Bristol Seafood in Portland has seen retail purchases of its 'My Fish Dish' frozen, ready-to-cook seafood thrive during the pandemic, when it says more people are cooking at home. Credit: Courtesy of Bristol Seafood

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Bristol Seafood in Portland saw much of its food service business shrink when the pandemic limited or closed restaurants, but it found a boon in expanding its line of quick-to-prepare meals as more people cooked at home.

Like many companies, Bristol has had to change gears to focus on products that are selling well. The company last summer created “My Fish Dish,” 18 different packages with either frozen cod from Norway and U.S.-sourced scallops, Atlantic salmon or sockeye salmon in a variety of flavors.

Sales have increased dramatically since more people are cooking at home, and they’ve helped shore up some of the losses in its mainstay food service business.

Bristol also is riding an international trend in strong demand for frozen seafood. At-home cooking and beef shortages boosted frozen seafood sales more than 60 percent in May, according to industry numbers quoted by Seafoodsource.com. And new buyers are entering the market and becoming more comfortable with cooking fish-based meals from scratch.

“Seventy percent of seafood was eaten in restaurants before the coronavirus,” said Irene Moon, Bristol’s vice president of marketing. “People are experimenting at home now, but many aren’t comfortable cooking fish.”

Moon said people are afraid about cooking fish too long or not enough, and they don’t know what spices to pair with it. The My Fish Dish meals only need to be thawed, cooked and served, she said.

“There aren’t really recipes for fish passed on through generations by families like a favorite chicken recipe,” she said.

Moon said the company worked with a chef to develop the most recognizable flavors to consumers who normally ate at restaurants, such as lemon and herb or sesame and seaweed teriyaki.

“When they see the label and when they cook it, it’s exactly what they expect,” she said.

The food service business had been half of Bristol’s total sales, but it dropped off more than 80 percent at its worst during the pandemic and is now down 60 percent as restaurants slowly reopen, said Moon. She would not discuss revenues, but said My Fish Dish sales are growing quickly.

My Fish Dish is available only at Hannaford supermarket in Maine, but it is also sold in the Pacific Northwest, California and in the southern and mid-Atlantic parts of the country. Prices range from $6.99 to $8.99 per package.

Now that consumers have had several months of practice cooking fish, Bristol plans to expand its product line in late fall with unfrozen, ready-to-go packages of fish without spices, so home cooks can experiment with the seasonings they like, Moon said.

Bristol also plans to expand the retail outlets it uses.

Bristol has had its ups and downs since it was founded in 1992 focusing on sales of groundfish. One year later a moratorium was placed on the fishery, which had collapsed. The company shifted to importing Norwegian haddock and selling local scallops and other fish.

Current owner Peter Handy bought the company in 2015 and refocused it to sell a few high-quality fish such as haddock, cod and scallops.

In May the company, which employs 70 people, voluntarily shut down for two days for cleaning after six workers tested positive for COVID-19. They are now recovered and back at work, Moon said.

“It’s a testament to the company that everyone who could come back and tested negative did come back,” she said, adding that the company had coronavirus precautions in place early in the pandemic.