Fisherman turned entrepreneur hopes Salmon Express catches on

Posted: Sunday, June 02, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- At a time in life when many people count the months until retirement, Les Burtner, 57, is starting over.

For three decades the Anchorage resident made his living pulling riches from the waters of Bristol Bay. The Missouri native, who hitchhiked to Alaska at age 19 and stayed, worked summers, traveled in winter and provided for his wife and four sons.

But the rise of foreign farmed fish and the collapse of Alaska's wild salmon industry threatened the comfortable life he'd built, and Burtner knew he had to change to survive.

Rather than accept defeat, Burtner, a self-described idea guy, reinvented himself from fisherman to entrepreneur. He read books on marketing, talked to the right people and hatched the idea of selling his catch directly to customers. But not a cold and scaly product filled with bones. Something hot and tasty that could be eaten on the go.

After bouncing ideas around for a while and experimenting with recipes, Burtner settled on what would be the cornerstone of his new approach to making a living: salmon quesadilla.

Two years later, the idea appears to be panning out.

''Have you got it figured out yet?'' asked Burtner on a recent afternoon, leaning out the window of his Salmon Express food trailer on Northern Lights Boulevard and addressing a middle-aged blonde in a black SUV.

She hesitated, trying to decide among the multiple seafood choices on Burtner's menu.

''You've got to try a salmon quesadilla. I almost insist on it. That way I know you'll be back,'' Burtner coaxed.

''OK, why not?''

Sold.

Indeed, the salmon quesadilla is killer. Composed of grilled red salmon, caught by Burtner's wife and sons, mashed with cheese, salsa and guacamole and pressed between two flour tortillas, the $4.95 quesadillas are Burtner's biggest seller. Dishes like halibut kabobs, grilled salmon burritos, salmon chowder, and lox and bagels round out the menu. He also serves lattes and mochas.

Before he could open Salmon Express in 2000, Burtner invested about $150,000 of his own money to launch the business. He's also received two state grants totaling $43,000 for marketing. One of Burtner's first steps toward entrepreneurship was buying the processing and freezing equipment needed to clean and prepare salmon onboard his fishing boat. The family flies the frozen fish to Anchorage, where Burtner and a handful of employees cook it for customers.

While Burtner stays in town to run the business, his wife and high school sweetheart, Judy, 57, and sons Garrett, 24, and Marcus, 30, do the fishing. Without his family, particularly his wife, Burtner said, Salmon Express wouldn't be possible.

''She does all the work. I just make the quesadillas,'' Burtner quipped to the SUV driver, as she waited for lunch to cook.

Besides his Midtown stand, Burtner also sells food at the Downtown Saturday Market in Anchorage and at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer.

His goal is to sell Salmon Express franchises and transition out of operating the food stands. The average cost of a franchise is around $36,000, Burtner said.

Glenn Haight, state fisheries development specialist, is among those impressed with Burtner's efforts and considers what he's done an example for the state's legion of struggling fishermen. Laura Fleming, public relations director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, called Burtner a pioneer. Marketing your own catch is an entirely different job from pulling it out of the ocean, she said. It requires a separate set of skills not every fishermen has or is interested in cultivating.

''You're wrapped up with your catch the rest of the year. It's 365 days a year and that might not be the ticket for everyone,'' Fleming said.

Although Burtner has added value to his catch, he still sells the bulk of it to Trident Seafoods. Of the 100,000 pounds the Burtners caught last year, Trident bought 80,000 as raw, whole fish, he said.

Besides Salmon Express, the family also runs an Internet-based retail and wholesale business called Lady Marion Seafoods. But the humble trailer in the gravel lot in Midtown is the jewel in Burtner's crown. Sitting at a wooden picnic table outside the trailer, Burtner gestured toward the melon-colored shack and elaborated on his future business plans.

''This is my research and development station,'' said Burtner, as succulent aromas of grilled seafood wafted from the kitchen.

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Distributed by The Associated Press



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