Who The Folk?! Max Bialick

Despite being born into the seafood business, Max Bialick stayed away until a couple years ago. Since then, he’s taken the job as marketing and distribution manager at American Fish and Seafood, which was named the 2016 Minnesota Restaurant Association Vendor of the Year. Find out what life’s like in the family business and learn Who The Folk is Max Bialick!?

How long have you been in the seafood business?

Just coming up on two years. I’m relatively new, but it’s a family business. My father is the president of the company; my grandfather started the company in 1929. It’s an 88-year-old company, and the pride for that in the building is off the charts. Our sales manager is on his 39th year. We have several sales reps who have been here 20, 25 years. We have a lot of longevity and loyalty to the industry. The knowledge in the building is awesome and it’s made it really nice for me coming in new. Fish and seafood was dinner conversation for me, but it’s different being in the chair, in the building.

What’s your role here?

I oversee purchasing. I buy, mainly frozen. I oversee purchasing and marketing. And I guess whatever else comes up. Being a small business, there’s always something that no one else can do, wants to do or is doing it, so I take care of it. Which is great. There’s never a dull moment.

Did you know you wanted to join the business?

There was no pressure. In fact, my father encouraged me NOT to, just to go out and do my own thing. I had the desire to do it, and like anything else in life, there was an opportunity and the timing worked. He and I sat down and had probably the most adult, thorough conversation we’d ever had. I was working at Target in distribution for just about five years. I loved it there, but sometimes you get an opportunity you can’t pass up.

What do you see as the biggest thing changing in the industry and how they eat?

Access to information. Like with anything else. The end user is so educated about the end product, what they want and don’t want. It makes it both easier and more challenging at the same time, depending on the situation. You have a much more knowledgeable customer. Our being experts in the field can help be a great resource to our customers and end users. It’s a value we provide.

Do people find it odd that a fish and seafood business isn’t nearer to the coasts where the product is?

I get asked that a lot. Everyone eats fish and loves seafood, and you have to find a way to offer that service. Why not us? We’re lake-fish country, and there is tons of that. But where there is demand, supply is created.

How does the uncertainty of what you might have affect your customer?

As you’d expect. You try not to piss people off by being out of fish, but you don’t know what’s going to come out of the water. You don’t know what the catch is going be. Most customers and chefs understand that. We’re not producing widgets in the back of the building. You’re going to have fish that are different sizes. It’s our job to, as best we can, manage that. Mother Nature is going to win every time.

So it’s like any other business that requires getting something from point A to point B?

Exactly. Then you have the added complexity of it being a perishable product.

Is a lot of what you sell kosher?

The basic rule is scales and fins. Like everything else, there’s an app for that. Again, it’s access to information. I know a lot of people who look up (what’s kosher or not). We sell to almost every Jewish organization in town. It’s important to us to fulfill any dietary, religious or other restriction they may have. We have quite a bit of product that is certified kosher, and sometimes we’ll get the certificates for customers and provide it to them from the producer that they’ve met standards. Over the years, we’ve had different people come in from the Jewish community and inspect our facility. It’s not something that’s ongoing, but it’s something that we have the door open for. The kosher community knows our company, knows our business, knows how important cleanliness and kosher rules are. So, if there’s something we’re selling and we say it meets that, you can feel confident that it does. We won’t mislead or yea-say that it will meet a certification. We keep things separated. We don’t have a separate processing area, but we have certain things that meet those parameters. We’ve done extra washing where needed for special orders.

Do you see more producers going sustainable?

A lot of industries, especially food, are trying to do more sustainable or organic. Although there is no recognition for organic seafood in the United States. We have at any one time seven different types of fresh salmon, and four of them will have the characteristics of sustainability or things they’ve done above and beyond to meet that check mark. I don’t think fish and seafood is unique in this, but it’s slightly more complicated in fish. One of the salmon, Atlantic Sapphire, is the first salmon that’s been recommended by Monterey Bay Seafood Watch. Some people believe it as gospel. They are very tough on what species they recommend or don’t. This is the first farmed salmon they outright recommend and endorse. There’s a lot of salmon they consider acceptable; this one they say is great and they endorse it. Outside of that the fish just tastes unbelievable. To me that matters so much more. Sustainability is important and I understand that drives a lot of purchase decisions but it’s got to be good.

Do you see sustainability as a particularly Jewish issue?

I don’t think it is or isn’t. I don’t think it would factor more or less to a Jewish consumer, or someone who practices kosher versus someone who doesn’t. It’s more about individual preferences in terms of what’s important.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Oddly enough, I like Passover. Just because of the principle of making lifestyle changes. Admittedly I’m not a full Passover keeper, but I like the idea of symbolically changing your habits for a period of time. I eat a fair amount of questionable foods in that time, but actively making those eating choices for your religion is pretty cool.

Favorite Jewish food?

Matzah ball soup. Probably it’s too easy of an answer, but I’ve been known to put down a pot by myself.

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