Tommy's Seafood

The “Reel” Deal

My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2016

Chalin Delaune is not the run-of-the-mill 27-year-old.

In fact, he is rather extra-ordinary in life and in work. Everything about the young man who serves as vice president of his family’s business, Tommy’s Seafood, speaks to hard work, family and faith. Those are his words spoken with quiet humility, nothing false or forced as he speaks.

Ask him what is the best part of his day, and he is quick to respond, “The ride into work is my favorite, as coming into work each day it doesn’t feel like going to work. And I take that time to pray for my family, our employees, our customers and the quality of our work,” he says. “I also pray for issues and problems way beyond me, like the people caught in the terrible floods in recent weeks in nearby parishes in Louisiana. I try to prepare myself mentally and spiritually, and that’s what gives me the energy I need for the day ahead.”

The day ahead includes running the family business, alongside his father Tommy, his mother Maria, three brothers, and members of his extended family, close friends and loyal employees.

Tommy’s Seafood, founded in 1982, is a gulf seafood processor located in Chalmette, Louisiana, near the Industrial Canal and the Shushan Lakefront Airport. The factory is approximately 30,000 square-feet and is divided into multiple workshops including but not limited to wild-caught head-on and head-off shrimp, live and cleaned frozen blue crab, shucked oysters, and fish fillets. As far as shrimp are concerned, there are no peeling machines on-site because Tommy’s Seafood prides itself on being a hands on processor.

Chalin’s office is decorated with two spiritually-inspired tapestries, a reflection of the deep-seated spirituality that permeates every level of operations. Faith has always been at the heart of the family business. Chalin’s father was a traveling missionary when he was introduced to his mother in Ecuador.

The couple moved to New Orleans where Tommy took a job as a bartender at the famed Pat O’Briens, and Maria began a pursuit of a degree in accounting. When he was 32, Tommy was hired as a manager of the Fish House in New Orleans, a retail and wholesale seafood business that specialized in a diverse product line of shrimp, crabs, oysters, crawfish and fish. With no background in seafood, Tommy learned everything he could as fast as he could.

After seven months as sales manager, Tommy watched as the successful business suddenly shut down, forcing him to make a leap of faith. Having experienced first-hand what it was like to run a seafood supplier business, knowing where to source seafood, and with strong connection to an established customer base, Tommy went to a bank and got a personal line of credit, bought a ‘79 Dodge pickup truck, and went into business for himself.

And that is how Tommy’s Seafood began. Knowing a good reputation goes a long way, he always kept his promise to customers, and the business began to grow substantially.

“My father always taught us that a man is only as good as his word,” says Chalin. “He relied on his faith, his honor and a spirit of trust, all the while my mother serving as his spiritual backbone.”

Another leap of faith came in 1989, when the couple began looking for ways to expand, just as their own family began to grow. In 1991, they bought a marina with a dock in Chalmette and lived in a one-bedroom / one-bathroom apartment above the marina office until their new home could be built. For a growing family, those were tight quarters, but Chalin says that didn’t matter at all because as a young adventuresome boy, living on the bayou gave him some of the best memories of his life.

“The bayou was like our salt water pool,” Chalin says. “There was never a dull moment, whether that was fishing or taking a pirogue and exploring the marsh to see all the wildlife. This type of culture was engrained in me from a young age and it set the course for my life. I knew from the get-go I was going to stay in the family business.”

The seafood industry has a strong reputation for generational blessings where a trade is passed down from father to son. In the case of the Delaunes, father Tommy is at the helm. Mom, Maria, serves as secretary and treasurer. Their oldest son, Ryan, works in public relations, while two others sons, Sean and Christian, work in operations. A cousin and his daughter are in the customer relations department. Chalin’s oldest friend works with the Delaunes, as do drivers and employees who Chalin says have been with the company since he was in diapers.

A company chef known as “Chef Willie” prepares a family style lunch every day, cooking good “soul food,” as Chalin describes.
The word soul is not used lightly. There’s a lot of joy in this family that’s undergirded by a strong faith, which has served them well in the good times and the bad. To say this is a resilient bunch is the very definition of understatement.

In 2004, the Delaune family bought their current processing plant and completed major renovations to change it over from a produce plant to a seafood plant, but the next year Hurricane Katrina ravaged the 20,000-square-foot facility located right off the Jordan levee on the Industrial Canal.

They managed to save some wet documents and personal things like birth certificates, passports, any kind of I.D., and insurance papers. “We got the stuff out and had to carry it over our heads, through the water, up the levee, and when we got home, we spread all the papers out on a driveway and used a hair dryer to dry everything,” recalls Tommy.

