Ingenuity and innovation fuel Tilgner’s big win


Melissa Wood, SeaFood Business assistant editor

Published on
March 14, 2014

When the Symphony of Seafood winners were announced in mid-February a new name appeared on the distinguished West Coast roster. But the upstart startup didn’t just join them — it topped them.

Tilgner’s Specialized Smoked Seafood Products in Ninilchik, Alaska, took the grand prize for its Ruby Red Ole World Scottish Style Cold Smoked Sockeye, as well as first place in the smoked category and Anchorage People’s Choice award. Other first-place winners at the annual contest for new products made from Alaska seafood, and presented by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, include Ocean Beauty’s Salmon Jerky for retail, Trident Seafoods’ Redi Grilled Pollock for foodservice and Orca Bay Seafoods’ Cod Fillets with Sundried Tomato Pesto, which won the Seattle People’s Choice award.

Even though Tilgner’s began operations officially this past year, the story of its cold smoked salmon really began 35 years ago. Art Tilgner’s day job is as a physician specializing in aviation medicine and airmen certification, but he has also worked as a salmon gillnetter and oyster farmer. One day he read a magazine article about Scottish cold smoked salmon and decided to do some experimenting.

“All I’d done was the native style, that was the only thing I was familiar with until I ran across an article about Scottish-style smoking and said, ‘Gee that looks good,’” said Tilgner.

Living in Cordova, Alaska, at the time, Tilgner found an old refrigerator at the dump and fashioned it into a cold smoker. “I started playing around and tweaking and adding my own ingredients and flavoring, and it just turned out really well and people kept urging me, I should sell it.”

That dream became official this August with the completion of a small processing plant on Tilgner’s property on Cook Inlet. “I had a pretty good-size building on my property that I built many years ago with the intent that someday we would have a fish processing plant, but we never really got to it until this last year,” he said.

Tilgner’s son, Kris, an engineer, designed and built everything in the plant, including the smokers. He remains a business partner along with Tilgner’s wife, Jo Ann. Their other son, Robert Moe, “is the guy in the trenches every day making that fish,” said Tilgner. “That’s why we’re really excited about it. It’s not just me. It’s everybody in the family.”

Production began after the Tilgners bought 3,000 Kenai River sockeyes this summer from setnetters and Copper River Seafoods. The fish is frozen then thawed when it’s time to be cold smoked, which Tilgner says is a 36-hour process. Some of the factors that go into the winning formula include a dry salt brine, extra virgin olive oil, a small amount of brown sugar and a light smoke at 82 degrees F using alder wood from trees grown on their property.

“I think our stuff is really unique,” he said. “I tell people all the time, you can write about it, talk about it, take pictures all you want. My motto is they need to smell it, they need to feel it and they need to taste it, and that’s what sells the fish every time.”

Tilgner’s grand prize, awarded to the product that gets the most overall votes, means a company that didn’t exist a year ago won free booth space at this year’s Seafood Expo North America, as well as free round-trip airfare to the show.

“We wouldn’t miss that for anything. How better could you get exposure? We’re up in Alaska, the ability to reach out with our product is just limited with distance,” saod Tilgner. “Boston is the perfect opportunity to have our fish out in front of a lot of people. We’ll have lots of samples for people to try.”

Tilgner and the prize-winning product can be found at booth 751.

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