Witnessing the rapport between Antonio Estadella and his son, Gabriel, one might never suspect that they are work colleagues. Their dynamic is unequivocally that of father and son. The playful bickering, the jocular back-and-forth of teasing and self-deprecation — it’s the kind of closeness that needs no verbal affirmation; it’s there and it’s palpable. Antonio and Gabriel’s familial propinquity is a central component of their family business, Sau-Sea, a seafood product company that is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. In an age when many Fortune 500 companies shutter after 15 years, perhaps keeping it in the family is the key to longevity.
When asked about how he feels about the big milestone, Antonio laughs and says, “I didn’t expect that I would be around for the 70th, but I am, so there.” Sau-Sea was founded in 1948 by his father-in-law, Abe, along with a partner, Ernie, based on the market-disrupting concept of shrimp cocktail in a jar. “Shrimp cocktail in those days was a big luxury,” Antonio explains. “So when my father-in-law and his partner came up with the idea, it was to make it affordable for [the masses].”
Abe and Ernie started by making cocktail sauce in a bathtub and hand-filling each jar with shrimp. Their signature product was an instant hit and, as hoped, shrimp cocktail became more than a restaurant delicacy; it could now be enjoyed at home at the supper table or in front of the TV. For the next few decades, business was robust, allowing Abe and Ernie to move from the bathtub to a garage store to a proper factory in Yonkers, NY.
Next, the company expanded their product line to include frozen shrimp and seafood sauces, like classic cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, and mustard. But after gradually solidifying themselves as a sauce brand, Sau-Sea was forced to discontinue its beloved inaugural product about five years ago, as more and more supermarkets ceased to include glass containers in their seafood cases.
Sau-Sea’s shrimp cocktail in a jar is now considered a novelty item, one that elicits deep nostalgia, according to a contingency of shrimp-loving baby boomers online. Some loyal customers have even listed the intricately crafted glass jars, which sometimes featured sea horses or ship’s wheels and begged to be repurposed (Antonio says people often used the jars to drink orange juice), on their Etsy shops as collectibles.
Today, Sau-Sea is helmed by Antonio and Gabriel, who are president and vice president, respectively. With their operations based in Southampton, Long Island, it’s impossible not to be influenced by their surroundings. “Long Island has such a strong seafood culture and fresh fish, so it really helps when we’re thinking of inspirations for new products,” Gabriel says. “Getting all this wonderful fresh, local fish and shellfish leads us to think, ‘What can we make that would work with stuff that we buy and make at home?’”
As they enter into this milestone year, Antonio and Gabriel reflect on how they’ve been able to keep Sau-Sea a family business for seven decades. Antonio took over for Abe about 25 years ago while newest member Gabriel joined in 2016, leaving a decade-long career as a lawyer. “I asked him why don’t you give it a shot? Come over here for a year. If you don’t like it, you leave. And if I don’t like it, you leave too,” Antonio says with a laugh. Perhaps all family businesses should come with a trial period. “You get involved in a family business,” Antonio says, “you get deeply involved.”
With a veritable, well, grocery list of new developments on his agenda for Sau-Sea, it seems Gabriel is liking his new position in his family business just fine. What’s next for the company? “We’re going to be coming out with a meat brand,” Gabriel announces. Think sauces meant to accompany meat, but more unique than barbecue sauce. Though they have yet to reach a consensus on a name, Gabriel throws “Juicy Pants Meats” into the conversation as a contender. He is probably joking, but his deadpan delivery would make anyone second-guess.
In addition to the meat sauce line, Antonio and Gabriel talk of reviving the company’s once-active status in the community. Back when Sau-Sea manufactured out of Yonkers, the local marathon would pass by their factory, so company members would set up a stand to hand out water and Sau-Sea t-shirts. One year, in the ‘80s, Sau-Sea sponsored the Great Schooner Race in Penobscot, Maine. Last year, Sau-Sea started donating products to homeless shelters. “It’s not like we’re saving lives or anything,” Gabriel says, “but we’re helping a little bit by donating.”
And then there’s the matter of Sau-Sea’s big 70th anniversary, which Antonio and Gabriel see as an opportunity to rebrand the company. “We’re coming out with new labels,” Gabriel says. “We just started social media. We’re redesigning the website. We’re giving the company a facelift.” But it won’t be all business. Gabriel assures, “We’re going to have a celebration of our 70th year.” There might even be a contest “where we’re going to ask the public to come up with names for our new sauces.”
So when I ask Antonio again how all of this makes him feel, his answer is remarkably less morbid.
“I feel great,” he says. “I feel revitalized.”