Life is a lot different without the company cars, the maids, and the pools, say entrepreneurs Tom Royal, 25, and Thomas Bloomfield, 24, late of Puerto Rico and Jamaica, respectively.
Today, instead of driving around the islands on business, they're driving around Washington streets, delivering fresh farm-fed fish and seafood -- Norwegian smoked salmon, abalone, belon oysters, and prawns -- to some of the city's most prominent kitchens.
Last year, Royal resigned from the security of Continental Grain and Bloomfield left what was to have been a sure path to success in the Caribbean -- a position with Jamaica Broilers -- to join forces as Cultured Inc. They arrived in Washington in October with $10,000 between them, and, at the peak of the party season, blanketed area restaurants and caterers with the promise of exceptional quality fish and personalized service.
They say they've come to fill a gap in the Washington fish scene.
Their gambit appears to have paid off: Except for a brief slump between Christmas and New Year's ("Congress went home and no one was eating," explained Bloomfield), Cultured Inc. has grown to include 60 customers, a temporary ceiling imposed by the operators until they take on additional help. And next month, they hope to move from their apartment headquarters into 5,000 square feet of office. By the end of this year, the company expects to gross $1 million.
Their sudden success took local purveyors by surprise, resulting in one competitor's attempt to short-circuit the fledgling firm's mussel supply by buying a larger quantity from their mutual supplier and another's proposal to merge -- an offer that was turned down.
Call them spirited, call them savvy, but don't call them a seafood company. Royal and Bloomfield purposely targeted an upscale market. "We try to get away from the price shoppers," said Royal, who added, "there's not one 'seafood' restaurant on the list." Instead, the roster includes such established restaurants as Jean-Louis and Le Pavillon; the British, French and Canadian embassies; numerous caterers, including Chanterelle, to which Cultured Inc. made its first sale, $30 worth of mussels; and a host of hotels. Royal manages the caterers, Bloomfield the restaurants, although both are thoroughly briefed on the other's clients.
Since the company deals exclusively with presales, "everything's harvested to order," said Royal. There is thus no inventory and little margin for error. The system avoids waste -- something the young company can't afford -- and generally sees the product from farm to airport to kitchen within 48 hours of harvesting.
An extensive network of contacts, developed during their days of business in Puerto Rico and Jamaica, allows Royal and Bloomfield to procure, among other things, red snapper, grouper and bay scallops from Panama, prawns from Honduras, live eels from Florida, kumomoto (Japanese) and belon oysters from the state of Washington, live abalone from California and coho salmon from Puget Sound. The kumomoto, they note, is currently their most sought-after item, and demand far exceeds supply. "We sell a fifth of what we could," crowed Bloomfield.
That they "source a bit better" -- Royal's term for finding products -- is not their only asset. Cultured Inc. also acts as consultant to both farmer and chef.
Their credibility is grounded in hands-on experience. Bloomfield, born in Edinburgh to a Jamaican father and a Scottish mother, has lived on both sides of the ocean, as a youngster in Kingston and at boarding school in Great Britain. His college education began at the University of Minnesota and ended at the University of Alabama, where he graduated on a soccer scholarship with a degree in marketing. Three days later, he was hired by what he calls "the old boy network" at Jamaica Broilers, the Caribbean's largest purveyor of poultry and beef.
But Bloomfield -- who at one time competed with Royal, selling him the excess from his shrimp hatchery -- found there was even more money to be made on weekends, when he would harvest, process and sell lobster tails to restaurants along the north coast. It was the money he saved from this avocation that Bloomfield used to start Cultured Inc.
Royal, who graduated with an economics degree from Harvard (where he wrote his thesis on an econometric pricing model for farm-raised catfish in the United States) and spent a year studying aquaculture in India before being hired by Continental Grain, said he "kept seeing a basic breakdown in communications" between "the restaurants that were crying for quality and the farmers who were producing the best products." The farmers, observed Royal, were basically "biologists that didn't know how to sell and distribute."
