PORTLAND, Maine -- Private-label seafood, once the lonesome province of the humble and ubiquitous fish stick, now includes a sprinkling of gourmet entrees with fancy foreign names and ingenious ingredients. But that's just the start of private-label seafood's evolution -- many more creative products are in the pipeline, expected to emerge within the next few months.Retailers don't offer private-label

PORTLAND, Maine -- Private-label seafood, once the lonesome province of the humble and ubiquitous fish stick, now includes a sprinkling of gourmet entrees with fancy foreign names and ingenious ingredients. But that's just the start of private-label seafood's evolution -- many more creative products are in the pipeline, expected to emerge within the next few months.

Retailers don't offer private-label items merely for the thrill of seeing the store's name on a product, so what's the incentive? There are two, retailers report: Supplying the consumer with a good item at a lower price, as well as providing customers with a high-quality unique product identified solely with their stores.

"Normally, you make the private label a lower price than the national brand and the product equal to or better than the other, but when the generic black and white stuff went through our stores, it bumped store-brand private labels up a bit," said Al Kober, meat merchandising manager for Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa. "Now there's a niche for higher-priced private-label stuff."

Clemens is developing the stores' first private-label seafood products, such as bag shrimp and scallops. The meat department already uses the Five Diamonds label for its private-label Angus beef and chicken products and has many private-label products in other departments.

"We had no private-label seafood before," said Kober. "It's a direction we wanted to go. We wanted to support seafood more."

In Seattle, Queen Anne Thriftway's seafood department offers fresh, private-label seafood products in a variety of value-added guises from a 2-foot, four-deck case.

"It's packed," said Richard Hayashida, seafood specialist with Queen Anne's. "We have a kitchen and everybody in the department makes the items."

Specialties of the house include salmon mousse, various seafoods in marinade, Oysters Rockefeller, crab cakes and salmon burgers, all made in-store and sold under the store's own brand. "They're very popular," said Hayashida.

Russ Vernon, president of West Point Market, Akron, Ohio, takes the same approach. The single-unit upscale food retailer hired a professional chef who ran a successful seafood restaurant in Virginia Beach before landing at West Point. Popular items in the line include stuffed sole and grouper Florentine.

"Because we're a full-service, fresh-oriented store, we have an oven-ready seafood program with a professional chef to make the items," said Vernon. "These items are ours exclusively, have their own label -- they're signature items. It's not the usual packaged stuff. People traditionally overcook seafood, so we demonstrate how to cook it."

Top-quality freshness is guaranteed, he explained, "because we buy the fish directly from a Boston distributor, so we go directly to the airport and bypass local distributors."

West Point's customer base is "senior urban professional," explained Vernon. "They're looking for quality not price. We've nurtured and developed our relationship with our clientele over 64 years. We can do these things because we're a privately held, family-owned single store in a world of chains.

"We have to create such a distance from the chains so that we're not even on their radar screen," joked Vernon. "You don't want to fight with the big guys.

"In the mind of our customer, we want to be the only retailer that does what we do."

High Liner Foods, Portsmouth, N.H., is one of the big leaders in traditional retail-focused private-label seafood products. The company, which grew from a fishing-supply store in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, a century ago into the giant National Sea Products, changed its name in the United States last year, but has provided frozen fish sticks and portions under store labels for more than 50 years.

The name change arose when NatSea bought a New Jersey pasta maker. The High Liner name was already a brand for some of the firm's frozen products distributed in Canada.

Providing private-label products is not the same as manufacturing the same products under a company's own label, said Melissa Morash, brands manager for High Liner.

"It's a challenge, a different environment," she said. "Private label requires close customer service -- a very high customer-service level."

High Liner's mainstream market consists primarily of bulk breaded and battered sticks and fillets, breaded shrimp and uncoated products, designed mostly to mirror national brands.

"We must determine what the retailer is after for seafood," explained Morash. "We determine their needs and customize the product for them. We have 400 private-label SKUs.

"It's a balancing act to move toward just-in-time inventory, between procuring raw materials and producing the product when the customer wants it," she said. "A lot of computer modeling goes on. We're always making formulation changes, although they're often minor. It's a complicated business."

High Liner makes as many as 10 different items for a single chain, but the process for each product is the same. It starts with Morash and Lynn Vigueras, sales administrator, talking to the retailer to define the product.

