At the Helm of Vertical Integration
Quality, price, and customer service are key factors in any successful food business. For Tony Wood, they are the driving force in his mission to bring the best quality Bristol Bay sockeye to his customers at the best price. With his wife, Heather Huffman, Tony owns and operates Wild Alaska Salmon and Seafood. Their tagline states: “No Middle Man, Direct to You from the Fisherman.” Indeed, this team sits at the helm of a fully integrated artisan operation.
Tony hails from Illinois and as a teenager, he visited Alaska with his family. He fell in love with the state and returned every year to work at a lodge. After earning an aviation degree from Southern Illinois University, Tony returned to King Salmon and started his own sport fishing business with friends. In 2000, they closed the business, and Tony was asked to help on a friend’s commercial fishing boat. Shortly thereafter, Tony fell in love with the fishery and purchased the Oly.
From the beginning, Tony knew he wanted to create a vertically integrated operation that would allow him to catch, process, and sell his own catch. He didn’t want to sell his fish to processors. He also didn’t want to sell it to large corporations. He wanted to have control over the quality and sell it himself. Heather explained, “Commitment to Quality. That is one of the cornerstones of Tony’s mission. So, in 2007, we built our own processing facility where we are completely independent of any processor.”
One of the cornerstones of the operation is the Oly. Designed with a flat bottom, it gives Tony the independence he needs. Because he can pull up onto the beach, it allows him to control when he delivers his fish. Heather explained, “Tony is delivering twice daily to shore. It’s offloaded, brought right to our facility, and processed immediately…It’s all about handling it properly… Our fish, which is immediately bled and iced on the boat, is very beautiful fish. We definitely have more control. “
Working together, Tony and Heather manage all facets of the operations including the fishing, the processing, staffing, maintenance, marketing, and sales. They process fish for other fishermen and during the season, they ship their fresh sockeye directly to customers. At the end of the season, they ship their frozen product back to the Midwest and then sell it by mail, at farmers markets, and to longtime customers and retailers.
Tony and Heather’s commitment to quality brings repeat business year after year. Tony admits that it was extremely hard getting the business to where it is today, but he explained, “Having a product that you believe in and that everybody wants because it’s very very healthy…that makes it a great product to sell.”
Their product is now getting global interest, too. Tony recently got EU certification so he can sell fish directly from the King Salmon airport to Europe and beyond. He explained, “This will be the first year that I will be shipping to Paris to a fish broker. They found me. I’ve also made some contacts and will be shipping possibly into Ghana. They haven’t even seen it yet, they just want it.”
–Melissa A. Trainer