Chicken expert takes aim at fish plant

Posted: Tuesday, August 13, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- If Jeffrey Hester can do with fish what his former company did with chicken, the floundering Alaska Seafood International Co. might finally take flight.

Hester, whose family business is credited with many poultry-marketing firsts, including chicken wings and nuggets, is now part of management triumvirate at the struggling south Anchorage fish factory.

Hester joins Philip Fitzpatrick, a former executive with Bumble Bee Seafoods Inc. and Del Monte Foods Co., and Russell Schreck, who has been with the seafood company since last year.

Hester and Fitzpatrick were appointed to the tri-presidency in June by the company's majority owner, Sunrise Capital Partners LP of New York City.

''I'm just a chicken boy from Virginia trying to learn seafood,'' Hester told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce at its Monday luncheon in the 4th Avenue Theater July 29.

Hester admits he's new to the fish business but said he brings a fresh eye and attitude to the industry.

And he's got money invested in the venture, although he wouldn't say how much.

''I've got a lot of my own chips on the table here,'' Hester told the Journal. ''It's a complex business model, but I wouldn't be in this if I didn't think there was some opportunity.''

There also is pride at stake and a string of successes at his family's West Virginia company, Pierce Foods, which Hester took over following his father's death in 1988. In 1997, he sold the company to Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Inc.

In the early 1950s, Pierce Foods was the first company to offer pre-cooked frozen fried chicken, and years later, the first microwaveable fried chicken. It was the first company to market fajita chicken strips and skinless breast fillets, according to company history.

But chicken wings are what really made the company take off.

Hester's father, Wendell Hester, bought truckloads of chicken wings at just pennies per pound in the 1960s and sent them to a restaurant in Buffalo, New York. The spicy appetizers became so popular that the company began selling its own ''Wing-Dings,'' still the all-time best-selling brand of precooked ''buffalo wings,'' according to the company.

Pierce Foods also was the first to produce chicken nuggets -- two years before McDonald's, Hester said.

Is there a panacean seafood product waiting in the wings for Alaska Seafood International?

''I won't say there is not another Wing-Ding; I'm not that foolish. But I haven't found one yet,'' Hester said.

''I do see something like a Black Angus beef in salmon,'' said Hester of the trademarked choice cuts of meat that fetch premium prices at restaurant and grocers. He points to the marketing success of Alaska's Copper River reds, a sockeye that is considered by many to be the Cadillac of salmon.

The continued marketing of Alaska's seafood products as healthy and wild, Hester believes, will earn a ''share of the stomach'' over farmed salmon and other protein meats that are given antibiotics or other drugs to promote growth.

''We're going after educated customers,'' Hester said.

The company is tightlipped about specific products it will market in the near future or the identity of any wholesale buyers.

''There is no definitive thing that I can be public about,'' Hester said. ''We are actively seeking customers and producers and processors whose needs aren't being met.''

There is at least an appearance of a turnaround for the seafood plant, which has suffered a slew of setbacks in its short history.

In addition to hiring two new top managers, the company in June shut down for two weeks to install new automated fish handling and packaging equipment intended to increase production efficiency ''in anticipation of a number of sizable orders,'' the company said in a press release.

They will also be marketing products under The Great Alaska Seafood Co. name.

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