Drew Terhaar has about one month left in Oak Park before he heads up to his fishing boat, the F/V Mary Carl in Alaska, where he'll spend the summer catching about 30,000 pounds of wild salmon.
As a fisherman for the independently-owned Sitka Salmon Shares, Terhaar's catch of King and Coho salmon won't be sent to a national wholesaler who will then send it to a regional wholesaler and then to a distributor and a finally a local retailer.
Instead, his fish will be sold throughout the Midwest at farmers markets, specialty grocery stores, food co-ops — Sugar Beet Food Co-Op, 812 Madison St., started carrying Sitka Salmon Shares fish last year — and directly to consumers through the company's so-called "community-supported fishery."
"People here think it's neat to find the guy who caught the fish and [know] where it was caught," Terhaar said in a recent interview. That's part of the strategy at Sitka Salmon Shares: connecting buyers directly with the fishermen.
Terhaar, who grew up in Deerfield and Lake Forest and recently moved back to the Chicago area, started fishing in Alaska in 2011. He later joined Sitka Salmon Shares after befriending the company's founder Marsh Skeele, who is now Terhaar's roommate in Oak Park.
Skeele said buying from the fishermen has its advantages: It ensures a better product for consumers and also is a better deal for the fishermen.
The traditional supply chain lumps pristine fish in with "someone who treats their fish like garbage" and many fishermen get low-balled on the price, according to Skeele. "There is no incentive to treat them any better because they're pooled with other fish," he said.
Skeele founded the company in 2011 after providing Alaska fish for an event at Knox College in Galesburg. "Everyone loved the fish and wanted more," he said.
That's how he and business partner Nicolaas Mink, a professor of environmental studies at Knox, formed Sitka Salmon Shares.
The company established its community-supported fishery (CSF) similar to community-supported agriculture, where members receive produce every month from a local farmer.
Joining the CSF can run anywhere from $80 to $109 a month, depending on the species mix, but fish can be purchased off the shelf at select locations like Sugar Beet.
The CSF is still 80 percent of Sitka Salmon Shares' business, according to Skeele, whose company help promote the business by doing cooking classes and dinners with CSF members. He hosted about 30 dinners with Chicagoans last winter.
"We want to connect the producer with the person getting the fish," he said.
The company has been growing rapidly — about 50-60 percent a year, according to Terhaar — and now claims around 4,000 members. Sitka Salmon Shares also recently purchased its own fish processing plant in Sitka, where they flash-freeze the fish within hours of catching it.
Despite the company's name, salmon isn't the only thing on the menu. This season Sitka Salmon Shares will offer Alaskan king salmon, sockeye salmon, coho salmon, keta salmon, lingcod, black bass, black cod, Pacific cod, yelloweye, dusky rockfish, spot prawns, Dungeness crab, and halibut, according to the company's website.
Sugar Beet staff first became aware of the company last year, while attending the annual Good Food Festival in Chicago, according to Gina Milkvich, Sugar Beet outreach coordinator.
"We were on the hunt for an actual distributor that was fishing sustainably or purchasing sustainably," she said. "Sitka salmon was the ideal opportunity."
The store currently offers Coho salmon, cod and prawns supplied by Sitka Salmon Shares, she said.