Passion for Southeast Alaska fuels kelp-product business with powerful social impact
It started with friendship and a desire to share the sea’s bounty.
Three friends grew up in Juneau fishing, hiking and cooking together, then left the area for studies and other adventures in far-flung parts of the world. Juneau’s beauty, community and abundance beckoned them back.
Now, Max Stanley and Lia Heifetz, together with co-founder Matt Kern, are uniting their passion for Southeast Alaska and their commitment to building community in the place they love. Their kelp-based food company, Barnacle, celebrates local ingredients, creates markets and jobs, and invites customers into what makes Alaska magical. By manufacturing products close to where ingredients are sourced, the company uses resources more efficiently and keeps the value chain local.
Kern, Heifetz and Stanley are doubling down on Juneau. And Sealaska’s investment in them will enable Barnacle to grow, expand its impact and – its founders hope – ultimately become a household name and staple in pantries and kitchens everywhere.
“A deep reverence for this place and sharing its story is part of our company culture,” Heifetz said. “We’re always amazed by Alaska and its culture. People live with purpose here. There’s a humbleness among those who live here and have appreciation for the vastness of the land and the ocean. These vast landscapes and the harsh conditions that come with them bring people together. Our tight-knit and vibrant communities are a result of the environment.”
In keeping with that closeness and vibrance, Barnacle grew out of a summertime tradition.
“We started Barnacle out of our passion for the wild foods that we have in Southeast Alaska, and for sharing those foods,” Heifetz said.
Heifetz, Kern and Stanley learned to make kelp salsa and kelp pickles from a friend who shared a Gustavus homestead recipe. Summer fishing trips together didn’t always produce fish, but a bull kelp harvest was a sure thing. With a gathering of friends, many weekends were spent putting up jars of kelp salsa and pickles for all to enjoy throughout the winter.
At the same time, Heifetz and Kern were developing a sense for how businesses could build resilience in rural communities. As the industry of seaweed farming and mariculture began to emerge in Alaska, they saw an opportunity to create demand for kelp farmers by developing products that used their ingredients.
Pioneering a kelp business
Building a business based on bull kelp hasn’t been easy. Barnacle is the first food business to manufacture and create products with this ingredient to be sold at a moderate scale.
“Working with kelp – and bull kelp in particular – has presented all sorts of challenges,” Heifetz said. It is unique in its structure, how it needs to be handled and processed, and how it’s farmed.”
Bull kelp is in season for just a few months out of the year. Because those months occur before the height of the commercial fishing season, it’s possible to make use of boats and processors in the existing maritime infrastructure. Tenders that typically transport tens of thousands of salmon now move tons of kelp in the shoulder season.
“Taking a seasonal and highly perishable crop, and figuring out transportation logistics from rural, remote areas – it’s been a first for everyone,” Heifetz said. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to collaborate with people who have been commercial fishing for years to come up with solutions.”
Solving those problems enables Barnacle’s founders to use their business to make the positive changes they want for their home. They are building local economies and improving health for people and the planet.
“Alaskans are resourceful and good at using what they have around them. This business is an example of that,” Heifetz said.
The founders believe that operating sustainably at scale can mitigate some of the issues we’re facing as a planet and society.
“What better way to do that than with food?” Stanley said.
Beyond being the centerpiece of tasty salsas and pickles packed with nutrients, kelp is what’s known as a “zero-input” crop. It requires no arable land or fresh water to grow, so it uses far fewer resources than traditional, terrestrial agriculture. Early research suggests that kelp absorbs carbon from the sea around it, changing the water’s chemistry and combating the acidification being caused by climate change. That gives kelp the potential to broadly improve ecosystems, help juvenile shellfish and keep our oceans abundant.
A partnership for growth and impact
To keep Barnacle growing, the founders wanted to find a partner. They wanted to keep their business in Southeast Alaska long-term. Sealaska, with its large presence in the region, was an “ideal partner,” Stanley said. Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott agrees, citing the company’s move toward businesses that support earth and ocean health.
“Barnacle fits with who we are,” Mallott said. “Our shared values make this much more than a financial partnership. The intangible benefits of working and growing together will be widespread and impactful – here in Alaska and elsewhere.”
Those benefits include expansion, growth, learning and deeper community engagement.
“We’re interested and excited about Sealaska as a partner,” Stanley said. The association will enable Barnacle’s founders to learn from Sealaska’s other successful, sustainable food businesses, such as Orca Bay and IPC. The partners look forward to benefiting from senior management support. And connecting with Sealaska’s 23,000 shareholders could open new possibilities for sourcing ingredients and hiring talent. Already, Barnacle’s participation in a youth-employment program has given several high school shareholders an opportunity to experience a first job.
Isaac Mazon, from Juneau, is one of those young people.He came to Barnacle in the summer of 2018 to help with a variety of tasks, from washing dishes to mixing dry blends to slicing onions and preparing other ingredients. The work has taught him how to be efficient and work on a tight schedule. Isaac is still a valued employee two years later, and he hopes to continue working for Barnacle.
“I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for their support,” said Mazon, now 18. He found Barnacle during what he described as a “rough patch” in his life, and was surprised by how welcoming and understanding the founders were. “I don’t go there just to work,” he said. “They listen to what I have to say.”
“I always thought working with a bunch of adults and being the youngest one on the team, that they didn’t want to hear about my feelings and that basically they weren’t there to care,” Mazon said. “But that’s not what happened. If you needed to get something off your chest, they were there to listen.”
Heifetz wants young people in Alaska to know there is opportunity here for them.
“We love this place, and are grateful to call it home,” she said. “We want Barnacle to create opportunities for young people to continue living and thriving in their communities. By sharing the foods from these special places, we’re creating a model around stewardship and sustainability, and a framework for Alaskans to plug in and prosper.”