Alaska News

Unalaska captain gets grant to try making fish franks on St. George

Soon, an order of fish and chips may come with kraut, mustard and a bun.

Last month, the Aleutians-Pribilof Islands Community Development Association awarded $1,000 to an Unalaska boat captain for his idea to produce pollock fish frankfurters on the remote island of St. George.

Iceland native Kristjan Laxfoss has lived and worked in the Aleutians for 34 years, and was selected as the first-prize winner in the Aleutian Marketplace Competition on Dec. 15. The competition intends to support entrepreneurial innovation in far Southwest Alaska, and is sponsored jointly by APICDA and the Aleut Corporation.

For Laxfoss, the business idea offers an opportunity to reach out to a community in need of an economic lift.

St. George has fallen on hard times in recent years. Until the late 1990s, the primary income source for the island's 200 or so residents came from crab processing. When the catch allotment fell, "it had a dramatic negative effect on the St. George population," said Nathan McCowan, president and CEO of the St. George Tanaq Corporation.

Many people left to find work elsewhere, and today the number of residents on the island hovers around 70.

St. George, part of the Pribilof Islands, lies 35 miles south of St. Paul and a full 250 miles from Dutch Harbor.

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While processing cod in the harbor in 2008, Laxfoss recognized the toll that depopulation was taking on the island. His business idea is a way to bolster the local economy and bring people back.

"I want people to work, and come home," Laxfoss said.

His pollock fish frank idea comes from a family recipe for "fish balls," and Laxfoss assures that his franks are nothing like typical hot dogs.

"This is top-quality," he said.

The franks contain only certified Alaska-caught, sustainable pollock and no artificial ingredients. Everyone who has tried them, he says, has said they are delicious, though at first the name caused some confusion.

"The first time (APICDA) got in contact with me, they asked if I was going to produce dog food. I said, no -- let's just call it Captain K's Fish Franks," said Laxfoss.

He is also proposing to produce a "fish chip," similar to a potato chip, where the fish is dried and sprinkled with sea salt.

"They're crunchy, but if you lay them on your tongue, they melt right away," said Laxfoss.

He says St. George is the perfect place for production, since they already have a warehouse facility built. Laxfoss anticipates between $150,000 and $600,000 will be needed to modify the space and prepare the warehouse. He says that the plant would initially provide five to seven jobs, but could increase exponentially if product demand grows.

McCowan also thinks the island would be a good location for the project. The island's goals revolve around rejuvenating the harbor, and he sees this type of entrepreneurship as essential to the region.

"We are open to any good ideas that come across the table," McCowan said.

McCowan believes the biggest obstacles to the project will be distribution and marketing.

"What appetite -- excuse the pun -- does the market have for pollock hot dogs?" he asked.

The APICDA/Aleut Corp. $1,000 award is just the first phase in an effort to establish an annual business development competition for the region.

The second phase of the competition opened on Jan. 15 and invites both current and former residents to submit business ideas.

Along with first, second and third place prizes, a former resident's idea will be selected for a $500 prize. Winners will be announced at the APICDA community conference in May. The deadline for entries is March 13.

The third phase of the competition will open this fall at the Aleut Corporation annual meeting. A joint award of $20,000 will be given by the Aleut Corp. and APICDA to the winning entrant who submits a full business plan. The two groups hope to make the Aleutian marketplace business idea competition an annual award.

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The award does not assist in specific infrastructure support to enact the winning proposals, but APICDA's chief administrative officer Gary Chythlook hopes it will create more interest in small business development in the Aleutians.

"We're causing enough of a stir in interest that hopefully they will be able to make contacts with funders to support their ideas," Chythlook said.

For the moment, there's no date set for implementing Laxfoss' idea, and $1,000 may not finance much of the startup cost for fish frank operations.

Market research needs to be conducted and production logistics still need to be addressed. Still, Laxfoss has a boat that can enter the harbor, St. George has an empty warehouse, and everyone seems to agree that the island could use an economic boost.

APICDA has indicated that they would be open to a conversation with Laxfoss about developing further infrastructure if his idea does take form.

If the idea comes to fruition, Laxfoss intends to eventually turn the entire operation over to the island residents.

"That's what the thing is about," he said. "To get people working in St. George, and to get them to come back."

While no date has been set for getting started, both Laxfoss and the people of St. George remain hopeful that they can find a way to improve the island's economy.

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"If people can see a way to build a life for themselves and their children, they would return," said McCowan.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

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