Los Angeles Business Journal

Floundering Fish Importer Reels In Crucial Catch

By Alfred Lee Friday, June 6, 2014

When San Pedro seafood importer Contessa Premium Foods Inc. was put up for sale in April, the sharks were already circling. Potential buyers began touring its facilities the day the company announced its insolvency; within weeks, 32 parties expressed interest, from local competitors to celebrity chef Ina Garten, who had partnered with the company on a frozen-food line named after her “Barefoot Contessa” television program.

Now a winning bidder has emerged, and it is Vernon’s Red Chamber Group, one of the largest – and most secretive – seafood companies in the United States, with revenue estimated at $1.9 billion a year. Its name did not appear on the press release announcing the late May sale, which said the buyer was an affiliate of Seattle’s Aqua Star, known to be a Red Chamber subsidiary.

The sale marks a key acquisition for Red Chamber and the latest change in direction for Contessa, founded three decades ago by John Blazevich, a high-flying entrepreneur known for an extravagant Rolling Hills mansion with a five-story underground tennis court.

Contessa’s most attractive asset was for years a financial albatross. In 2008, Blazevich built a $40 million, first-of-its kind green manufacturing plant in Commerce. The building garnered major national press, including a feature on “CBS Evening News.”

But its high construction costs, together with declining sales in the midst of the recession, plunged Contessa into bankruptcy. Boca Raton, Fla., private equity firm Sun Capital Partners Inc. bought the company out of bankruptcy in 2011 for $51 million, but then ran into debt troubles of its own. Contessa was sold again late last month through an assignment for the benefit of creditors for $21 million. Industry experts said the company’s processing facilities, including the Commerce plant, are its most valuable assets.

Executives at Red Chamber and Aqua Star did not respond to requests for comment.

Steven Victor, senior consultant at Development Specialists Inc., the assignee that handled the sale, confirmed a Red Chamber affiliate had purchased the company.

“We had a lot of people to go through,” he said. “Theirs was the highest and best offer.”

Read the full story in the June 9 weekly edition of the Business Journal.