It's Not About the Fish. A Unique Customer Experience at Seattle's Pike Place Market

One of my favorite fresh food stands in Seattle is The Pike Place Fish Market just West of Downtown.  I love to stand and watch as customers begin to experience their offerings from the salt waters of Puget Sound, brought in fresh each day from the last original hunters and gatherers, the fishing fleet based in nearby Ballard.

The seafood is displayed carefully with great pride on ice.  Anyone who has been there remembers the colorful display of salmon, crab, shrimp, other finfish and bottom fish, and lots of Oysters.  If you wish to ship your prized purchase home, the Fish Market Guys will carefully wrap your 'catch', pack it in dry ice, and send it to your destination. 

But you can purchase seafood anywhere, most of the time for less than you'll pay at the Fish Market.  This experience is definitely not about the fish.  The real fun is the ‘show’, when a salmon is tossed from the counter out to the crowd.  A skilled 'catcher' receives the pass, and without even a stutter or blink, grabs the slippery fish and tosses it back to the counter.  It is a perfectly timed and choreographed movement between two skilled worker ‘performers’.  It’s all for show, and what a show it is.

Recently while visiting the Market, I stopped and chatted with fish guy Bill, (not his real name).  I wanted to know how they operated so well as a team, what some of their internal 'secrets' were that continued to draw large crowds every day, how they consistently delivered this experience.

Bill is part of a crew, most of whom have been with the Fish Market for over 20 years.  He mentioned bi-weekly meetings where they get together and share stories about what is going on in their lives, and how they can better help each other.  They participate in a bonus plan heavily incentivized towards teamwork, where everyone has a stake in the outcome.  He indicated they all enjoy working together.

It wasn’t always that way.  Years ago conflict on the team was handled usually by brawling and drinking.  They would work their differences out in the back alley with fists and beer.  Today that never happens.  He mentioned that each team member knows about each family member of the team mates.  It is a ‘family culture’. 

Bill contrasted that team experience with that of his wife, who works for a large e-commerce company located in the area.  Evidently she does not enjoy her job, and after six years of working in that company, is out looking for work elsewhere, anywhere, that would provide an employee experience in a more collaborative culture.  Her work environment is toxic, and she is expected to work 24/7. 

The Fish Market Culture is just the opposite.  The crew collaborates and develops their unique zany culture and they love what they do.  They could all work in other fish markets, or other food retailers, or even in an e-commerce company.  But they choose to work together tossing fish, having fun, and seeing happy customers leave with a smile. 

They are like family.  They care for each other, know and understand their co-workers strengths, and weaknesses, and each fills in for the other.  When they meet, they are talking mostly about what is going on inside their heads, instead of inside the company.  They know specifically what their job functions are, and they are cross trained so they can do each other’s jobs.  A couple of the crew are out front working the crowd.  Several are behind the counter working the cash register and scales.  One or two are packing boxes for shipment home.  They have a ‘dock’ appearance, but they truly care for the customer.  It all works to the good of the customer, who comes for and receives a terrific customer experience.

It is not about the fish.