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Consulting Firm Not Just Another Fish Story

Pike Place Fish Market owner John Yokayama is in demand to share his thoughts on employee loyalty and customer satisfaction.

October 08, 2000|REKHA BALU | FAST COMPANY

It's 9 a.m. on a Saturday in Seattle, and, as usual, a big crowd is watching the show at Pike Place Fish Market. Bear, a boom box of a man wearing fluorescent-orange scrubs, is hurling a 6-pound Copper River sockeye salmon to fellow fishmonger Andy Frigulietti, who snags it with one hand, much to the crowd's delight, and delivers it into the arms of a waiting customer.

The flying fish are clearly a hit with customers--and with tourists, who flock to the market to experience the show. Lately, though, Pike Place has attracted other visitors as well--from companies such as Alaska Airlines and Marriott.

Why the interest from big-name companies? Because the fishmongers love their jobs. Pike Place has established a reputation for having a creative environment that fosters intense employee loyalty as well as customer satisfaction. Pike Place even inspired "Fish!," a best-selling corporate-training video made by ChartHouse International Learning Corp. two years ago that has since spawned several additional tapes. Now, besieged by requests from managers, Pike Place owner John Yokoyama has spun off a new venture, Pike Place Biz Futures Consulting, so that he can pass along some of his fish wisdom.

Not that the market's formula for success is very complicated: "We want to give employees and customers the best experience they've ever had," says Yokoyama, 60, who has owned Pike Place for 35 years.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 15, 2000 Home Edition Work Place Part W Page 3 Financial Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Pike Place--The name of Pike Place Fish Market owner John Yokoyama was misspelled in a headline in last week's Work Place.

"They are experts in humanity," said Kathy Crabtree, director of training for Marriott's Courtyard division, the company's line of casual, affordable hotels. Crabtree learned about the market when she saw one of the "Fish!" videos. An impromptu dinner with the fishmongers confirmed what Crabtree, 34, suspected to be the secret of the market's success: "These guys reminded us that business is really simple. Friendly is friendly, whether it's with other employees or customers."

In his role as fishmonger-turned-consultant, Yokoyama, along with his corporate-training partner, Jim Bergquist, 53, has spoken to employees at Alaska Airlines and Incyte Genomics, a medical devices start-up in Palo Alto, about how to unite employees.

The subjects of the classes may change, but the message is always the same: It's all about possibility. Rather than staying behind the counter and seeing the limitations of employee behavior, sales or products, step outside, say the consultants.

They're not making this stuff up. Just last January, which is typically a slow month in the fish business, Yokoyama suggested cutting back on workers' hours in order to cut costs. The fishmongers balked and took him to task--not just for threatening to cut their hours, but for thinking negatively. And then they got to work: They dug up the phone numbers of everyone who had mail-ordered fish last year from Pike Place and started telemarketing. Pike Place's January sales hit a record high this year.

But the market's employee philosophy is not just about dreaming big. Yokoyama believes that if you want to keep a lid on employee defections, you must give people a good reason to come to work. Work should be fun, especially if individual tasks are less than inspirational. At Pike Place, that translates into fish flinging.

Of course, that probably wouldn't work at Marriott. No matter: "We have a lot of associates whose personal lives are difficult, but they come to work because it's a positive environment," Crabtree said. Creating a workplace in which the staff is valued and respected is what it takes to win in the war for talent. Just ask Doug Strauss, who started working at Pike Place when he was 18. After having put in more than seven years of 12-hour days at the market, today Strauss has a master's degree and four children, and he just started teaching eighth-grade math in September. He still works at the fish market one day a week during the school year and three days a week during the summer.

"I'll never leave, because I have a commitment to John," Strauss said. "He's helped me create these opportunities."

And because employees are so invested in Pike Place, Yokoyama said, he doesn't have to worry about business while he's on his consulting adventure. In fact, he visits the market only an hour a day. "Now the employees . . . tell me how things work," he said. "It's great."

E-mail John Yokoyama at, or visit the Pike Place Fish Market on the Web ( For information on the "Fish!" videos, visit

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