Couple Built Seafood Business From the Beach Up
By Arla Shephard, Mason County Life
In the early years of d.d. DeNotta Seafood, owner Caron DeNotta would comb the beaches of Hood Canal with a helper eight months out of the year, no matter the weather.
“We worked through the winter, and I just remember sitting there in the kitchen, dreading going outside in the cold,” DeNotta reminisced. “It was really hard work, but fun to establish something from ground zero.”
In 10 years, DeNotta has grown her business selling wholesale clams and oysters from a small seasonal operation that brought in $70,000 a year to a $2 million company that employs eight people and ships up to 35,000 dozen shellfish products per month to 30 states.
“We went from being teeny-tiny to huge,” she said. “It kept snowballing and growing and growing.”
DeNotta, whose maiden name is Zech, grew up along Hood Canal with her parents and five siblings, but she never envisioned entering the shellfish industry.
As a girl, she and her siblings worked at the old Chevron gas stop along the canal, and people still recognize DeNotta today from working there.
“It was really fun to grow up on the canal,” DeNotta recalled. “I love it here.”
DeNotta studied at the University of Puget Sound, married her first husband and lived in Gig Harbor for a decade, but in 2000, after undergoing several personal hardships and a life-changing experiences, she found herself back at the canal wondering what her next step would be.
Duane DeNotta, her husband now for the past 12 years, suggested she certify their beach for commercial harvesting and start a shellfish business.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you harvest the beach and dig clams?’” Caron DeNotta said. “I thought he was joking. I was 40 years old and had a college degree.”
Despite having reservations, DeNotta started her business, harvesting from a local spit.
“My kids had high school friendswho would come and dig over the summer,” she said. “We just did it seasonally and it was really fun.”
For six months around late 2006 and early 2007, the couple decided to lease equipment and space from a local seafood company, to see if they could branch out.
After six months, the DeNottas decided they could do it on their own.
“We really developed during that transition,” Caron DeNotta recalled. “We learned the business, started purchasing equipment and hiring people. It was actually really scary hiring someone full-time. You become responsible for their paycheck.”
Mike Looney of Pacific Seafood in Mukilteo became DeNotta’s mentor, taking her under his wing and teaching her everything there was to know about selling wholesale shellfish.
“I knew nothing,” DeNotta said. “He taught me everything, from how to label our product to how to ensure the best quality. He just trained me up perfectly. Now our product is circulating in 30 states.”
Even though she knew little about the industry, DeNotta felt inspired to push on with her business because of what her personal hardships had taught her.
“I felt there was a divine path for me to continue,” she said. “It was hard work, but it came easy at the same time because I had the grace to do it. Every step of the day, the Lord has been with me, just doing this with me.”
Over the past 10 years, the company has experienced setbacks that have also taught DeNotta some lessons—in 2013, she had to recall all the company’s oysters because of the bacteria Vibrio parahaemolyticus.
“Because of our record keeping, I had to pay for that out of pocket,” she said. “That launched a whole new level of performance and record-keeping in our company. It was painful, but we learned a whole bunch.”
More recently, d.d. DeNotta has been a leader in creating a master tribal harvest plan with the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes, ensuring that the tribes receive their share of the shellfish harvested on private tideland leases, as determined by treaty rights in the 1890s.
“It’s a complicated process,” DeNotta said. “It hits homeowners hard. As painful as it has been to negotiate, we’re finally in a great relationship with the Skokomish Tribe especially.”
The company harvests out of about 170 parcels of private tidelands throughoutHoodCanal, which allows them to have quality product even when one area of the canal is compromised for health reasons.
The Department of Health regularly tests waters and shellfish for harmful bacteria and alerts shellfish growers.
“Unless you’re diversified, working with other farmers and on private lands and tribe lands, you won’t be able to stay open,” DeNotta said. “This industry is really hard to predict and there are many factors you can’t control.”
The ability to stay sustainable and control the quality of its product is what keeps DeNotta Seafood profitable, she said. “We are constantly adding equipment to make us even more efficient. The quality comes through with our time to temperature control,” she continued.“We harvest at 5 or 6 a.m. and get them in the cooler before it’s 70 degrees out. If you can’t meet the window, then you got to wait.”
DeNotta values her relationship with her customers.
“I had a call at 4 p.m. last night asking if we had any clams,” she said. “In this case, we drove out to Seattle to deliver them. We pretty much jump when our clients want us to.”
Hopefully in the next 10 years, her business will only continue to grow,DeNotta added.
“We work with the homeowner to do only what the homeowner wants,” she said. “We work with the distributors to be as absolutely dedicated to as close to perfect as we can get.”