By Seth Rolbein
Great Eastern Seafood has been a great partner in our “Small Boats, Big Taste” haddock chowder program, a major seafood processor who has handled hundreds of thousands of pounds of small haddock in our first year, supplying the key ingredient in a chowder that has been sent to food banks and pantries across Cape Cod, New England, and the Northeast to warm hearts and bellies.
Now Great Eastern has made a major statement in the region’s fishing industry, laying down a big new footprint on the gentrifying Boston waterfront.
Founded in 1982, still family-owned and run, the company has moved its headquarters, processing, and distribution to 88 Black Falcon Avenue, past the Seaport World Trade Center, past the historic Boston Fish Pier, on land jutting into the harbor. They have taken an acre of floor space, 38,000 feet, though still occupying only a small fraction of a massive three-story building that runs the length of Black Falcon Pier.
“This state-of-the-art plant affords us space and opportunity to modernize and improve our operations,” said Robby Brandano, whose father Rob is a co-founder of Great Eastern. “It also represents a strong vote of confidence in our reputation and future.”
Above and around them are “next-gen” tenants; architects and design teams, “flexible work spaces,” a company innovating self-driving vehicles, a fancy restaurant and health club, all drawn to a property that has water on three sides and easy access to the expressway, public transportation, the booming Sea Port District and downtown.
But part of the public-private deal that put the Davis Companies in management control of this valuable property included a provision and priority that at least some maritime uses remain. That helped Great Eastern when they were facing a move out of the Widett Circle area of Dorchester, long a hub to wholesale food processing and distribution companies, soon to become another upscale, multi-use development.
One great advantage of Black Falcon is that there is a broad apron around the building that accommodates parking and loading; Great Eastern now has 14 docks for moving fish, up from three at the old site. Before installing processing and cutting machines, huge vats, lines of light tables, loading and packing equipment, some modifications were required; for example, what had been 10 floor drains became 72 to siphon off the water required for fish processing.
Great Eastern had to vacate its old digs on September 10, no wiggle room. They also wanted no interruption in customer deliveries. That meant a very tight turnaround; their first production day at Black Falcon, reported Scott Sawyer, a key member of management, was September 13.
The company is working two 12-hour shifts every day except Saturday, 7 to 7. There might be 30 or more people on the floor during the day, another several dozen at night, plus 20-plus full-time employees on the management/operations side; a recent payroll showed 108 checks, Brandano reported.
There’s still a lot of handcutting, including haddock and salmon. Most of the codfish moving across the floor these days is from Alaska, millions of pounds a year, though the company also bids at local auction for as much as they can find, handle and sell. That might be monkfish, hake, pollock or flatfish like yellowtail, dabs and other flounders. Major customers are Stop and Shop and Market Basket; orders can run as high as 10,000 to 20,000 pounds, especially when a supermarket is advertising a special. But it’s not all big volume. Orders can run from 100 pounds to a few thousand, and the early part of the week is busiest.
This kind of processing and volume produces byproduct, and one of Great Eastern’s challenges is to minimize that and make commercial use of what they can. Cod racks (remaining bodies after filleting) can become bait, for example; there can be a lot of protein left on the bones of a rack, so new grinding technologies might help turn some of that into a safe product for soups, cakes, or even pet food.
Black Falcon is almost a homecoming for Great Eastern; when the company first started in 1982, they were on the nearby Boston Fish Pier, Robby was a kid, and he helped his father offload directly into the processing facility. They built the business for 26 years there before moving to the Widett Circle area and Food Mart Road for 14 years. Now they’re back at the harbor.
The implied statement that has to do with staying power:
“At the end of the day I want this to be a business that survives everyday challenges,” said Brandano, “which of course it has been, but as you know the fish business can be crazy. And then I want this to be a legacy to leave to the family, as it has been for 40 years.
“We have lots of avenues still to explore – food service, prepared foods, packaged foods, ways to create value for fishermen and then for people in the kitchen at home, put a smile on their faces because they’re getting great fish.
“So I want to keep learning from the founders – and build from there.”