Aloha Seafood provides fresh and sustainable seafood to many upscale restaurants in the Bay Area.
Bay Area chefs at fine dining establishments strive to be competitive by serving innovative entrees that other restaurants do not offer. When it comes to seafood dishes, these culinary experts look to Aloha Seafood. “We source interesting sustainable and traceable seafood products for our chefs,” President Michael Willing says.
Aloha Seafood sources seafood from waters all over the globe with a focus on sustainable practices and traceability. Sustainable practices are necessary to ensure healthy fish stocks, and traceability is critical to eliminating unethical business practices and preventing human rights violations, Willing says.
The San Francisco-based seafood wholesale and distribution company’s offerings feature a long list of seafood including ahi tuna, halibut, hiramasa, mahi mahi, ono, opah, scallops, squid, salmon, tombo and walu, as well as a diverse list of live shellfish. The company also works with chefs to locate rare breeds of fish not often found on menus. For example, when the French Laundry in Napa needed a rare golden trout for practice in preparation for its medal-winning campaign in the 2015 Bocuse d’Or in France, the restaurant turned to Aloha Seafood for help.
Aloha Seafood works to ensure that the fishing vessels and farms that it works with follow sustainable practices. “We know which fishing vessels are out there,” Willing says. “It’s all tracked down.” The company emphasizes sustainable seafood – fish species that are more resistant to overfishing, that breed young and can grow quickly. “That’s sort of our mantra,” Willing says. Aloha Seafood avoids doing business with fishing vessels based in third-world countries, as they often violate fishing quotas or sustainability practices, he says.
Learning the Industry
Willing developed his knowledge of the market during a 20-year career as CEO of another seafood wholesale and distribution company. He had a desire to run his own company but took a year off first to develop a business plan. High-quality, abundant product and strong customer relationships are the guiding principles of that plan, he says. Aloha Seafood – named in recognition of Willing’s Hawaiian heritage – was founded in 2008. The company is located in San Francisco’s historic waterfront district known as Pier 45.
Willing learned a lot about the market during two decades running another seafood wholesale distributor. He admits, however, that overseeing his own company has its unique challenges. “There’s a little more stress and responsibility involved,” he says. “If this business fails, it’s all on me. There’s a lot more risk than being the CEO of another company.” Willing started Aloha Seafood with Mitch Gronner, whom he had worked with at his previous employer. Willing had no doubt that Gronner would be the ideal partner. “Mitch was a strong salesman for the other company that we were at,” he recalls.
Willing was confident that the relationships he had cultivated over the years with area chefs coupled with Gronner’s sales proficiency would make Aloha Seafood a success. “The timing was right,” Willing says. “I had built long-term relationships with the vendors.” Aloha Seafood quickly found its niche supplying “fine dining, white tablecloth restaurants,” Willing says.
Today Aloha has 12 trucks that serve routes six days a week delivering an array of seafood to upscale restaurants in San Francisco, the Peninsula, Napa, Sonoma, the East Bay, the Central Valley and other communities throughout northern California. Willing is always seeking new clients, but has no plans to expand the company into other parts of California or other states. “We’re a locally based company,” Willing says. “We want to stay in control of our products.” He adds that his greatest challenge is managing growth. “There are a lot of restaurants in the Bay Area,” he says. “My toughest challenge is organizing and controlling growth. We’ve already grown by leaps and bounds.”
‘All About Relationships’
Willing says he relies on quality customer service to stay ahead of his six main competitors. “We’re very customer-service oriented,” he says. “It’s all about relationships in this business.”
Those relationships are built on consistent quality, timeliness and knowledge about the market, says Willing, who has known many of the Bay Area’s chefs throughout his career. “We feel California is sort of cutting-edge when it comes to food,” Willing says. He adds that more consumers “are curious about food and its history.” In the seafood market, customers also have concerns about where a fish was raised and how it was caught, he says.
Headquarters: San Francisco
Specialty: Seafood wholesale and distribution
Michael Willing, president: “It’s all about relationships in this business.”