It was just that problem that Cultured sought to address. And in the process of distributing the farm-raised products and advising farmers on pricing, Royal and Bloomfield began creating markets for such items as abalone. (When Jean-Louis Palladin inquired about how to use the fish, Bloomfield called his contact in California -- from the restaurant kitchen -- for an immediate response.)
Almost as important as their keen business sense is their ability to develop amiable relationships with their clients. And they know it. "We targeted restaurants with excellent menus," noted Bloomfield, who followed that with a pitch to the chefs: "You have the best duck, the best caviar," he would offer, "why not the best oysters and Norwegian salmon?"
In their rounds of kitchens, both of them have found their youthfulness to be an advantage rather than an obstacle. "They're more likely to trust you," said Bloomfield, who has also discovered his English accent to be an asset, especially when making contact over the telephone for the first time. "Our aim was to get a foot in the door with some samples," he reminisced of the early months.
Their approach is subtle but determined. Instead of letting the purchasers call them, Bloomfield and Royal make it a habit to call the buyers. And because they remain a two-man operation, there is a sense of personal attention. "We'll sit down and have a chat," explains Bloomfield, "and we don't push them to buy more," a fact confirmed by those who buy from them.
Carol Mason of Chanterelle Caterers, who calls their products "far and away the best," was initially hooked by the team's "fresh, can-do attitude. It was like a blast of fresh air," she remarked.
Early on, when one restaurateur abruptly dismissed the men, Bloomfield left behind a bag of mussels for him to sample. The product sold itself: The restaurateur called back shortly thereafter, not only to praise the quality, but to place an order. "And he's become one of the company's best customers," added Royal.
Cultured's prices tend to be a bit higher, say clients -- "sometimes we're a good buy, sometimes a bit more expensive," Bloomfield offered -- and because competition is based primarily on price, the company seeks to be flexible. The willingness of the partners to "give that extra 110 percent," said Royal -- to search out a desired product or lower a price on occasion -- has been the company's hallmark.
And its biggest headache on occasion. Royal shudders when he recalls his attempt to deliver to a hotel several hundred pounds of coho salmon on short notice, for what the chef described as a major reception. Though Royal arrived at Dulles airport on time, the flight from Seattle did not. And when it did, there was a cargo of 9,000 pounds of fertile turkey eggs to be removed first. Naturally, "they had to be handled like eggs," Royal grimaced at the memory. To make matters worse, the coho salmon was unloaded last -- without an air-weigh bill. Frantic at this point, Royal found a sympathetic cargo official to prepare a receipt on the spot, and rushed from the airport to downtown Washington "in 20 minutes," he insisted, and a mere two minutes after the hotel's 6 p.m. deadline for the fish.
Which brings the two to the final step, that of re-educating the chef. "Every chef has a different schedule," Bloomfield lamented. "It's crazy." That Cultured has been known to perform minor miracles at the last moment only adds to the situation: " 'We want 100 pounds of abalone,' " Bloomfield impersonates a client. " 'You're a miracle worker.' But they want it by 10 o'clock the next day."
Cultured's rapport with suppliers and customers runs both ways, the partners admit. When a fish similar to an expected shipment of coho salmon arrived, for instance, one client willingly purchased 150 pounds of the mistake. Similarly, a supplier once split the cost of an order of abalone that was lost in transport.
"We've been very lucky," Royal modestly opined. "It's not skill, it's just good luck."
As ambitious as the present operation appears to be, it pales in comparison to the partners' long-range forecasts. They talk of getting into wild game down the road, perhaps eventually retiring to Jamaica, where Bloomfield's father oversees a coffee plantation. More immediately, though, they hope to tap the consumer market -- the well-to-do neighborhoods of Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District -- with home deliveries, a venture Royal tentatively and whimsically refers to as "Dial-A-Fish."