"We look at the consumer. Is it an upscale chain, convenience stores or a middle-American chain? Then we talk about the regionality of flavors. The flavor profiles are very different between the West Coast, Florida, the Midwest, the Southwest and the East Coast.

"Then there's positioning: Is it a healthy item with no breading or added fat, or is it breaded and battered?" continued Morash. "Then size -- single-serve or family? Based on the information, we prepare and send samples and go from there."

As retailers try to change the image of private label -- from "generic," a term often associated with low quality and prices, to the more premium "store brand" -- they're demanding higher quality, and producers are leaping at the opportunity to provide them with more upscale products.

Not far south of Portsmouth, in Danvers, Mass., another Canadian company is venturing into the private-label market for seafood entrees.

Fisheries Products International, based in St. John's, Newfoundland, is an $800 million company, among the largest suppliers of seafood to the North American market, but fairly new to private labeling. Besides huge commodity sales, FPI offers a value-added product line consisting of 90 basic items that can be varied by cut, pack and species. Only six of these are private-label items so far.

"These are premium, value-added, restaurant-quality products," said Joseph S. Ferraro, director of marketing for retail products. FPI is choosing value-added, meal-style products from its successful food-service lines and marketing them for retail under a new Sea Cuisine brand, sold at some Safeway, Winn-Dixie, Randall's and Rich Foods stores. The Sea Cuisine items are available as private-label products, but without adaptations.

"We don't want to have to tailor the product to each account; it creates a nightmare in the plant," said Ferraro. "We're lucky. One account has an executive chef who looks at all their products and re-engineers them. He didn't change ours. We were very pleased."

Ferraro credits this success to FPI's long experience making products for food service, where restaurant chefs had to be pleased. "We have tremendous strength in restaurant/food-service products. We have the capability to transform them into successful retail products," said Ferraro. "We make sure they serve two to three, not four, so we keep the price point between $3.69 and $5.99 to the consumer. If we had a product selling for $8.99 or $9.99, that's a lot. People are not used to spending that kind of money on a retail product that serves two. We do a good business with club stores."

FPI's Sea Cuisine/private-label products include shrimp scampi, shrimp marinara, a linguine and shrimp meal kit, a fillet of flounder stuffed with scallops and crabmeat, as well as lightly breaded cod and breaded scallops. FPI also offers shrimp rings with cocktail sauce, other tiger shrimp and coldwater shrimp products.

"The trends start in restaurants and with other proteins, such as chicken stir-fry kits, which are growing at a huge rate," said Ferraro. "We see that as an opportunity in seafood. Skillet meals are usually in the $3 range."

Customers want speed, he explained. So an item, such as FPI's shrimp and linguine kit, provides a packet of frozen vegetables, a packet of linguine that's fully cooked and then frozen, a packet of shrimp and a packet of seasoning.

"It only takes minutes to prepare," said Ferraro. "Thaw the linguine. Cook the shrimp and vegetables. Throw in the linguine and seasonings. It's done. The line is made up of popular restaurant items that can be easily prepared at home."

Although the private-label seafood products are all sold frozen now, "if someone came to us and wanted fresh, we'd do it," said Ferraro.

Meanwhile, FPI's R&D department has at least six more products in the retail pipeline. "Two or three should be out in the next three months," he said. "We'll assess the strengths of each item as we go. If need be, we'll replace the slower movers with new items."

On the West Coast, Diana Wilson, market specialist for Pacific Salmon Industries, Vancouver, British Columbia, reported the five-year-old private-label line is "at 15% and growing." The 25-year-old group of companies now produces 200 SKUs, using predominantly shrimp, despite its name. Pacific is the largest processor of salmon products -- predominantly wild -- and halibut on the West Coast. Four years ago the firm purchased an overseas shrimp plant and expanded the product line.

Pacific produces the meals-style private-label products, including ginger orange shrimp, herb and garlic shrimp, chile lime shrimp, coconut shrimp and Salmon Wellington.

"We have other salmon items coming out," said Wilson. The firm bridges the gap between the High Liner and FPI styles, producing under store labels, using recipes either it or the retailer has developed.

"Sometimes it's a challenge. A lot of retailers are fussy about specs," said Wilson. "We bring them over to the plant so they can see how we do it."