Kyle Lee—the 31-year old commercial fisherman turned owner of Alaskan Salmon Company—is regularly banned from TikTok.
“I respond to too many comments in a short period of time,” he told me.
In 2023, too many comments isn’t the worst problem to have. With an audience of nearly 400,000 people, Kyle’s TikTok—which peers into the daily operations of a commercial fishing boat—sits at the core of his business.
“TikTok has been insane for us. It’s just this huge lever that we never could have predicted or planned for. It’s great because we have this direct access and communication to our customers who we’re trying to target,” Kyle said.
While TikTok may not have been part of Kyle’s original plan, disrupting the commercial fishing industry through technology and social media always was. Prior to starting his own business, during his summers in college, Kyle worked on other salmon fishing boats in his home state of Alaska. When he’d return to Colorado in the fall, he’d bring frozen filets of the salmon that he caught along with him.
“I would go to the grocery stores, and I’d go check out what they had,” he said. “They’re selling Alaskan salmon, but it looks so bad—it looks so different from what I had in my freezer.”
From there, Kyle began researching how Alaskan seafood is typically processed. “Every company has a different process. The majority of Alaskan seafood is exported overseas, it’s handled multiple times, and it just causes that product breakdown, that deterioration,” he shared. “I was like, well, social media and technology have never been greater. There’s no reason for us to stick to this business model.”
Fast forward to today, and Kyle’s Alaskan Seafood Company has turned the model on its head. Instead of working with numerous processors, distributors and middlemen, Alaskan Seafood Company handles it all themselves. Their process is simple: catch fish, clean and flash freeze it immediately, then ship it directly to the consumer.
The model works. In each of its first three years, Alaskan Seafood Company has sold out of all the fish they’ve caught. Their clientele includes Michelin-starred restaurants. And the business is growing, as Kyle has since partnered with “hundreds of fishermen” to expand their inventory, which now includes sablefish and halibut.
We caught up with Kyle to learn more about Alaskan Salmon Company’s process, his strategy for buying the highest-quality fish at any supermarket, and cooking for a crew of fishermen.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Paul: Could you explain flash freezing to me as if I’m a smart high-schooler?
Kyle: Flash freezing is really important for seafood because the meat is very delicate. If you think back to elementary or middle school science, when things slowly freeze, it causes it to crystallize very large, which is what creates snowflakes. But when you flash-freeze it, you blast [the fish] down to negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit extremely fast. It doesn’t give the water molecules enough time to expand. So flash freezing captures all of the fish’s nutrients, while preserving the striations and fibers within the filet—which avoids that gaping look that you see in a lot of grocery store fish.
I love the videos that show how you guys cook on the boat. What’s your general strategy for feeding a group of fishermen?
I try to get a balance of nutrition and convenience. Obviously we’re out there working hard and we make money based on how productive we are—so I have to feed the crew well. They need energy when they wake up in the middle of the night, and they have to be feeling good. So I try to balance that, but at the same time, you need some quick, dirty junk food—like a Hot Pocket or a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich—to boost morale.
Across the industry, has the approach to feeding the crew changed over time?
It depends on the captain. The first boat I worked on, everything we ate came out of a package. It was insane. I also fished for another where the first thing the crew did—every morning—was chug soda and [smoke cigarettes] at 6 a.m.
If I dropped you off at a random grocery store anywhere in the country, how would you go about acquiring the most high-quality fish?
Your best bet is to talk to the fishmonger. Ask them about the flash freezing process. A lot of the fish that you see in grocery stores was once flash frozen, but then thawed out for display, and then potentially refrozen so it could last longer—this is where you start to see a significant drop in quality.
Generally speaking, are there certain types of fish that are caught and processed better than others?
It is kind of a crap shoot. Every company is going to be different. Even if it’s cod caught in the same water as another company, fish A will be completely different from fish B, which is really tough for a consumer.
You recently made a video responding to criticism about the relatively higher price of your salmon. Why do you stand by your price?
We stand by the price because the majority of it is the cost of labor and materials [used] to package our fish, and by choosing higher quality supplies and paying decent working wages, that all adds up. But it all shows in the finished product. If we wanted cheaper labor and cheaper materials, we’d have a cheaper product—but that’s not what our customers want.
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