to find new distributors all over the United States.”
Overcoming the Odds
Shawna McAusland overcame a number of personal challenges when she took over full-time management of Gulf Smoked Seafood 18 years ago, as she and her son fled a life-threatening abusive domestic situation at the time. Then, after two hurricanes destroyed many of her customers’ businesses, McAusland says she mowed lawns to make ends meet. In addition to running the company, she took care of her aging parents, ran the business and raised her son, she says. Today, both McAuslands support abuse-related causes because they knew them first hand, Shawna McAusland says.
Andrew McAusland is now the company’s vice president and the third generation of Gulf Smoked Seafood family ownership. In addition to helping run the company, he is also a youth minister.
“He is a fine young man with integrity and great new ideas,” Shawna McAusland adds. “Against all odds, by the grace of God, we have a wonderful company, continuing my dad’s legacy of awesome gourmet products. Look for the new products on our website in the near future.”