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A Woman's Entrepreneurial Journey: Coastal Seafoods

The bounty of the deep on the tables of the Midwest

Fresh seafood on Ice

Suzanne Weinstein is the founder and former chief executive officer of Coastal Seafoods, which wholesales and retails responsibly sourced fish, shellfish and more in Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN. She sold the company to Fortune Fish & Gourmet in July 2016.

Suzanne grew up in Skokie and Evanston, IL. Her father made and sold window shades, a going concern he bought from her mother’s relatives. It grew to be quite a substantial business, she says. She remembers her father as a caring employer, bailing an employee out of jail and helping others as needed. He attended night school for 14 years to secure a combined accounting and law degree, and he applied the skills he learned to his business.

Suzanne appreciates the positive impact two aunts had on her. Both ran unconventional enterprises for women of their era. “One owned an appliance repair shop,” she says. “The other developed shopping malls and, later in her career, bought and sold truck terminals. She also financially cared for a number of people.” With those women as role models, Suzanne says, she never thought that her gender would prevent her from doing anything.

U.S. Trust “Women’s Entrepreneurial Journeys”

Interview with Suzanne Weinstein

 

Recorded on April 18, 2018

 

            My name is Suzanne Weinstein and I’m from Minneapolis, Minnesota. My business was called, Costal Seafoods. I started it in 1981 and I had just recently sold it in 2016.  We did wholesale and retail fish and seafood and we sold to about 250 restaurants and co-ops in Minneapolis.

A great thing for me in the transition in selling the business was that it was important that the culture and legacy would stay the same because we are pretty much an institution in the twin cities. And I feel incredibly lucky to have found buyers that are committed to the same thing. They’ve told me repeatedly I’ll remain proud of my legacy and stuff, which I think that’s unusual to find perhaps in a buyer.

 

I think it's really important to have a good accountant and a good banker, I still bank at the same bank. And I've had the same accountant pretty much the whole time, and have a good lawyer, too. It always helps to have a good lawyer*.

I had an aunt that was a businesswoman since the 40’s. I just remember her saying to me that the proudest accomplishment that she had was being able to employee people for so many years, and I really feel like that’s the thing that I’m proudest about, that I was able to employ people for so many years.

You know there were challenges, that’s for sure but … the key, is to you know, to have good people around you, cause I couldn’t have done this alone.

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As a child, she says, she had no specific aspirations and has never been a “big planner.” However, she knows she has three “forever” interests: food, wellness and making arts and crafts. She fondly recalls that as a child she awaited the weekly arrival of Time magazine, avidly reading the food, medicine and arts articles. In college, she received a degree in Spanish and sociology but had no idea what she wanted to do after graduation. She bounced from job to job, rarely staying anywhere longer than six months. She moved first to Minneapolis and then to Chicago, to be near her family, and landed as a bank teller in Evanston.

After a few months as a teller, she transferred to the bookkeeping department and, sometime later, became a consultant in computer conversions for banks. After a decade in banking, she had a notion that she wanted to try something new. That something came to her, somewhat unexpectedly, through her lifelong interest in art.

Getting Hooked

Suzanne often took art courses and enjoyed making things, particularly the jewelry she sold at art fairs. She became interested in working with glass and joined a studio of glass blowers. By chance, the wife of one of the other glass blowers had a job delivering fish. Fish intrigued her, she says, so she went to work there. “Six weeks later, I decided to start my own fish business,” she says, having learned that there were few fish sellers serving Minneapolis. “In 1981, people did not cook much fresh fish and few restaurants served it,” she adds.

She laughs as she acknowledges that her journey from banker to fishmonger “all sounds wacky.” She knew she faced a huge challenge, selling fish in Minnesota, which borders Lake Superior but is far from an ocean.

The former CEO considers herself resourceful and says she does not hesitate to ask anyone for help. When it came time to secure a loan for her business, she had many connections through her time as a bank employee and had no difficulty borrowing $500 to purchase a used Chevy van. Notably, she says, “I still bank with the same bank who gave me that first loan.”

To be licensed to deliver fish, she had to operate out of a commercial location with proper refrigeration. She persuaded an Asian grocery owner to allow her to keep her fish in his cooler. She now needed a source of fish. She flew out to Seattle in search of a wholesaler but nobody there would supply her.

She returned to Minneapolis discouraged and by chance saw a copy of Savvy magazine. “The cover photo showed a man and a woman holding up what turned out to be a tilefish,” she notes. It was the early ‘80s, and the cod supply was diminishing — and the couple were encouraging people to make lesser-known species, like tilefish, a part of their diet. Suzanne called them and they agreed to sell her fifty pounds of fish. In a sense, that purchase paved the way for her company’s distinctive appeal and selling little-known fish became its hallmark. She decided to sell fresh fish. Suzanne also spotted a trend, she says: “Chefs in Minneapolis’s upscale, white table- cloth restaurants were interested in trying new varieties of fresh fish.”

Her previous work experience meant she had skills to do her own bookkeeping; but in the beginning, she says, “I knew nothing about fish and went seeking mentors.” A male acquaintance in fish wholesaling discouraged her, but another, who held a position at the National Oceanographic and Aeronautical Administration, gladly mentored her. Suzanne credits his mentorship as being key to the success of Coastal Seafoods.

