Ninilchik processor still open

Posted: Friday, November 16, 2007

When Jeff Berger said last February he was closing his business, he was. But not permanently.

What Berger, owner of Deep Creek Custom Packing Inc. in Ninilchik, meant was he was closing his business for the winter.

"I'm trying to do a little rumor control," Berger said of his effort to let the public know the business is still a going concern.

Originally opened in 1960 by the late Tony Garroutte, Berger took over in 1986. Since then, he developed the it into a year-round enterprise that processes several million pounds of commercial- and sport-caught seafood products a year. In that small Kenai Peninsula community of less than 1,000 residents, Berger has been able to provide employment for as many as 130 people.

"We are and continue to be one of the largest employers in this village for the foreseeable future," Berger said. "We are very proud of this fact."

As a primary and secondary seafood processor, DCCP's crew headed and gutted the seafood. They canned, smoked, vacuum packed, froze and offered cold storage and overnight shipping. Their products were sold wholesale and retail. Fishermen could take advantage of unloading services in Ninilchik and Homer harbors, with a smaller operation also in Kenai. The Sport Shop, at the business headquarters near Deep Creek, carried tackle, bait, ice, food, gifts, some clothing and espresso.

None of that has changed, Berger is clear to point out, with the exception of no longer being a primary seafood processor heading and gutting.

"That's really the only difference," Berger said. "We're still a major buyer of halibut and salmon, with dock operations in Ninilchik and Homer and plant operations in Ninilchik. ... We just moved up to a higher level of production, needing more skilled people and then moving the operations into the summer months."

High fuel costs and overhead are driving the change, Berger said. So are changes in the fishing industry.

"We used to have cod in the wintertime delivered to Homer, but nowadays most cod goes into Kodiak, so we don't have that opportunity," he said. "That effects a large part of our change in operations."

Recruiting employees for the 2008 April-September season is at the top of Berger's to-do list. He anticipates needing 40-80 people to handle the commercial and retail business in Ninilchik, as well as the satellite location in Kenai.

"I think students are ideally suited for that type of thing. It may be an opportunity for on-the-job training and maybe college credits for working in a food production facility," he said, referring to DCCP's difference from being a traditional cannery with a slime line. "It's much more like any commercial kitchen."

Expanding relationships with the local charter fishing industry to include a profit-sharing program is part of Berger's plan.

"That's just an incentive for operators to deliver their fish to our facilities," Berger said, adding, "What a lot of people don't understand about DCCP is how much we do between the Sport Shop, retail and commercial operations. We're just a very diverse operation."

Now in the off-season, Berger continues to accept orders and ship products one day a week.

The news story that incorrectly reported Berger was permanently closing DCCP came after EPA fined the business for discharging seafood processing waste into the mouth of Deep Creek. Berger had been permitted for the discharge, but at the time the discharge took place, the permit had expired. According to Berger, EPA originally recommended a $50,000 fine. Information provided by EPA reflects a settlement of $10,500 was reached.

"I was pretty disgusted at the time, but never told (the newspaper) I was closing the facility forever," Berger said. "I just said we were closed for winter and that I had put the facility up for sale."

The "for sale" sign is still there, but until the business changes hands, Berger plans to keep things running.

"We have built this company for 22 years and we would like to scale back a little," he said. "It has not sold so far, and we will continue to operate until it does."

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