When a die-hard patriot thinks of America, he thinks of baseball, Mom’s apple pie, amber waves of grain, canned tuna fish…. Canned tuna fish? Well, if Robert Allen, 38, has his way, that’s how the list will read. Allen is the big fish behind American Tuna, the first new national brand of the seafood staple to hit supermarkets in 30 years. In case its star-spangled label doesn’t plug his message clearly enough, all Allen’s ads and sales materials boast that his tuna is packed in the continental U.S.A. by red-white-and-blue-blooded Americans. “There are an awful lot of people out there who care about buying American,” says Allen, who now ships 168,000 cans a day to 22 markets in 25 states. “I call this a tuna with a purpose.”
Sorry, Charlie, but you and other tuna celebs like the bumblebee just can’t swim in the same U.S. waters. Faced with competition from foreign imports and the government’s refusal to raise tariffs, every surviving U.S. tuna cannery has moved overseas, mainly to Puerto Rico, Japan, the Philippines, American Samoa and Taiwan, during the past three years. Allen says 5,000 jobs disappeared in Southern California alone, where starting wages are over $7 an hour compared with $2 to $3 a day overseas. As a vice president at C.H.B. Foods, Inc., a processed foods packager, he thought he could appeal to chauvinist emotions by running America’s only tuna cannery on Terminal Island, Southern California’s once-bustling tuna district near San Pedro. Last March 1,400 laborers—all of whom agreed to a temporary salary $1 below hourly union wages—began shipping American, primarily to New York City, one of the nation’s top tuna-eating towns. The stuff sold so quickly that Allen launched a $4 million ad campaign and went national.
Allen hopes other companies will follow his lead. “Television, shoes, shirts—all of these industries have left this country. If you take that to its logical extension, we’ll all be selling hamburgers to each other. We won’t be producing anything else.”
Because his prices are as low as the brands that sell at least seven times as much fish, Allen hasn’t turned a profit yet. But he has one edge on his competitors: Some unions are urging members to use his product. “If we called it Bob’s Tuna,” concedes Allen, “probably nobody would have bought it.” As it is, the patriotic pitch may yet tip the fish scales in his favor.