By Danny Schrafel
After decades focusing his efforts on growing K&B Seafood in the USA, Northport’s Tom Kehoe has his sights set overseas and a foot in the door for the booming Chinese market.
Kehoe recently returned from three weeks in Shanghai, and will return in early September. Then, it’s off to Moscow at the end of that month, a return to K&B Seafood’s first international breakthrough. He’s been in Moscow seven times in the last four years.
But China, Kehoe said, is especially ripe for American businesses to prosper, thanks to rapidly growing prosperity in the middle class and mass migration to urban areas. K&B is already shipping seafood to Shanghai and Hong Kong, and is looking to expand into meat and other products.
“They’re going through a revolution right now… The middle class per-capita is coming up,” he said. “They’ve had a tremendous crisis of confidence with food safety… People with a few dollars don’t want to feed their children Chinese food if they can help it, so within the past two or three years, there’s been a tremendous demand for EU and U.S. food.”
During an interview Sunday at The Whale’s Tale at Britannia Boatyard in Northport – coincidentally, one of his local clients – Kehoe showcased one of the products headed overseas. Today, a platter of a dozen Saddle Rock oysters, harvested in Huntington Harbor and Eaton’s Neck, took center stage. Those oysters are marketed as Saddle Rock and Matinecock Oysters – the Saddle Rock brand is a reference to a waterfront village near Great Neck, where locals did a bustling trade in oysters in the late 1800s.
“Once they wiped the reef out, the name died out, so we resurrected the name and trademark,” Kehoe said.
Similarly, the Matinecock name references a Long Island Native American tribe that distinguished themselves as expert fishermen.
For Kehoe, the international focus is a new wrinkle in a career that began in 1975 after concluding his tenure in marketing for Xerox.
“At this stage of my life, I never thought I’d be a world traveler like this, but it’s fascinating,” he said.
“A good chunk” of his business remains focused on local distribution in the metro area at eateries like Whale’s Tale, Pumpernickel’s, Bistro 44 and Skipper’s, as well as country clubs and fine dining destinations like Mac’s Steakhouse and Prime. His shipping business also brought seafood to west coast locales like San Francisco and Las Vegas.
“From that, it developed into an international business,” he said.
K&B Seafood’s first international breakthrough was in Russia, which remains a strong market. But world events can intervene, as did the recent crisis over sovereignty of Crimea.
“We lost them when the Crimean thing started in late February… We got our first order back last week,” Kehoe said. “It left a huge hole in our business.”
With the situation more stabilized recently, business opportunities are emerging in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. And Kehoe said his local political experience – he was a Northport Village trustee for eight years and explored a run for Huntington Town Board in 2010 – has been invaluable, and now he’s hoping to share his knowledge with other firms through his sister firm, Seaflight Logistics.
“I think we’re offering a service to the customers, and I think we can offer a service to a lot of American firms that want to get into this market who don’t know how to do it – not just with food, but with other items,” he said.