This week on the final episode of The Homer Alaska Podcast I sit down with Claire Neaton and Emma Teal of The Salmon Sisters. These two real-life sisters co-founded the successful clothing, gear, and wild-caught Alaskan seafood brand and we talk about their new cookbook, how they started the company, their roles as ambassadors of Alaskan seafood, and the future of fish marketing.
I also talk about fishing in Cordova this summer, our new Instagram Live content, and sit down with Dr. Minda Morris, PT at South Peninsula Hospital.
(1:29) Intro, Fishing in Cordova, IG Live (12:56) SPH Rehab with Minda Morris (17:29) "The Salmon Sisters" Claire Neaton and Emma Laukitis
They just released a new book “Salmon Sisters: Feasting, Fishing, and Living in Alaska”
What inspired it? For their family catching and eating seafood and living in a world where fish is part of an identity it was hard for them not to make a book. They’d talked about making a cookbook for a long time and sharing their family’s recipes. They couldn’t just put a few recipes in a book without a cohesive story about their lifestyle and how Alaska seafood is caught and the fisheries are managed.
They also wanted to talk about how they cook on the boat and being resourceful with limited ingredients.
Emma put in a lot of work using old and new artwork, putting together infographics, and putting together this coffee table-style book. It’s a combination of recipes from their mom to favorites at potlucks in False Pass to their young adult friends who have great salmon dip recipes.
Cooking on a boat more of a philosophy. It’s about using what you have and not following a recipe exactly. It’s also about simple ingredients like using canned beans and vegetables and frozen stuff. It’s not necessarily luxurious because they can’t go to the store or pick food from a garden.
The book has a mix between simple recipes and more “projects.”
Growing up, Emma and Claire’s mom was a great cook and a lot of her recipes are in the book. She took on the full time job of food production on the homestead which meant planting the greenhouse in the spring, raising chickens, and set netting for fish. They spent a lot of their summers smoking fish and puttng it up for the winter. They had a lot of the essentials from the land and sea and their mom used a lot of recipes from people in False Pass like traditional salmon and seafood recipes. She collected a lot of recipes and putting them in a three-ring binder. They learned a lot from their mom and tested their knowledge on the boat when they became crew fishing for their dad.
They always had family dinner growing up. Claire and Emma’s mom didn’t learn to cook until she moved up to Alaska in her early 20s and moved to Alaska. Now she loves to create food and share with her family.
They gained confidence cooking because on a boat if you make anything hot and on-time people love it.
What are common mistakes people make preparing seafood? One big mistake is overcooking seafood like salmon. But the other mistake is people being too afraid to mess it up. If you start with a quality ingredient you’ll end up with something at least edible if not delicious. They want to tamp down that fear with their book. The cooking methods aren’t challenging and presentation doesn’t always matter.
Another mistake is people don’t use what’s left. People will eat the fillet usually, but if there’s too much you can turn it into a salmon spread or patty the next day. If you start with the whole fish there’s a lot you can do with the whole fish. You can use it for soup or stock or use the bones or tail or skin. You can make chips with salmon skin, for example. There are fun ways to use the whole fish and that might be unapproachable to a lot of people if they don’t have a lot of experience. There’s a lot of information about that in the book - at the very least how to fillet a fish.
What’s it going to take to get the average consumer in middle America to love seafood? Education is one piece. Having good fresh fish available easily to them will help. Convincing people that frozen product is very high quality. Also ready-to-go-snacks like canned salmon or smoked.
A lot of Salmon Sisters’ customer care team is dedicated to educating customers on Alaskan seafood. A lot of customers want to share their experience with Alaska. A lot of customers also want recipes, and Claire and Emma are excited to be able to give them something. A lot of people who eat fish get stuck in a rut with what to make. The enthusiasm runs out after they tried the marinade and the grill - like how do you keep it exciting for everyone? You have to spend a lot of time at home trying.
For a great interview of their childhood go check out the podcast “Galley Stories” where Mark Caylor interviewed them in December 2019.
By 2nd or 3rd grade Claire and Emma were taking the Tustumena into Homer to do school in the winters. It gave them a strong foundation educationally. They both ended up on the east coast. Everything seemed so far away from Alaska, even the west coast, so it didn’t matter to them where they went in the Lower 48 since everything was a plane ride away.
Claire went to University of Vermont through the influence of a teacher and family friends. She had a great educational experience and group of peers. School was very challenging. She focused on getting through classes and it was a natural transition from Homer since there was so much outdoor activity. She met her husband there. She was a year ahead of Emma so they crossed over in high school for a couple years.
Emma also ended up on the east coast - she had a friend who was a year older who went to Williams and followed her. She joined the rowing team with her friend Lindsey. College was great for Emma as well she really enjoyed Williams and the small school. She adapted fine and there wasn’t much culture shock.
Junior year both sisters studied together in Italy. Emma was doing screenprinting and was making fish prints at home and that was the moment she realized how much the place they group up had formed them and what they wanted to share. Emma was an art and english major at WIlliams and was doing a lot of visual representation of what they work on. That sparked the idea for working together in the business. College was a time of understanding how much Alaska had formed their identities. Once they realized that it’s hard not to go back and check-in. They worked their way through college commercial fishing every summer so they were constantly back and forth between the east coast and Alaska.
When they graduated they took some time to figure out if they would get a job or fish or what. Claire and her husband started their own fish marketing business on their own and were doing fish deliveries around the midwest. Emma took a year to work for a magazine at Portland and do an art residency in New York. At the end of that year they had started on Salmon Sisters and prioritized fishing because it was too hard to get a real job.
