Kowalski's Tells a Fish Story

Kowalski's Markets has, for the first time, run a full-page ad in the local newspaper describing how it buys Copper River salmon direct from a Cordova, Alaska, fisherman. The ad, which ran the first week in June, shows a photo of Kowalski's owner Jim Kowalski on a fishing boat in Cordova with fisherman Mike Poole, who has fished the Copper River for more than 27 years. Kowalski's contracts

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Kowalski's Markets has, for the first time, run a full-page ad in the local newspaper describing how it buys Copper River salmon direct from a Cordova, Alaska, fisherman.

The ad, which ran the first week in June, shows a photo of Kowalski's owner Jim Kowalski on a fishing boat in Cordova with fisherman Mike Poole, who has fished the Copper River for more than 27 years.

Kowalski's contracts directly with Poole to ensure that fresh Copper River salmon reaches its seafood departments in the form of fresh, boneless fillets within 24 to 48 hours after the fish has been taken from the water.

“There's a lot of education around the ad. We're trying to tell the story,” said Boyd Oase, meat/seafood director at eight-unit Kowalski's. “When our customers understand the difference, it puts the value [of the product] in place for them. I think, for us, it's the most important thing we can do.”

The ad, augmented by a loop of video tape that's shown on the family-owned independent's website and also in all of its seafood departments, points out that Poole catches, processes and packages the salmon and sends it by air directly to Kowalski's.

The ad copy, aside from underscoring that the direct buy ensures freshness, also points out that Poole employs sustainable fishing practices.

Oase pointed out that sustainability is important to Kowalski's. So is the fact that they're supporting family fishermen with small businesses. It fits, too, he said, with what consumers want these days.

“Alaska isn't local, but it's much the same concept as buying local — working directly with fishermen,” Oase told SN.

“They get a premium [price] for the fish, because their focus is on quality, and the extra work they put into it — and the result is a fresher, better product. Not only that, but our customers can feel good about what they're purchasing.”

Naturally, the full-page, colorful ad, which also featured a photo taken in a Kowalski's seafood department, announced that “Copper River Sockeye Salmon Is Here!” Then, below that, this line: “Freshest Catch in Town Guaranteed!”

The advertised retail price was $19.99 a pound.

Oase explained that the first catch of Copper River Sockeye was late this year due to weather conditions in Alaska. Coming after the Memorial Day Weekend as it did, the timing was good for retailers, because holiday-strength demand didn't push wholesale prices up.

“The first fish anybody saw last year was for Memorial Day, so it drove up prices. Sockeye started out at $21 last year. But as the season goes on, the price comes down.”

Oase went to Cordova two years ago with Jim Kowalski to see Mike Poole's operation firsthand, as well as those of a few other family-owned fishing businesses Kowalski's has contracted with.

“We saw the whole process, from beginning to end. We work with a seafood company out of Chicago that helped us develop these relationships with the fishermen,” Oase said.

“We're the only retailer in the Twin Cities that has this relationship, and in addition, we're also pretty structured into what we'll buy from the Chicago company and what we won't. We buy only from certain fishermen.”

Oase said Kowalski's hasn't changed its buying patterns. They've always tried to deal with local growers for produce and develop relationships with small, local businesses for other products.

“It's always been our philosophy. It costs us a little more to do what we do, but it certainly has a better economic impact on everybody — and results in a better-quality product.”

What has changed over the past few years is that consumers' demands to know more about the products they're buying have increased.

“We're just working harder now to educate consumers as to what we're doing, and have been doing,” Oase said.