Digital fishmonger Wild Alaskan Company takes off
For years, Arron Kallenberg kicked around the idea of leveraging his family’s three generations of Alaska commercial fishing heritage into a direct-to-consumer seafood business.
He finally took the leap to create the now-thriving Wild Alaskan Company in 2017, but said the story goes all the way back to 1926, when his grandfather, Robert C. Kallenberg, moved from New Jersey to Alaska and began commercial fishing on a wooden sailboat in Bristol Bay. Arron’s father, Walter, inherited the business, and Arron, who grew up in Homer, Alaska and spent many summers fishing for sockeye salmon on the Mary K, one of the Kallenberg family’s two Bristol Bay gillnetters. And while the youngest Kallenberg firmly considers himself a third-generation Alaska fisherman by default, he always had other interests.
“I was the nerdy kid who took his laptop out to sea in the '90s. We had a boat phone rigged up to a dial-up modem. It was a super-slow connection. But looking back on it, it was pretty impressive that we were connected to the internet at sea that early on,” Kallenberg told SeafoodSoource. “When we weren’t picking fish, I would be on my computer coding and tinkering around.”
Kallenberg would go on to translate his passion for computers into a fruitful career in software engineering, a job that landed him in Brooklyn, New York, far from the source of the fresh, nutrient-rich seafood he grew up catching and eating. He said it often felt difficult to get “real” food outside of Alaska, and he dreamed of merging his unique fishing background with his work in technology.
“Ever since I was a kid, we had always talked about building a business that connected folks around the country directly to this amazing sustainable food source,” he said. “I finally decided to do it. With my wife’s understandably skeptical but supportive blessing, I quit my high-paying job in the tech industry and started the company.”
The company, which Kallenberg calls a digital fishmonger, has taken off in a couple short years. Wild Alaskan has already signed up tens of thousands of members across the country, and Kallenberg said it is not uncommon for them to acquire 100 to 200 new subscribers to the company’s monthly seafood membership program in a single day. To accommodate the demand, Wild Alaskan now has 18 employees, a new office in Brooklyn, and an operations team working out of a co-working space in Portland, Oregon.
Four fulfillment centers are strategically located in California, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Florida. This network allows the company to efficiently meet the demands of distributing boxes of seafood that arrive frozen and packed in dry ice. Inside each box, Wild Alaskan’s members find carefully sourced, wild-caught seafood from suppliers as large as Trident Seafoods and as small as the Lummi Island Wild Co-op.
One key to Wild Alaskan’s early success, Kallenberg said, is Aaron Babinski, the company’s first dedicated operations hire, who came on in December 2018. Babinksi, a veteran of Blue Apron and Chef’d, had a skill-set that spread out across the company’s “incredibly complex” supply chain; from procurement and processing to inventory and shipping. And maybe more important for Kallenberg was that Babinski was knowledgeable and passionate about seafood, particularly from Alaska.
But the real secret to Wild Alaskan’s quick start is tech, according to Kallenberg. The company’s proprietary order management system runs on a network of distributed servers in the cloud. The platform manages inventory and orders across the company’s network of independent fulfillment centers, routing orders to the appropriate facility based on a complex and continuously evolving set of business logic designed to minimize cost and shipping distance. In addition, near real-time data allows the company to stay in constant communication with its members about the status of their shipment.
“Our tech-centric culture and focus on data-driven decision making are fairly unique. I don’t know of a lot of companies, even outside the seafood industry, that are able to maintain the sort of granular control over their inventory and order management that we do. That’s why Wild Alaskan is a tech company that happens to sell seafood,” Kallenberg said, adding that the same level of focus his team applies to tech-enabled logistics is also applied to tech-enabled marketing.
Another key, of course, is the product, Kallenberg said.
“We’re a tech company. But it definitely doesn’t hurt that we’re also selling some of the very best food on the planet,” Kallenberg said.
Wild Alaskan members can choose between three standard boxes; the Wild Salmon Box, Wild White Fish Box, and Wild Combo Box. The Wild Salmon Box contains a wide range of wild salmon products including Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, Lummi Island reefnet sockeye salmon, and coho salmon from Southeast Alaska.
The White Fish Box typically carries cod, halibut, and rockfish. The Wild Combo Box combines the contents of the two other boxes and is the top seller.
The contents of the boxes rotate monthly as dictated by supply, and members are free to customize their box each month while choosing from a growing list of add-ons including weathervanes scallops, sablefish, wild Alaska pollock, cold-smoked sockeye salmon, among other species.
“Members subscribe to one of our three standard boxes, but in reality, we’re very flexible. If someone says they want all halibut, we’ll change their box for them,” Kallenberg said. “Of course, we have to charge a little more for special requests, but we’re always happy to work with our members.”
Wild Alaskan is also sensitive to some of the pitfalls of shipping food to doorsteps, waste among them. In fact, as part of the company’s commitment to sustainability, the company does not ship with polystyrene foam, commonly known as styrofoam.
“We ship with green cell foam as our insulation. It’s 100 percent biodegradable insulation that’s made with non-GMO corn grown in the United States. It dissolves in water so you can wash it down the sink, or compost it,” he said.
The film used to vacuum-pack the fish with plastic with a breathable nylon mesh. But the fact that it is the only part of the company’s packaging that is currently not recyclable has lead Kallenberg seek out an eco-friendly replacement.
“Waste is an issue, and I think the other issue that’s probably equally as important is the carbon footprint associated with transportation,” he added.
To that end, Wild Alaskan does not source any seafood processed outside of the United States, and its decentralized warehouse network and tech-enabled order management system have allowed the company to significantly cut back on shipping distances and minimize air cargo.
“Our software makes it very easy for us to plug a new fulfillment center into our network. Our goal is to expand our warehouse network to the point where we can achieve one-day ground transportation to 99 percent of the country,” Kallenberg said. “We essentially want to open a new facility in every major metropolitan area within the next couple of years and then long-term ground transportation could go carbon neutral, and you can start to see a future where transporting fish is no longer an environmental concern.”
Photo courtesy of Frank Sun