Product loss and accounts receivable loss cost the company $2.5 million. And then came another leap of faith: close or keep going.
“We only had a decision to keep going,” he says. “There wasn’t any other decision. Closing our doors for good wasn’t an option.”
Resilience and their deep faith led the family through Hurricanes Gustav, Ike, and Isaac. When hit hard in 2010 with the BP oil spill, it was the family’s faith that yet again carried them through.

Chalin knows the business inside and out. His knowledge of the industry is impressively extensive, evidence that he has paid attention to Tommy’s guidance over the years and has gleaned from his father’s passion for an industry whose voice matters significantly when it comes to standards and regulations that affect the seafood business on a daily basis.

“Our workforce is our best equipment,” Chalin says. “We have employees who are dedicated day in and day out to make sure they are doing the best possible job to provide the best possible product from a reliable source. Quality and consistency are our strengths.”

Chalin considers his family and the business as not only a source of product and income, but of strength and energy. “We have to make sure we are good examples to our employees, which in turn creates a healthy work environment with people giving 100 percent.”

And while he is hesitant to talk about it, the family believes heavily in the spirit of paying it forward. After the recent Louisiana floods, Tommy’s Seafood donated more than 50,000 pounds of fish and shrimp — enough to feed over 100,000 people — who had to seek shelter. They are heavily invested in their home state, and to fishermen far and wide. “We are resilient when we are united,” says Chalin.

Tommy’s Seafood distributes nationwide, and their network is vast, both in terms of sourcing and distributing. “We sell more local shrimp, crab, oysters, fish and crawfish than anyone on the Gulf Coast,” says James, Rouses Seafood & Meat Director. “Tommy’s helps makes that possible.”

“We have such deep respect for Rouses’ commitment to family and community,” says Tommy. “Their support and partnership has given us the experience we needed to grow our company, and the seafood industry the support it needed, especially in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast.”

Tommy firmly believes quality begins at the source, a belief he says the Rouse family shares. “By only accepting the best and freshest seafood, we not only provide a superior product to our customers, but also do our part to support the local economy, just as Rouses does. Like us, they have weathered many storms and stuck with us in good times and in bad.”

Tommy’s Seafood trucks showcase the Rouses logo, a display of gratitude for the relationship rooted in promoting local products in communities. “When we pull up to a dock, we are happy to show the fishermen that we are there to pick up the fruits of their hard labor on behalf of Rouse’s, products that are high-quality always.”

This holiday season, Tommy’s Seafood will once again supply the delicious seafood — crabmeat, shrimp, and oysters — that are staples in many holiday dishes.

The Raw Materials

Tommy’s Seafood shucks and packs Rouses’ private label oysters. It is a particularly good time of year for their oyster supply, which accounts for approximately one-third of their business. They source the majority of oyster from friends Chalin has known since childhood, another legacy of fathers and sons working together.

“It’s another story of strong networking with oyster fishermen we have sourced from for years from St. Bernard, Barataria and Grand Isle,” says Chalin. “It is friends of mine who learned the business from their fathers, just as my brothers and I have. And it is the personal combined with the business relationships we have that allows us to emphasize offering the best product possible.”
He describes the difference in the oysters they bring to market being the result of the way the fishermen raise them.

“They make sure the oysters are growing in the best possible environment, not too salty, not too fresh,” he says. “And they will move the oysters to different waters in order to make the oysters grow better, yield better.”

Once the team at Tommy’s Seafood shucks the oysters, they send the shells back to the fishermen so they can place them back in the water for new oysters to grow. “This ensures that we always have a steady supply of plump, delicious Louisiana oysters, and now with the fall season back, oysters will once again reach their best potential.”

The Reel Deal

The workdays can be long, but Chalin does not mind. He will often end the day with a meal made in the warehouse kitchen, featuring fresh oysters or shrimp, fresh off the docks from earlier in the day. He describes it as quality control.

“I especially like it when we can send our employees home with a little bit of something to show how much we appreciate them,” Chalin says.

“It is all about a good attitude and good outlook in life, and taking care of our responsibilities to our communities and our industry,” says Tommy. “On the Gulf Coast, seafood is second nature to us. It’s not just another job and it’s so much more than a career: being in the seafood industry is a way of life.”

The company’s old box tops were emblazoned with a psalm that read, “Those that go down to the sea in ships, they do business in great waters. These behold the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep.”

“That was our insignia, our emblem for years and years, a simple acknowledgement of God’s abundant blessings,” says the elder Delaune. “That’s important to me. I feel our lifetime here is a tenure of stewardship or responsibility for something that’s been entrusted and put in our hands. In this case, we are stewards of natural resources. It’s not just a trade or skill that’s handed down from father to son; it’s a legacy of our culture and heritage.”