Little Critters Prove To Be Big Business For Shrimp Purveyor
As the next millennium approaches, Carlos Vidali, president of San Diego-based Ocean Garden Products, is in an upbeat mood.
For good reason. Ocean Garden’s main product line is shrimp, the food of choice for party platters all over the world.
“I foresee that we are going to have a very good year,” Vidali said. “In 2000, everybody’s going to be eating shrimp all year. Everybody wants to have children born that year, get married that year, and there will be lots of celebrations the whole year.”
Serving shrimp, either raw or cooked, head on or off, deveined or not, says it’s a special occasion and you really care about the guests, said Craig Ghio, the owner of Anthony’s Fish Grottos, a five-restaurant chain in San Diego.
“There’s a feeling of luxury and exclusivity with shrimp,” Ghio said. “If you see some little meatballs on a plate, it just doesn’t make the same impression as a platter of shrimp.”
Ghio’s restaurants have been purchasing Ocean Garden shrimp for decades. “I’ve always thought that West Coast Mexican shrimp is the best shrimp in the world, period. And I’ve always featured it in our restaurants,” he said.
While Ocean Garden imports its shellfish from about 20 different countries, more than three-quarters of it is harvested from Mexico, primarily along the West Coast near the Sea of Cortez.
55 Million Pounds Of Shrimp
Production this year should top more than 55 million pounds, above the average the company has reached in the past five years. The amount won’t be as financially rewarding as 1998, Vidali said.
“This year we had La Ni & #324;a, which had the reverse effect of El Ni & #324;o, which produced a bumper crop for us the year before,” he said.
Because ocean currents were cooler, it resulted in a reduced wild shrimp, which thrive in warmer waters.
Ocean Garden’s total sales this year should reach about $335 million, below the record-breaking previous year of more than $350 million, but still profitable.
Vidali declined to provide the exact figure but said the net profit ranges between 1.5 to 2.5 percent, which would put it between $5 million to $8.4 million.
Ocean Garden owns processing plants, distribution centers and transportation systems. The company doesn’t own boats nor fish farms, purchasing what it needs from an international network of suppliers.
Of its 250 worldwide employees, 110 work in its Kearny Mesa office, primarily in sales, adminstrative and finance positions.
While the majority of Ocean Garden Products shrimp comes from the sea, or caught “wild,” about 35 to 40 percent is raised on aquaculture farms, also found on Mexico’s west coast.
The taste difference between wild and farm-raised shrimp is hardly discernable, although some people in the shrimp industry and chefs say they can tell, Vidali said.
A much clearer distinction exists in Mexican white and brown shrimp compared with Asian black tiger shrimp. The latter tends not to be as firm or as crunchy as the Mexican type, he said.
Size is also a major consideration in the processing, packing and selling of shrimp. Ocean Garden offers shrimp from a category it calls “extra colossal,” or less than 10 shrimp to a pound, to a “tiny” size where the count runs to more than 70 to the pound.
The most common variety sold in the United States are the larger sizes, from 10 to the pound to 16-20 per pound, and are commonly found in restaurants. About 70 percent of the 850 million pounds of shrimp consumed annually in North America is sold in restaurants, according to an Ocean Garden brochure.
“We’ve used Ocean Garden shrimp for about 25 years and like it very much,” said Mike Morton, president of San Diego-based Brigantine Restaurant Corp., which operates 10 seafood eateries.
“They have very high standards. Their product is fresh, and it’s properly sized. It’s a very consistent product.”
Most Shrimp Frozen
While some restaurants and other retailers may advertise fresh shrimp, nearly all shrimp sold in the United States, Europe and Japan is frozen. The exception in this country are shellfish sold around the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.
Freezing the fish soon after it is caught actually serves to protect the crustaceans’ taste, color, nutrients and texture, Vidali said.
Most of Ocean Garden’s shrimp arrives in this country from the company’s two main distribution centers located in the border towns of Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, Ariz.
The United States is, by far, the largest, and one of the fastest-growing markets for shrimp.
Since 1990, shrimp consumption in this country has increased from 2.2 pounds per person to 2.8 pounds last year, Vidali said. But that still is a drop in the bucket compared with the average annual per capita consumption of 65 pounds of beef and 50 pounds of chicken.
Helping drive the popularity of shrimp in this country is a growing population of different ethnic groups , particularly from Asian nations , who are more familiar with cooking seafood and shellfish. Another factor in boosting seafood sales in general is the fact that it has very little saturated fat.
Yes, shrimp and shellfish have cholesterol, but it’s the type of cholesterol that is good for the body, Vidali said.
Owned By Mexican Government
Ocean Garden Products was formed in 1957 by a group of Mexican shrimp boat owners in partnership with U.S. importers.
Over the firm’s 42 years, the company has gone through several incarnations, but has always been either owned directly or indirectly through holding companies by the Mexican government.
Attempts were made to sell the company to private interests in the 1980s, and again, earlier in this decade, but the price or the risk to investors was apparently too great, Vidali said.
In 1996, the company was sold to Banco Mexicana Credito Exterior, or better known as Bacomext. This is Mexico’s national import-export bank, providing loans to Mexican firms to assist them in exporting products to foreign countries.
The relationship has worked well, although Vidali, then the No. 2 man in the company, was forced from his job along with the former president three years ago because of a political power change.
He didn’t stay unemployed long and was hired as president of Gerber California, a San Diego-based international trading firm, where he stayed until just a few months ago when he was invited back.
“They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” said Vidali who notes he is the first man ever to return to Ocean Garden after being temporarily exiled.
Vidali said he isn’t concerned the upcoming Mexican federal election will result in a new presidential administration and another sudden change of career for him.
Being summarily dismissed is a fact of life, as the No. 1 person is the same whether the company is owned by the government or by a privately controlled group, Vidali said.
“It’s part of the environment. It can happen in any corporate structure. Shareholders decide to do something and they just remove whoever is there. And that’s happening all time,” he said.
Besides shrimp, Ocean Garden also sells other high-quality fish, including abalone, scallops, crab, sardines, octopus, and lobster. The latter is shipped both frozen and live. Baja lobsters are flown out of San Diego to such far-flung ports as Hong Kong and Paris.
Vidali says he’s aiming to take Ocean Garden beyond the $400 million mark in sales next year, which is a distinct possibility, given this is only the first millennium celebration.
2001 is really the beginning of the next millennium, so that should produce even more parties, more shrimp eating and even more sales for Ocean Garden.