Quick pivot, Halibut Kickers helping Alaska’s Copper River Seafoods thrive despite COVID-19

Published on
July 1, 2020

Anchorage, Alaska, U.S.A.-based Copper River Seafoods is thriving despite the COVID-19 pandemic that has inflicted financial pain on its in-state rivals.

With a rapid pivot to e-commerce and local sales in Alaska, the introduction of innovative new products, and a new cold storage facility, the seafood processor and supplier has survived during an existentially difficult time for the industry.

Which isn’t to say that Copper River Seafoods has not has significant operating issues related to COVID-19. Soon after the coronavirus began significantly affecting the normal business environment across the United States in late March, the company faced the dual problems of disappearing markets and a tough choice on whether to initiate its seasonal Alaska operations.

The company struggled after its foodservice business disappeared practically overnight, according to Copper River Director of Marketing Jim Kostka.

“Locally, with restaurants closing down and limited seating, local purchases dropped quite a bit,” Kostka told SeafoodSource. “It was devastating when they first shut down. We had a lot of great product and no customer base.”

However, Copper River quickly adapted by ensuring its retail customers, including Walmart and Costco, were well-supplied, and by focusing more on sales through its website and by opening a pop-up market. The market is set up so local customers order online, and then drive through to pick up their order on a certain day and time.

“We offer wholesale pricing to residents and it [has been] very successful. It makes an economic difference for people who have lost their jobs,” Kostka said. It also allowed Copper River to shift bulk supply of individually wrapped frozen halibut or salmon for cruise ships and other customers into 10-pound boxes for consumers.

Copper River also shifted focus to its online shop, which caters to people in the lower 48 states who have visited Alaska.

“We created marketing campaigns with major cities’ chambers of commerce and also offered to waive the delivery fee when you buy USD 250 [EUR 222] or more of fresh or frozen seafood,” Kostka said.

U.S. consumers have upped their purchases of frozen seafood capable of being stored at length, and Copper River Seafoods has done a brisk business selling 4- to 7-ounce individually wrapped fish portions, according to Kostka.

Copper River’s marketing efforts and special limited-time promotions pushed the company’s online sales from around 2 percent of overall sales to its current total of 18 percent.

“This gave us a chance to develop a new market,” Kostka said. “[Online business] will trickle down once the ‘new normal’ is here, but there is also a market share that is going to stay.”

Copper River also went ahead with the launch of Halibut Kickers, a new product that had been in development before COVID-19 hit in the U.S.. The product, similar to chicken nuggets, is lightly breaded 1- or 1.5-ounce portions of halibut. Notably, the fish is not ground and mixed with other ingredients. The Halibut Kickers are portions of fish that Copper River scrapes off the halibut, not big enough to use for other product. The product is a result of an innovative thinking around how to use more of the fish, Kostka said.

First introduced at the pop-up market, Copper River just began selling the Halibut Kickers online.

“That has been off-the-charts successful. It is a different way to bring a great protein to market,” Kostka said. “A lot of people call us and say, ‘Finally, there is something freezer-stable that I can pull out a few of and bake for my kids. They see the marble and grain of real halibut, not something that has been ground down in a factory.”

On the production side of its operations, Copper River Seafoods has also managed to avoid the worst impacts of the coronavirus. Thus far, is the only major seafood processor in Alaska not to have an outbreak of COVID-19.

“With the discipline of the business plan that the state mandated, along with our local hiring, we eliminated one of the major hurdles: putting people on airplanes and flying around the world,” Kostka said.

Soon after shelter-in-place orders began around the United States and the Alaskan cruise and tourism industry came to a screeching halt in March, Copper River found itself in need of its normal complement of 800 seasonal workers. Instead of bringing in workers from other states and countries, it was able to hire all employees locally, Kostka said, as other Alaska industries shut down or completed layoffs.

To keep its workforce safe, the company implemented strict safety and sanitary procedures that have allowed the company to escape without a single case of COVID-19 among its employees so far. Employees’ temperatures are taken when they go on and off shift, plastic sheets between cutters have been installed, and sharp restrictions have been put in place on visitors to Copper River’s corporate office.

One final element has helped Copper River bridge the divide into the new commercial reality that the coronavirus crisis initiated. Earlier this year, Copper River invested in its own cold storage facility, which has a capacity of two million pounds of frozen seafood. The new facility has helped it save on shipping and operating costs, and the company has been able to pass much of those savings on to the end consumer, according to Kostka.

Just as importantly, it helps the brand stay true to its roots, he said.

“[Before], we would ship [extra product] to Seattle. It went against our mission,” Kostka said. “We are Alaska-owned.”

Photo courtesy of Copper River Seafoods

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