"I knew nothing about fish and went seeking mentors."

At first she sold and delivered the fish herself in her second-hand van. She ordered only as much as she thought she could sell and rarely had any left over. In the early days, she never worried, she says. “I did not have any huge loans and knew I could always find another job.”

She may have known little about seafood at the start but from her days managing computer conversions, Suzanne was familiar with setting up systems and processes. She created a system to receive fresh catch by airplane, six times a week from all over the world, allowing her to offer her customers over 50 kinds of fish.

She rented other businesses’ refrigerated spaces for some time but came to realize that she wanted to rent an entire building for her own use. Although most landlords shied away from the potentially bad smell of seafood, one finally rented her an ideal building with floor drains, perfect for cleaning fish. The building also had a front office that she turned into a small retail outlet. She had a strong relationship with her equipment dealer, who offered refurbished equipment.

Store Stories

In 1985, she opened her first store without much financial risk. She quickly discovered that the space was too small to meet demand and transformed some office space into a sales area, essentially doubling her capacity. Soon she bought the whole property (and she still owns it).

Two years later she opened a second retail outlet but its limited parking prompted her to close it soon, swearing that she would never open another one. Her “vow wavered when an attractive spot in a strip mall in St. Paul opened up,” she says. “That strip-mall store has flourished for over 25 years.” Again, she vowed no more retail, but space in an upscale suburban neighborhood became available. She worked hard to make that place succeed, even working with the local Chamber of Commerce to expand her business network. Some years later she closed that location.

Her company grew organically, she says, adding about two employees a year, and business boomed. She realized that as she grew and hired more people, providing growth opportunities was important to keeping them with the company. Her employees enjoyed reputations as fish experts, sharing recipes with customers, writing cookery books and teaching sushi classes. She insisted on superior cleanliness, she says, and her sites became known for their sparkling appearance and lack of fishy smell.

A Sea Change

At age 67, Suzanne had a thriving wholesale operation and two retail stores, one in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis and the other in St. Paul. Coastal Seafoods had 25 employees and supplied over 50 varieties of fresh seafood to more than 300 restaurants and supermarkets in Minnesota, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin. She often thought about the future of Coastal Seafoods but, as usual, she says, “I had no big plans.”

After three decades in business, she received a “beautiful letter” out of the blue from a prospective buyer, Fortune Fish & Gourmet in Chicago. With Fortune Fish’s commitment to sustainability, employees, quality and service, “the letter sounded as if written in my own voice,” she says. Some consultants warned her that these “cold call” letters were common and rarely, if ever, worked out. However, in September 2015, she agreed to meet with representatives from Fortune Fish. For months Suzanne kept the negotiations secret. She wanted to be sure the cultures meshed and that the buyer would keep her employees. They closed the deal in July 2016.

Suzanne maintains ownership of the main Coastal Seafoods buildings and stops into a facility at least once a week. The culture of Coastal Seafoods still promises high quality and that pleases her. In fact, when she runs into customers she once served, many do not know that she has sold the business because the culture is still in place. Even better, most of her employees have remained with the company.

Post Exit

Suzanne continues to serve on civic and business improvement boards and a local planning board. The former CEO is very interested in food justice and was pleased that she was able to lease two of her vacant lots to be used as community-supported agricultural gardens.

She has a large portfolio of artistic work and has taken classes in just about every creative medium, she says. “I knit, crochet, and do mosaics. I’m always making something.” Shortly after the sale, she heard of a project run by the local corrections system for women sentenced to community service. These women meet in “Jewelry Circles” twice a month and make over 500 pieces a year. The proceeds of their jewelry sales go to Grandmother Circles, a nonprofit that helps women in Kenya. Suzanne has enjoyed volunteering with the group. In addition, she has used her resources to nurture a similar creativity program at a juvenile residential substance abuse detention center. She also has drawn on her contacts to obtain equipment for a soup kitchen.

When asked about tips for others, Suzanne stresses that anyone interested in creating a business should not be afraid to ask for help. Any entrepreneur, moreover, needs an excellent accountant, she adds, and cultivating great relationships with bankers, mentors and equipment suppliers is vital. Most important, she says, “when faced with a challenge, be persistent and don’t give up.”

Suzanne chuckles at the memory of the first National Fisheries Institute meeting she attended. In a male-dominated environment, the organizers kept trying to steer her to the spouse table. She just kept saying, “I’m the owner.” Asked how she navigated the fish industry, she answers, “I never thought of myself as being a woman, I thought of myself as being a person. I am not afraid to do anything.”

She believes that “women really care about people, seeking to build companies that are giant families and everyone is encouraged to have a vested interest in the enterprise and each other.” Suzanne expresses gratitude to all of her employees and everyone else who helped her along her way. But, in particular, she thanks her husband and daughter for their unwavering support. The founder of Coastal Seafoods takes the deepest pride in employing so many people for over 35 years and offering them a great place to work, excellent benefits and a retirement plan. She also is proud that Coastal Seafoods remains as a Twin Cities institution.

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