The Aleutian Marketplace contest was designed to gather ideas and provide funding for new start-up businesses around the Bering Sea.
As the competition heads into its second round, one winner is asking for extra support — and a chance to turn his recipe for success into the real thing.
There’s an old saying when it comes to business: The best ones don’t just sell a product. They solve a problem.
That’s what Unalaska-based Capt. Kristjan Laxfoss set out to do with his idea for a new kind of snack.
“I really learned it from my mom when she was doing — we call it in Iceland ‘fish balls,'” Laxfoss says. “Well, that gets people here blushing. It’s called Captain K Fish Franks. But it’s just like a hot dog.”
Instead of beef or pork, cheap white pollock from the Bering Sea is smoked and wrapped up in casing.
Laxfoss thinks it could be a hit in countries like Japan, where there’s bigger demand for hot dogs and seafood on the menu.
But more than a gap in dining options, Laxfoss says he’s trying to address a long-running problem in the Pribilof community of St. George.
There’s been almost no economic activity on the island — even after the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association built a brand-new fish plant.
“I come there and I see that new building and I ask them, ‘What are they doing with it? What’s in there?’ They said,’Nothing,'” according to Laxfoss. “The little wheels up here in the top start working and I say, ‘I’m going to see what I can do about that.'”
He formulated a plan to turn the empty building into a factory and churn out fish franks. The concept took first place in the inaugural Aleutian Marketplace contest this January.
Gary Chythlook helps run the competition for APICDA and the Aleut Corporation.
“From the feedback that I received from a couple of the judges, they believed that it was an innovative idea, sustainable because of use of a local resource — pollock — and also with the ability to create jobs,” Chythlook says.
For that, Laxfoss got a thousand-dollar check. Later in the year, judges will start evaluating detailed business plans – and the purse will increase to $20,000.
But even if he won again, Laxfoss says it wouldn’t be enough to get started: “You’re gonna need forklifts, you’re gonna need freezer containers and all kinds of stuff — I would say between $1 and 2 million.”
Laxfoss doesn’t have that kind of money. And neither does St. George. Since the island’s crab processor shut down about a decade ago, jobs have dried up and the population’s dropped to just 80 people.
“We’re surrounded by seafoods,” says mayor Pat Pletnikoff. “Unfortunately, we just don’t have the ability to take advantage of those resources and so we look to APICDA to assist us in that regard.”
As a community development quota group, APICDA is meant to take some of the wealth generated by the seafood industry and direct it back into towns along the Bering Sea.
Seafood franks wouldn’t fix St. George overnight. But Laxfoss and Pletnikoff are making the argument that they’re worth some extra funding from the CDQ group.
“We felt that it was important for the community because at the very least we’d get something going,” Pletnikoff says. “And certainly, it offers the prospect of expansion.”
“We’re ready to do our part,” says Larry Cotter, the chief executive officer for APICDA. “But you know, it has to make sense and everybody’s got to step up to the plate.”
Cotter says the organization hasn’t overlooked St. George or ruled out investment in local business. Building a new fish plant was supposed to be a step in that direction. But Cotter says there’s a reason why it’s never been filled.
“The key to making St. George work is having a workable harbor,” Cotter says. “We currently don’t have that.”
The facility is vulnerable to storms and tough to access — even in good weather. Getting the harbor back in shape would cost about $30 million.
Cotter says APICDA can cover a third of that price tag, if the state and federal governments split the rest. With such a large deficit in Alaska’s budget, it’s not clear when the state could make that kind of commitment.
For now, APICDA will continue looking for sources of funding to repair the harbor. But Kristjan Laxfoss wants to move forward without it.
He says it’s possible to set up shop in St. George, as long he can find an investor willing to take the leap — and start feeding the island’s economy back to health, one frank at a time.