Decades after your first adventures in Alaska, you decided to start Kenai-Red Fish Company. Can you tell us how that came about?
Well, I realized at 50 that if I was ever going to do anything that connected me back to Alaska, I probably needed to do it then. Although I was interested in becoming a commercial fisherman back then, my wife and I ultimately decided that it wasn’t going to be the life for our family. We moved to Portland to have initial careers in commercial real estate and investment consulting, but Alaska and its way of life always stuck with me. All throughout my adulthood, marriage, raising three beautiful daughters, and having traditional white collar jobs in Portland, there was always this yearning to somehow be reconnected to Alaska. It’s interesting because it was a yearning not to just go and visit, but to have some more permanent connection to it.
When I was originally in Alaska, I worked with a gentleman named Bob Wolfe. He left college to Alaska with a dream of becoming a commercial fisherman. Well in his case, that’s exactly what he did. His boat was moored in Homer where he did summer salmon fishing. Bob and I talked all those years. His expression was always, “Skiffman! When are you gonna get back up here?!” and I’d say, “Bob, any day now. I’m workin’ on it.” That went on for… let’s just say 35 years or something like that. So when I had this moment of realizing that now is the time before it gets too late, I call Bob up. I’m in the first paragraph of explaining what I’m thinking and Bob says, “Skiffman. Get your ass up here!” So I walked home from work that day and called up my wife and asked what she thought. She said, “Yeah. I think you need to go for it.”
I had this idea at the time that there might be an opportunity to bring down this wonderful, wild Alaskan salmon to Portland. I knew what Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) was, and I wondered if there was such a thing in the fishing world. I explained that to Bob and he thought there would be or could be. To Bob, the advantage was that in this movement he would get paid more for his fish than he did in his traditional selling method of selling to the cannery where it’s viewed as a commodity. All the processing plants set the price of the fish per pound based on the supply and demand at that moment in time any given summer. That price would fluctuate, but in the eye of the commercial fishermen it was always very low. There were times fishermen might get $1.50 per pound but in the store in the lower 48 it was being sold for $15 per pound. Who’s making all that money?! Someone other than the fisherman… so for Bob this was a really cool idea. I was one of Bob’s deckhands that summer while we were debating the pros and cons not so much about what was going to happen in Portland, but how a guy like me was going to start this business with the idea that I couldn’t buy all Bob’s fish so he still had to sell some to the cannery. We wondered if the cannery would be upset if they heard about this and not buy from Bob anymore. In those days, and it’s still true today, for people like myself buying salmon from commercial fishermen, they sell to me very quietly. Now that our company has grown, we’re able to buy all the fish from some of our fisherman's catch. Bob is not one of our fishermen anymore because he opted to create his own Community Supported Fishery and sells in the Kenai Peninsula marketplace. Also, Bob fishes off of a boat and our preferred method today is the set netting method, where the fish are caught right next to shore. We’re then able to bring the fish very soon after they’re landed into the skiff—so there’s that Skiffman connection again. The magic of the Alaska journey I referred to earlier continues to play itself out in serendipitous ways. Around every corner, there’s some reconnection or an extension of what was occurring when I was around 19 through 23 or 24 years old. That’s part of the beauty of what’s going on today, why we continue to do this.
Any memories or stories that make you smile to think about?
Part of the beauty of what’s happening now are stories like the following. You remember that in those early days I was joined by my brother Wade Benson and my brother-in-law Mike Schwab. They were 19 years old and that was 1983. Those amazing experiences made a difference in us as adults going forward. Fast forward to today and my brother Wade is part of the company running two farmers markets in Spokane. He’s now brought his son into the farmers market world, who now after 3 years is running the market by himself. In my mind, he’s at the beginning of potentially having an experience like I did when I was his age. Mike Schwab recently joined the company as an advisor, and his daughter Julia is doing some part-time work for us as well. I started Kenai-Red with my daughter Allison, and now my daughter Rachael has also recently joined in a part-time role. It’s an amazing story, and it all comes back to Alaska. It’s all because of that experience that began in 1978. Now it’s being passed down generations. What more could a guy dream for?
I was going to ask what you love most about Kenai-Red next, and it sounds like that must be part of your answer.
It definitely is, and of course there’s even more that comes to mind. There’s certainly the family aspect of it. If you could be around us, you’d really understand how much happiness we all share as a result of having this business. The other aspect of it is the opportunity to provide our community with this incredible product from Alaska. The feedback we get from them after they’ve had a chance to make a meal from it and experience it is really special. So it’s not just us. It’s our members and our customers who love this and are a part of it. Another really important piece is how we are contributing to a better life for all of the fishermen we work with. They’re making a living wage as a result of our members. As we grow, we get to support more fishermen up there. The neat thing that’s happening today is that fishermen are calling us! They’re asking us if they can join our movement, and the answer is yes. As long as we can continue to get the word out to folks in our community that this seafood is an option.