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In 1975, Tom Trumper was working as a diver for oil fields in Louisiana, but pursued Judy, the woman who would become his wife, out to Southern California. He saw a help wanted ad for sea urchin divers, and after his first trip out, he never went back to the oil rigs. At that time, only 20 guys were diving and the range was limited to southern California, from San Diego to Pt. Conception. The yen was strong in Japan and overnight shipping had just become possible, so markets over there were clamoring for California sea urchin.
“California has the best uni in the world, due to our kelp situation,” Tom said. “Sea urchin will eat anything—beer cans, rocks, you name it. But the ones that eat kelp are by far the best. We only harvest from kelp beds.”
In 1999, Tom co-founded Pacific Rim Seafood in Ft. Bragg, which he now runs with his daughter, Autumn. That year, the price from Japan was soft, and so they had to cut out the middlemen. In many seafood supply chains, there can be as many as 5-7 buyers before a product makes it to the market. In order to break this chain, he needed to create a domestic market.
Tom and Judy loaded 14 trays of uni in their VW bus and drove to San Francisco. By this time, sushi bars were ubiquitous in the city, and chefs loved their uni. Tom and Judy met with customers and gave samples and talks in the restaurants. Then Tom noticed that chefs who bought on a Monday were still serving their uni on a Friday.
“Before I became a processor, it took the distributors 5 to 7 days to deliver it. By that point it gets a strong, yucky flavor. By cutting out the middlemen, we could get it out much fresher," Tom told me. So they started bi-weekly deliveries to San Francisco. “People eat our uni two days out of the water,” he said. “It’s a huge difference.”