Web posted Thursday, September 1, 2011

Kodiak business relishes selling locally made pickled seafood

By James Brooks
Kodiak Daily Mirror


  Jars of pickled red salmon and king crab rest on a counter for customers to taste-test at Pickled Willy's in Kodiak.    

KODIAK (AP) — A new business on Shelikof Street is providing a fresh artery to deliver Kodiak seafood to gourmet restaurants and stores across the United States.

Pickled Willy's has been operating for just five weeks, but it was almost a year and a half in the making, said co-owner Barbara Hughes.

Hughes said she got the idea for the business from her uncle, Bill Alwert, a commercial fisherman who, like most others, was constantly at sea.

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Between trips, he would drop off salmon or crab at home and cure the meat with salt to preserve it. After the end of crab season, he'd pickle it and give the result out for Christmas gifts or simply trade.

It's a common practice, Hughes said.

"I watched it for years," she said, and each fisherman "thought they had the best."

She started believing her uncle when he traded a case of pickled crab for a case of scallops, which typically are far more valuable.

She began planning and worked with Alwert and Maureen Michele, who both signed up as co-owners. They worked closely with the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center to learn the best way to market and produce their pickled product.

"They were extremely helpful," Hughes said.

They named the business after Bill Alwert, taking a slightly humorous route at the suggestion of her husband, and came up with a logo.

She attended a Wharton Business School class on how to design a business plan and the group held taste tests around the United States to fine-tune their recipe.

They encountered some unexpected obstacles — including "finding a label that didn't come off the jar," Hughes said — and some expected ones, like paperwork.

Because the store packages food, it must be certified by the Alaska Department of Conservation as well as the federal Food and Drug Administration.

"All the paperwork involved is daunting; it's astronomical," she said.

But the work has paid off. In the first weeks, the store has been a smashing success.

"In five weeks, we've sold a lot," Hughes said. "We sent out 1,000 pounds this morning."

For Hughes, the job still involves getting the business off the ground. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, she was testing a new display cooler, which still remained empty. In the back of the store, raw materials were piled up and many countertops still had a new shine.

Pickled Willy's has one employee, Lisa Pulis, in addition to the owners, but Hughes said at the rate the business is expanding, more likely will be added soon.

In a brief period that afternoon, several people rattled the front door as they entered, looking for gifts for friends or themselves.

"I'm really surprised . it's really good," said Carline Berglund as she tried some pickled king crab.

The pickling process takes longest for sockeye salmon, which are salt cured for six weeks before pickling, while king crab is fastest and halibut and cod take about 90 days apiece.

Though some lead time is required to get the stock ready, "the town's full of fish," Hughes said, and she's not worried about running out.

As the business starts up, she said it's all a guessing game in trying to meet demand.

"We're constantly trying to forecast," she said.

Cost-Savers will begin carrying Pickled Willy's seafood shortly, and Hughes said the store has also been busy.

"We have days just selling here that match the cruise ships," she said.

So far, however, the big business has been providing retail and wholesale seafood to restaurants and gourmet groceries Outside. To that end, the young company is taking steps to market to more Lower 48 locations.

"We're going to go to the San Francisco Fancy Food Show," Hughes said, and she has other plans she is keeping confidential for now.

Though the company has its eyes on the Outside, its feet are firmly planted in Kodiak.

"We're adamant that it stays in Kodiak," Hughes said.

During the planning process, some people suggested they start the business in Washington or Oregon to take advantage of lower costs, but they were determined to stay on-Island.

"The name is on the label, it's from here," she said. "It's very important to us."