“They Never Tasted Fish Like This Before”

In Coos Bay, a faded ad for Coca Cola reads: “Welcome to the Bay Area.” The tongue-in-cheek reference to San Francisco doesn’t fool anyone. This coastal town of 15,000, hit hard by a tough economy, can’t compete with its affluent namesake to the south. Not even close.

Mike Babcock left a thriving lumber mill and set himself a new challenge: create a new seafood business. (Photo: Pat Kight)

Mike Babcock left a thriving lumber mill and set himself a new challenge: create a seafood business. (Photo: Pat Kight)

Still, in this one-time boomtown of lumber mills and commercial fishing, the entrepreneurial spirit lives. One man, Mike Babcock, is helping to kick-start Coos Bay’s renewal with an unlikely innovation: packing fish in pouches instead cans. Besides being flat and lightweight for cheaper, easier shipping, the laminated plastic-and-metal foil pouches are superior to cans in the No. 1 consumer yardstick: taste.

“Most store-bought tuna is twice cooked,” explains Babcock’s fish-packing guru, Mark Whitham, a food scientist with Oregon Sea Grant. “That means they cook all the nutrients and flavor out. Mike Babcock’s product is cooked only once, and it retains all the good fats, juices, and nutrients, and it tastes much better.”

It all began in 2010 when Babcock, a successful-but-restless sawmill owner, was looking for a new challenge. He heard about the packing pouches — called retortable or “retort” pouches in the industry — from coastal residents who had worked with Whitham on other projects. “I wonder if pouches would work for albacore?” he thought. To find out, he tracked down the food scientist, and together they investigated the pouch potential for Coos Bay. Within the year, Babcock had launched Oregon Seafoods.

The other "Bay Area." (Photo: Pat Kight)

The other "Bay Area." (Photo: Pat Kight)

Since October 2011 when he started shipping sustainably caught tuna and salmon under his label, Sea Fare Pacific, Babcock’s products have landed on the shelves of all eight Market of Choice grocery stores, as well as those of Portland’s trendy New Seasons Market for health-conscious shoppers. He also has created a line of smoked salmon for outdoor recreation giant REI, and his four flavors — sea salt, salt-free, smoked and jalapeno — have made their way to several other states.

From Freezer to Pouch

Just blocks from Coos Bay’s historic harbor, Babcock’s Oregon Seafoods plant is no bigger than a medium-sized classroom, but it’s packed to the gills with canning machinery. It’s cold inside. Workers wear hats and jackets under large, turquoise-colored aprons, latex gloves and hairnets as they pack fish for Sea Fare Pacific and several other brands.

“Of course, we would like to have more space,” says the 50-year-old businessman, a hairnet snugged over his red ball cap. “But we can do a lot with a small footprint.”

From the deep-freeze at Oregon Seafoods, workers carry salmon and albacore to the filleting room, where they slice up the fish and plop the chunks, red and raw, into small plastic cups. Two machines imported from Japan stand ready to package the fish into pouches. As the machine spins, another worker transfers chunks from the cups into 8-ounce pouches, which look like UPS envelopes, only silver.

The technical know-how behind Oregon Seafood’s processing, as well as the four specialty flavors developed for Sea Fare Pacific, came from Whitham. It was he who steered Babcock through his transition from mill owner to seafood processor. A soft-spoken, laid-back 57-year-old, Whitham is an unlikely revolutionary. Yet from his food lab at OSU Extension in Astoria, the Sea Grant scientist has been in the vanguard of Oregon’s canning coup.

If there’s such a thing as a food-preservation geek, Whitham is it. And if there’s one thing he “geeks out” about, it’s the flexible, lightweight retort pouches.

Oregon Seafoods workers load individual portions of cleaned and flavored albacore into pouches for sealing and cooking (Photo: Pat Kight)

Oregon Seafoods workers load individual portions of cleaned and flavored albacore into pouches for sealing and cooking (Photo: Pat Kight)

“Retort pouches aren’t new,” says Whitham. “They’ve been around about 50 years, and, from what I’ve seen, they are really big in Europe and Asia. In general, they tend to be ahead of us as far as packaging is concerned.”

Coos Bay is just starting to catch up. The pouches’ advantages are many: lightweight and compact, they take less energy to ship than conventional steel cans. For the consumer or commercial chef, there’s no can to recycle. And their flat shape makes cooking more uniform. Again, it all comes down to flavor in the end.

Whitham’s larger mission — adding value to the region’s natural seafood bounty — underpins his 30-year career working with small producers up and down the coast. “Here in Oregon, seafood has really been a stand-alone product, and there’s just tremendous opportunity for adding value,” he says. With the right price point, package and recipe, processed fish can command double, triple, or even quadruple what it sells for raw. That in turn injects money and jobs into the community.

Injecting jobs and money into Coos Bay is exactly what Babcock is doing. A self-described “pedal-to-the-metal, get-it-done” type, the entrepreneur’s steely blue eyes are now focused on fine-tuning the process that took elbow grease and determination, along with Whitham’s expertise, to get moving. In Coos County where unemployment hovers around 10.5 percent — above average for both Oregon and the nation — the eight new jobs Babcock has created are a welcome boost.

From Cannery to Shopping Cart

On the cannery’s floor, the Japanese packing machines suck the air out of each pouch and seal it. Then comes the cooking. The oven — six feet around and15 feet tall with a massive metal door — looks more like a missile silo turned on its side than something from a commercial kitchen. It can hold a lot of product — more than 2,500 eight-ounce pouches, or nearly 475 pounds of fish. The pouches cook for 75 minutes at 240 degrees. Then they’re flash cooled to retain flavor.

In the cannery’s entryway, boxes full of packed tuna, ready to be shipped, testify that things are moving smoothly. But plenty of stumbling blocks stood in the way, Babcock attests. Whitham helped the entrepreneur persevere. “Whenever I have a problem,” he says, “I call him up and he’s there.”

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Babcock isn’t sure why he left his successful business to start a new one in a field in which he had little experience. When urged to pin down a reason, he cites boredom. “The day-to-day operation of the sawmill was fine,” he recalls. “But we had been building the mill for a number of years, and once we got it built and we got to the monotonous day-to-day stuff, the challenge wasn’t there.”

The cannery lets him do what he loves best: build a business. These days, his schedule is full of food tradeshows. At first, he was skeptical about pitching his fish at the crowded tradeshow scene. But his first show was a total success, generating hundreds of sales leads.

That tradeshow, incidentally, was in San Francisco — the other “bay area.” Driving home, Babcock was elated — so elated, in fact, he just couldn’t wait to make another sale. So he stopped at a small health-food store in Eureka, California, and won yet another customer.

“Everywhere I go, people who try our product, they just fall all over it, they just love the quality, like they never tasted fish like this before,” he says. For that, and for the jobs he created in Coos Bay, Babcock credits Mark Whitham and Oregon Sea Grant. “This product has Mark’s name all over it. I want to keep this relationship going.”

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Editor’s note: In March 2013, Oregon Seafoods announced that with help from Mark Whitham, the company launched a new line of soups and sauces (Seafood Bisque, Smoked Salmon Chowder, three albacore curries and a West Coast Ciopinno). Improved labeling also noted sustainability qualities such as Dolphin Safe and Line Caught. The company’s products are in more than 500 retail outlets.

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