Alaska salmon finds place on restaurant tables

Posted: Thursday, September 30, 2004

A Long Island eatery served Alaska seafood to its patrons and Gov. Frank and Nancy Murkowski when they were in New York recently for the Republican National Convention.

Hearing the Murkowskis were coming to town, the Riverbay Seafood Bar and Grill in Williston Park, a village in the New York City suburb of Nassau County, purchased Alaska seafood at the Fulton Fish Market in Brooklyn, N.Y., and proposed the idea of a special promotion. The governor's office seized the opportunity, according to Becky Hultberg, Murkowski's press secretary.

"It's kind of a family-style restaurant," Murkowski said in an interview Monday. "Their food and beverage man drives to the Fulton Fish Market every morning about 4 a.m."

The evening on the town gave the governor an opportunity to extol the virtues of Alaska's wild seafood and deliver a brief history of the state's seafood industry to a roomful of guests, courtesy of the restaurant owner Dean Poll.

The event got coverage in the New York press. According to an article in the New York Times, diners feasted on Kachemak Bay oysters on the half shell, king crab claws with avocado and blood orange, and Moroccan-spiced Alaska king salmon.

"Everyone left the Riverbay Restaurant with a firm resolve to try to visit the beautiful pristine state of Alaska or at least to eat more Alaskan salmon," wrote Margaret Whitely, a writer for The Illustrated News.

Murkowski said there are significant marketing opportunities opening up that have not existed before, in part because of a growing transportation network.

"If we can get wild Alaska salmon on restaurant menus in New York as a wild product -- and not only salmon, but also halibut, black cod, crab and oysters -- then we'd really break in the idea that we have a premium product," he said.

The governor likened marketing Alaska's seafood fare to promotions by oil companies for their products at the pump.

"Those companies don't market three grades of gasoline for nothing," he said. "We have to be that so-called 'tiger in your tank,' a wild, well-cared for seafood product. You need good marketing, quality control and transportation. We are getting close to being there."

Alaska salmon producers generally serve wholesale markets. There is a niche to be tapped in supplying fish directly to restaurants, Murkowski said.

"We're discussing how the state can help ensure we have Alaska fish in the Fulton Fish Market," he said.

Some New York eateries already are well aware of the Alaska salmon's potential. Murkowski noted what he said was a competitive market for early Cordova kings because they are the first salmon on the market in the spring. Murkowski noted the success of local brands such as Copper River Kings and Kenai Wild, which are working to market a high-quality product.

Critical to successfully marketing Alaska salmon is quality control, he said.

"There is very much an opportunity to expand," Murkowski said. But success "is strictly related to quality. If you market something that's not good quality, the word gets out."

The Murkowski administration has been taking steps to boost the marketability of Alaska's salmon and seafood that include a $10 million matching grants program launched in 2003.

The Alaska Salmon Marketing Program is a key component of the multilevel, multiyear plan meant to increase productivity and innovation called the Salmon Revitalization Strategy, the governor said in a press release. The grant program has helped cover the costs of marketing and equipment upgrades, among other things.

In a press conference Monday, the governor, joined by Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz and NorQuest Seafoods President John Garner, talked about building consumer brand awareness.

"The Alaska wild salmon brand is making its way to high-end restaurants, retailers and homes of consumers across the nation," Murkowski said. "Through a creative matching grant program, the state is getting more bang for its marketing buck. The Legal Seafoods promotion demonstrates the success of this public-private partnership."

Berkowitz said demand is growing for wild salmon, and Legal Sea Foods Inc., which operates 30 upscale seafood restaurants in seven states, mostly in Boston, intends to buy and sell 200,000 pounds of Alaska wild salmon this year, 2 1/2 times what it did last year.

Garner said NorQuest, a division of Trident Seafoods, will employ 25 workers at its Ketchikan plant this off-season as the company begins to process a new Alaska salmon product to be marketed nationally under the Chicken of the Sea label. The new product will use more than 1 million pounds of pink salmon initially, which will be processed into skinless, boneless smoked portions packaged in a pouch, Garner said.

He added that the additional jobs in Ketchikan, along with Legal Sea Food's East Coast marketing efforts showed "a bright future" for Alaska salmon and hardworking fishers.

The Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development administers the Alaska Salmon Marketing Program.

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