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Entrepreneur Al Thompson smiled broadly at the Montana tourist who scrutinized the sockeye salmon on display at Anchorage's downtown Saturday Market this summer and asked, "Are they fresh?"
"They were swimming yesterday," replied Thompson of Icy Bay Seafoods, a small family-owned business that has been selling out every week at the popular open-air market.
"I'll take 50 pounds," said the woman, who was shopping for a family reunion.
At $3.50 a pound for fresh salmon fillets, Icy Bay Seafoods has a lot of repeat customers lining up at the market and three other stands in Anchorage.
While Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishermen are competing for a finite harvest of about 16 million fish, and struggling to make ends meet with the 40 cents a pound they are being paid for the reds, Icy Bay expects to turn a profit this year of about $60,000, Thompson said.
Icy Bay smoked salmon, a winner in the Alaska Symphony of Seafood competition three years ago, is also a hot seller. One woman bought $300 worth, Thompson said.
Then there was the taxi driver Thompson befriended, who brought a visitor to purchase $350 worth of smoked salmon.
And that's not counting Internet orders to the Icy Bay Web site, www.alaskasmokedsalmon.net, from customers throughout the United States, Europe and Japan, he said. "We have a customer in Plano, Texas, who buys $700 to $800 in smoked fish for his best customers."
Randy Rice, seafood technical program director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said the Thompsons are in a very competitive market.
"There is tremendous diversity and sometimes very cheap competition," Rice said. "Sometimes people up here may enter into the fray not aware of the difficulties and risks out there."
But the Thompsons proceeded with caution, and their business is growing - from 5,000 pounds of fresh fish last year, to a goal of 35,000 pounds this year, said Thompson, a retired schoolteacher and biologist.
If all goes well, Icy Bay will net about $60,000 this year, said Thompson, who sees a good future for his sons in the precarious world of wild Alaska salmon sales.
"I'm kind of an entrepreneur at heart anyway," said Thompson, who banters with customers, asking where they are from and offering recipes.
When he's not packing fresh and smoked salmon and halibut, Thompson is fishing for salmon on the west side of upper Cook Inlet with son Michael, 23. His older son, Bill, 40, a marketing expert, handles inventory control, cost analysis and other marketing issues. Al Thompson's wife, Connie, does the books.
"We think of it like an inheritance," Thompson said. "We gave them this business and we'll help them develop it."
Thompson started fishing commercially eight years ago. For five years, the Thompsons sold their catch to processors.
"About three years ago, it became very obvious to me that the canneries were not going to let us make any money anymore," said Thompson. "Once the price got down below 80 cents a pound for reds, it was obvious we had to do something different."
After a day out on Cook Inlet, Al and Mike Thompson deliver the fish, iced and bled, to processor Dennis Albert, who cuts them. Smoking is done by Trapper Creek Smoking Co. in Anchorage.
"We do everything to try and keep overhead down," said Al Thompson, as he counted a day's catch of 86 salmon about a month ago. "The other day, we got 105." The Thompsons also buy salmon from other fishermen.
In the summer of 2002, with processors paying fishermen from 40 cents to $1.25 a pound for sockeye salmon, Icy Bay hoped to net $38,000 here before heading for the lucrative California winter market, Thompson said.
"Fishing is redefining itself right now, and nobody really knows for sure what the outcome is going to be," he said. But Thompson, who once taught business to high school students in Anchorage, is betting on a bright future for value-added wild fish.
Realizing the limits of the fresh salmon season in Alaska, the Thompsons ventured out to California in the winter of 2000, and found a whole new market for smoked fish.
"Price is not an issue, but quality and uniqueness is (in the Silicon Valley)" Al Thompson said. "These people read labels. If there are nitrates or antibiotics, they won't buy it. If we can get our product in their mouths, we've got a sale."
Icy Bay smoked salmon was a hot seller at the Santa Cruz flea market and farmers markets in San Jose, Santa Rosa and Livermore. Sometimes the Thompsons sold smoked salmon on the roadside, right out of the van. This year, sons Mike and Bill will do the California market, Thompson said.
Given their retirement income from years of teaching in public schools in Anchorage and the villages of Alaska's North Slope, Al and Connie Thompson chose not to draw any pay themselves at this time. But their sons do.
Bill Thompson, formerly vice president of a bowling and billiards company in the Philippines, said he enjoys working the Anchorage markets. Mike, initially shy about dealing with the public, found "it didn't take me too long to see that the product practically sold itself.
"I really enjoy the fact that I'm 23 years old and it's a burgeoning business I can call my own," he said. "It's exciting to work for yourself and watch the business grow."