FAIRBANKS - For most hungry Alaskans, reindeer meat doesn't represent much more than a spicy sausage link.
University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers want to know if there's more potential for the state's roughly 18,000 reindeer. A new market study is under way to see whether local consumers are interested in high-end cuts of reindeer, and to determine what they're willing to pay for them.
Greg Finstad, the manager of UAF's Reindeer Research Program, hopes to see a day when customers eagerly throw a petite reindeer steak on the grill.
"We're trying to establish the connection - the business relationship between the retailer and consumer," Finstad said.
UAF researchers began providing Home Grown Market with sides of reindeer last week to gauge demand for the product. The small Geraghty Avenue grocery, which specializes in locally grown foods, is offering reindeer steaks and ground meat.
The market study is expected to last for the next year. Throughout the process, Home Grown Market has agreed to open its books so UAF can determine the specific cost of selling the meat.
The reindeer isn't cheap - steaks are selling for $25 per pound - but they offer a local product that's been virtually impossible to find in the past.
Alaska's reindeer has almost all gone toward sausage, and even the choice cuts went into the grinder. Because of that, reindeer herders on the Seward Peninsula have little concept of the worth of a good reindeer steak.
"They're raising these reindeer, but they have no idea what their market value is," Finstad said.
Home Grown Market owner Jeff Johnson said sales have been modest in the first week, although they've grown each day. Even so, Johnson said his reasons for participating in the market study aren't purely financial. "In my opinion, it's not about making money - it's about helping an entire industry," Johnson said. "If we can get an entire industry going, all of us are going to benefit."
Finstad said the Reindeer Research Program isn't in a position to supply a large grocery store with meat, and that at this point it doesn't want to.
He's counting on a small store owner like Johnson to help provide customers with guidance on how to cook reindeer, which is an important step in promoting the meat.
"We need to educate the consumer," he said. "You can't do that with a large, impersonal grocery chain."
Both Finstad and Johnson rave about the flavor of reindeer, but say preparation is key. Finstad said people often cook reindeer like they would beef, which almost always ends with disappointing results.
Johnson compared reindeer to lamb, with a rich, delicate flavor. He said a medium-rare preparation, with some grilled onions and minimal seasonings, seems to highlight it best.
Reindeer also is more affordable than it would initially appear, he said, since servings are petite steaks of 4 ounces or less.
"You're buying this because it's a unique flavor," Johnson said. "It's going to complement a good wine and some local veggies. It's not a big piece of meat to be the main attraction."
Finstad said reindeer is more nutritious than alternatives like beef, with high protein and low fat and cholesterol. He said it's among the most tender meats available, and has a flavor that's rich without tasting gamy.
The study requires a long-term commitment, Finstad said. He expects some customers will initially buy reindeer simply because it's a novelty, but said it's important to know if they'll come back for more.
If the market study is a success, Finstad said the Reindeer Research Program wants to shift the supply chain to Seward Peninsula herders. He said there are no long-term plans for UAF to become a commercial supplier of reindeer meat.
"We want to work ourselves out of a job," Finstad said.