Sealaska shareholder descendants like Isaac Mazon and Aaliyah Starr are finding employment and training in an up-and-coming line of business with one of Sealaska’s latest investments in the regional economy, Barnacle Foods.
Barnacle Foods harvests bull kelp from the waters around Southeast Alaska and turns it into tasty hot sauce, salsas, pickles and seasonings. They also transform other local ingredients, such as spruce tips, rhubarb and blueberries, into jams and jellies.
Mazon and Starr are among a small but growing crew of kitchen and warehouse workers at Barnacle who prepare the company’s recipes, ship orders and even help with the harvesting of bull kelp. They came to Barnacle via the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s YES (Youth Employment Services) program, which helps teens and young adults who are tribal members to apply for jobs at local businesses in Southeast.
Starr is 17 and is working for Barnacle for the second summer in a row.
“I got really, really strong here,” she said. “I can lift 60-pound boxes, which is half my weight. Everyone here is so encouraging and nice. If I doubt myself, they push my limits, and that’s what I need.”
Beyond the job skills she’s learned, the experience has also taught her a lot about life and work.
“Since this is my first job, I learned about the importance of coming to work on time and committing to it,” Starr said. “This is summer and I’m teenager, and I’m spending all day inside with a hair net on. It was hard, initially, to commit to it, but I just had to learn this is life and I had to commit if I wanted to make money.”
Starr is entering her senior year of high school this August, and saving money to travel with her dad to visit family in Southern California, where he is from. Her big goals right now are graduating and learning to drive, along with traveling to experience life outside of Alaska.
Mazon, 18, has been with Barnacle since 2018, and plans to continue working there while he finishes his GED and prepares to become a new dad later this summer. He said he values his role at Barnacle because his teammates and supervisors value him. Mazon said he feels supported and his ideas and feedback are welcomed by his supervisors and team members.
“Everybody gives everybody feedback and we’re all learning every day,” Mazon said.
Processing and enriching local products locally brings many benefits, and that’s important to Barnacle. This approach enables local producers to retain more of the retail value, while also creating local jobs and building a skilled workforce that can strengthen the area economy. All of this generates opportunity.
“As we grow, the roles we’re trying to fill will require more advanced skills and experience in this field and there aren’t many food manufacturers in Alaska, so we are building a pretty specific set of skills (among our workforce),” said Lia Heifetz, Barnacle co-founder. “The people who have been with us 2-3 years are probably some of the most skilled in this type of work in the region.”
Heifetz co-owns the company with partners Max Stanley and Matt Kern. Kern and Heifetz started the company four years ago. In April of 2020, Sealaska invested as a minority shareholder of Barnacle.
“We were very interested in partnership with Sealaska,” Heifetz said. “A more traditional (venture capital firm) or angel investor might not understand why we’re doing business in Alaska when we could be doing business in Seattle.”
The two companies share several important values, like a belief in environmentally sustainable business models that create local jobs and economic activity in Southeast communities, and a strong commitment to ocean health. Barnacle’s main ingredient, bull kelp, is known as a “zero-input” crop, meaning it requires no arable land or fresh water to grow. Barnacle harvests wild bull kelp but also buys it from a growing number of kelp farms in Alaska.
“We are a small and rapidly growing business, and with that comes a lot of opportunity,” Heifetz said. “We’re working on building out a core team that’s interested in growing with us.”
Heifetz said working with Mazon, Starr and another Sealaska shareholder descendant who works at Barnacle “has been the most rewarding part of this as a business owner.”
Click here learn more about Barnacle and Sealaska’s partnership.