Back in 1989, cod was king as far as the fish n’ chip market was concerned. And when John Tobe, CEO of Long John Silver’s, visited the Trident Seafoods plant on the Aleutian Island of Akutan that summer, all he wanted to look at was cod. Then he got hungry. That’s when Chuck Bundrant made one of the biggest business deals of his life: he sold him Alaska pollock instead.
Cod and pollock are both abundant whitefish in Alaskan waters. Yet for decades, pollock was considered a trash fish. Large restaurant chains like Long John Silver’s wouldn’t even put it on their menus. Since few restaurants served it and few chefs had even heard of it, they assumed their customers wouldn’t like the flavor. But Bundrant knew differently. He also knew that Alaska pollock was four times as abundant as Alaska cod, and he had a lot of it to sell. So when Tobe and his purchasing manager, Ron Cegnar, asked to tour the largest seafood production facility in North America, Bundrant saw his chance.
At first, things weren’t going so well. Every time Bundrant tried to show Tobe the pollock production line, Tobe wanted to go back and look at the cod being processed. But time was on Bundrant’s side, and eventually, food was on Tobe’s mind.
He had been traveling since 5 a.m. and eaten only one little Danish in Anchorage that morning before flying another 800 miles to Dutch Harbor. In Akutan, a short distance away, he and Bundrant had spent the whole day looking at the processing line. Finally, Tobe turned to Bundrant and said, “Son, don’t you ever eat around here?”
“At that point I brought Tobe into the mess hall, and he was pretty hungry. He was eating a lot of pollock and saying ‘Wow! This is great cod,’” Bundrant recalled. “I said, ‘No sir, that’s pollock.’”
Tobe was taken aback. His purchasing team had tried pollock before. Bundrant’s chefs had prepared it 19 different ways in Seattle, the corporate base for Trident Seafoods. In Lexington, Ky., — Long John Silver’s base at the time — they’d sampled the inexpensive fish five other times. Yet, they’d always refused to sell it in their restaurants.
On this trip, however, Tobe was personally motivated.
“Finally, the right guy was hungry,” Bundrant said. “Converting a company like Long John Silver’s opened the door— the volumes were huge, and having one large customer allowed us to sell a lot of pollock to everyone.”
Thanks to that sale, Trident Seafoods Corp. is more than just a business founded by a 1960 North High School graduate. It’s now a vertically integrated harvester, processor, and marketer of virtually all types of seafood from Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and around the world. In addition to pollock, Trident Seafoods leads the Alaskan seafood industry in the production of crab, canned sockeye salmon, and frozen Bristol Bay sockeye. Trident pollock, salmon, crab and other seafood are regular items at a variety of large restaurant chains and retail stores. Here in Evansville, Schnucks sells the company’s PubHouse Oven Ready Battered Halibut, and Walmart sells Trident’s Louis Kemp imitation crab. Even students in the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp. eat its fish sticks, and the school corporation also has served Trident salmon burgers.
But to Bundrant, who sits grinning from his chair in an Evansville hotel room, “the key was having a hungry customer that day.”
He’s here for the second Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp. Hall of Fame dinner, which is to take place that evening, on March 20. He’s also speaking in a near-whisper, a symptom of Parkinson’s disease, as he sips water intermittently. Yet everyone at the table — his wife, Diane; his daughter, Jill; and his assistant, John van Amerongen—remains focused on the stories he loves to share.
Overall, Bundrant tells a tale that many here, in Evansville, may not know: After graduating from North High School, he briefly attended college at Middle Tennessee State University before heading out to Alaska to earn money to pay for college. While he returned to Tennessee several times to visit his parents and grandmother, Bundrant ultimately abandoned the idea of obtaining his degree and instead made Alaska his home. That’s where he founded Trident Seafoods in 1973 with one crab boat and two partners. Since that time, his company has been responsible for multiple innovations in the fishing industry, one of which was to both catch and process crab on the same vessel. And Bundrant was no novice. He got to know the industry from the inside out, starting at the bottom until he reached the top, through hard work, the Lord’s blessing, and the help of mentors and friends, he says.
“If you weren’t Croatian or Norwegian, you just didn’t have a chance” at getting a job on a boat, Bundrant says. This was in the early 1960s, and by that time, he was on his second trip to the northwest to try to get his start in Alaska as a fisherman or a fur trapper. Through connections, he landed a job Alaskans know as “busting freezers.” That meant knocking metal pans to “bust” 15 pound blocks of frozen, shelled crab from their metal containers.
“You would have four of those in a box, and then you would take those into the lower hold of the boat, and you would do that until the boat was full,” Bundrant says. “I never made so much money in my life. I was pretty thrilled, working 18 hours a day, seven days a week; it totaled 126 hours a week. And then you had time and a half for anything over eight hours. And I had no place to spend that money.”
“That’s still the draw for a lot of people who go up to work for us,” Bundrant says. “It’s the ability to sock that money away that’s really the dream, and that dream still lives up there for our people.”
Bundrant moved on. In 1965, he bought his first crab fishing boat, the Addington, for $40,000. Two years later, he sold it for $75,000. He then put money down on a new boat, the Tugidak, named after an island in the Kodiak Archipelago, south of the mainland, where Bundrant had stumbled onto an enormous concentration of Dungeness crab during a storm. Tugidak Island had so much crab so close to the processing plant that Bundrant spent the rest of the summer there, loading his boat with crab. The money he earned that summer allowed him to pay off his boat. Bundrant also gives credit to the processors who agreed to take his crabs. Trident Seafoods abides by that philosophy even today. No worker escapes Bundrant’s gaze or his praise.
“We’ve promoted a lot of people who started at the bottom. That’s been the blessing of this company, to have people who started busting freezers, just like me,” Bundrant says.
Bundrant learned his work ethic early, shortly after his family moved to a house on Darmstadt Road in Evansville in 1956. He enrolled at Stringtown School in the middle of his eighth grade year before entering North High School as a freshman. He worked as a bagger and shelf stocker at Economy Foods, across from where North High School was located at the time. After school and on Saturdays, he could log 40 hours per week. During the summer, he worked 80 hours per week, guided, in many ways, by his manager and mentor, Luther Caine. Bundrant still communicates with him today.
“He taught me about team work, and also (about) respecting the customer,” he says. “I give my dad (Charles L. Bundrant) and Luther Caine a lot of credit for my success. Mr. Caine taught me a lot.”
Because Trident Seafoods has been so blessed, Bundrant has sought to give back — through earthquake relief in Japan and raising money for hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and through contributions to numerous cancer research foundations and other charitable causes. He and his partners built a church, gymnasium and community center on Akutan. He’s also had an impact right here in Evansville.
In 2010, Bundrant was named a member of the inaugural class of the EVSC Foundation Hall of Fame for his successes after high school. He’s also been a strong supporter of his alma mater. In fact, three structures on the campus are named in some way because of his support: Bundrant Stadium; the Charles L. and Algie M. Bundrant Media Center (named for his parents); and the Joe and Marie Schultheis Science Laboratory Classroom (named for his in-laws). Bundrant says he is very thankful for the opportunity to have met and worked with Dr. David Smith, Superintendent of EVSC.
And he’s still very proud of those fish sticks, made from Alaska pollock.
“That’s a great reward to have my product in the school district where I went to school,” Bundrant says. “That’s a full-circle victory and something I’m very proud of. But really, the Good Lord deserves all the credit.”
For more information on Trident Seafoods, visit www.tridentseafoods.com.