Claire wanted a real job really badly because her senior year everyone in her program went and worked for their uncle’s investment school or whatever. They had been making shirts and selling them at a shop on the spit. A lot of it came from not having a job starting that summer. She couldn’t find a job when she was going to fish all summer so she took odd jobs and did Salmon Sisters on the side. They were both on the west coast and in Alaska in the summers. They finally decided to fully invest in themselves and their fishing and how to make it work. It was hard to imagine how to do that out of school.
How did Claire and Emma’s relationship evolve in college? Emma and Claire’s schools were only a couple hours away. They would see each other at crew events and spend holidays and summers together, so they saw each other a lot in college. But working together was very natural. Working on a boat you have to trust each other and communicate. When you fish you have to trust your crew, so they developed that trust and ability to work together in adverse conditions early. They developed a lot of resilience and grit. Their first mini-business together was selling eggs as little girls in False Pass.
Where Salmon Sisters is more food-driven. They are also offering more gear that people can use in a professional capacity. It’s been a big learning experience to manage apparel and accessories. They listen closely to what their customers and community want. They’ve grown up with them. A lot of their peers now have families that already have a pair of fancy boats and are more interested in feeding and growing their kids. They have a million ideas but there is a balance in figuring out what people want and what the Salmon Sisters team can produce.
The other important thing in decision making is having everything they sell connect their customers to the water, because a lot of their customers are or were commercial fishermen. A lot of the things they put out is things they would want to wear as fishermen. It’s a reflection of what they’re into at the time.
Direct-to-consumer fish marketing. Claire doesn’t think that all or even most fishermen will direct market their fish. The value comes from stewardship and story-telling and being part of the food chain a little longer. Salmon Sisters does not sell the exact fish that Emma and her have touched. What they sell is from processors in those fisheries. It’s always felt a little funky because they can offer this story and the logistics and the education and recipes and outreach, but they can’t close the loop of directly processing their own catch. They catch such a large quantity of fish they can’t support that much ordering capacity. They don’t have the processing support to do that. It’s a double-edged sword because they’re proud of what they do but they have not cracked the code on direct marketing.
A lot of their peers who have been doing it have been through a long, bumpy rode. There’s a lot of the normal headaches of small businesses plus the question of uncertain supply based on their catch. There are people who are just making small connections with people and restaurants and some even have thriving small businesses but it’s hard.
It’s really hard to sell even ten pounds of fish. Think about how much you catch in a day as a commercial fisherman.
The best thing Salmon Sisters has done for them is supporting the Alaska seafood brand and being a steward of the resource and also encouraging fishermen to make sure they know that this is going to end up on someone’s plate and to take good care of the fish they catch.
Emma wishes this was easier because especially right now without restaurants open - half of Americans eat seafood out. Their only other options are going to a grocery store or buying direct from a fisherman. For a fisherman that could be a saving grace but there is so much work into not only being a fisherman but also processing a marketing their catch.
LocalCatch.org is a great website for connecting with fishermen doing direct marketing across the nation. The biggest thing they tell people is you have to find a system that works with your lifestyle or you’ll burnout. If you’re taking catch back to Montana and just supplying your neighborhood - celebrate that.
Do they feel responsibility for facilitating demand for Alaska seafood nationally? They feel responsible for being a steward of the resource. At the same time they can’t represent every fishery because there’s a lot of pride in different fisheries. So how do they tread lightly and continue to receive support from their community and yet represent Alaska?
What does it take to run a successful family enterprise? It’s a combination of dysfunction and love. They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t all love the work and the places it allows them to go and the people. Their dad came up and started fishing and this was the first thing he felt good about doing. He really channeled into the seasonal work, it’s kind of addictive. It comes with a lot of its own challenges as well. Putting fishing and family first makes a lot of things fall by the wayside. Both of their husbands are gone a lot fishing.
They also have the huge advantage of working together in a positive way. Their mom does all the bookkeeping and on-shore support and can make phone calls. They can dump their gear at the shop they share together. Maybe their dad has an old net they can use. It’s helpful to share resources. It’s really expensive to get into and without the common tools and knowledge it’s really hard. The generational thing is really awesome because they’re learning from their parents and they’ve been able to be their crew for a lot of their lives. A built-in crew is awesome. Being able to start their own operations with their own families is great. Claire fishes with her husband. Emma fishes with her husband and dad. Then at the end of the season they come back together to fish halibut on the same boat at the end of the season. It’s totally crazy, but work is a huge part of their family’s life. It’s hard to talk about things other than fishing sometimes but it’s beautiful in a way.
How are they dealing with Covid-19? They’ve been dealing with it for 3 weeks and have hit some burnout and are trying to establish the new normal routine. Homer is a challenge because they physically are not present, but their seafood logistics provider is still shipping lots of fish. Fish has accounted for about 90% of their sales for the last few weeks. They’ve had a big dip in a lot of the “lifestyle” product. They’re trying to figure out what to do with the brand as well as their fishing business. It’s been a great opportunity for Emma and Claire to go back to their company’s values and figuring out what they can provide people. They’re weathering the storm and working together and acknowledging there is no written plan for this.
Summer in Alaska is normally a busy season for so many people and it’s going to be very different for a lot of people. They might open their Homer shop later on, but they’re planning on keeping things buttoned up and as safe as possible. It’s different not having a big season ahead.
As a small business is provide helpful and hopeful messaging to people and rethink how their product and services can be used.