• Chad

Interview with Matt Kern of Barnacle Foods

Our next interview is with Matt Kern. He and Lia are the owners of Barnacle Foods! We featured a couple different kinds of their kelp salsa in our Juneau box. Want to know more about kelp salsa you say? Let's get to it!

Tell me a bit about yourself, Barnacle Foods, and how you got started.

MATT KERN: Sweet. Yeah. My name is Matt Kern, and I grew up here in Juneau, Alaska. Spent pretty much my whole life here in Juneau. Left to go to college down south in Arizona and got out on a little bit of traveling. But my heart was here in Juneau and it was pretty easy to find my way back this way. So, I worked at the Department of Fish and Game in fisheries as a habitat biologist for six or seven years. And throughout all that time, I was an avid forager and farmer, small scale farmer, and recreational. And I met my partner, Lia. And we both shared a common interest in preserving the seasonal bounty that's everywhere around us here. So, we spent a lot of our free time out harvesting and then coming back into the kitchen and jarring up all sorts of stuff and learning how to preserve foods. And so, that led us to begin to dabble with creating Barnacle. And in 2016, we decided that since we already made these delicious foods from Alaskan kelp, that that would be an exciting food to bring to market because of all the health benefits of kelp and that it's so abundant here on the Alaska coast. And people were looking into farming it. And so, we thought that would be a great product to start with. And we started selling locally and we're just blown away by the support that we received within Alaska. And that's really propelled us forward and kind of led us to launch the business into something more of a full-time endeavor with some ambitious plans to become a pantry staple all around the country.

That's amazing. That's very cool. And my big curiosity, I'm sure that you probably get this a lot, but like with kelp, and I've looked a little bit on the website, and I guess it was kind of like a traditional thing, but how was it that you got the idea where you decided, "Okay. I'm gonna focus on kelp specifically"?

MATT: Yeah. So, we had this tradition every year of going out and harvesting kelp. It's a good food to go get when the fish weren't biting. So, you swing by a kelp bed on your way home and fill up a five-gallon bucket. And so every year we would invite friends over and they would just kind of be like, "What are you doing with this kelp?" *laughs* And I was like, "Oh, we're making it into salsa." So, we'd have the kelp and we'd tell someone to grab six onions, tell someone else to grab some tomatoes. And yeah, next thing you know, we had everything we needed and a bunch of jars lined up and helped to chop. And so, it just was this food that had a really fun tradition behind it. And as we thought about what products would be most intriguing to a wider audience, we really thought kelp had a lot of potential as a unique Alaskan food, just given that it's a superfood, it's got nutrition that is really difficult to find or can't be found in land-based foods because it is in the ocean and gets all those minerals and micronutrients. And just the flavor that it infuses into foods. We knew that kelp could be used in almost any kind of condiment and just give it that extra boost of salty richness. So, that's really why kelp was the first food that we got into. And then, along with that, we had begun to hear the whispers of kelp farming that was starting to take place in Alaska. And so, we thought, like a lot of Alaskan resources, they're grown here or extracted here and then, they get shipped out to other places in the world to do that value add. And we were just thinking, wouldn't it be sweet if instead of kelp being shipped somewhere in California to be processed, what if we could do that work and make that value in our community and create employment and economic benefits for Alaska? And so, that was kind of what led us to set up shop in Alaska. And also, part of why we call ourselves Barnacle is because we feel rooted here and sometimes, weathered in and stuck on the rocks just like barnacle. *laughs*

Right. Yeah. That makes sense. That's a very, very fitting name for sure. You actually kind of read my mind a little bit because I was reading on the website about you talking about how ocean farmers are starting to get a little bit more into cultivating kelp specifically. And then, I also read that during spring of this year, you partnered up with a farmer specifically to start developing that relationship. What was your main purpose for that and how has that developed?

MATT: Yeah, it's pretty interesting. It's a brand new industry here. So, it's a lot more complicated than working with the fishermen and saying, "Hey, will you bring me 1,000 pounds of coho" or something like that. And so, we worked really closely with Hump Island Oyster Farm down in Ketchikan. Now, Hump Island Oyster & Kelp Farm as you saw it. And so, we really looked at what it would take to scale the crop so that both the farmer and processor, us, would pencil out on both sides. And what we've learned is it had to be quite a large harvest for it to work out just because of the upfront costs of starting the farm. So, we gave them a poundage that we were comfortable investing in and then they did everything they could to produce that poundage. And then we actually went down to Ketchikan and work with them on the harvesting and the processing down there just so that there were no surprises and we could work on it together. So at this point, in the kelp farming industry, it's really just a lot of learning on the fly. I'm hoping for continued progression. And so far the relationship is continuing. They're going to grow again and scale their farm up for this upcoming season. And we're also planning to work with another kelp farm that's popping up. So, we're hoping that we can help support these farmers and eventually buy enough kelp that people can make a living and have viable kelp farms all around the region.

That's awesome. It sounds like you're kind of at the forefront of it. And you mentioned sort of learning as you go. As you're learning as you go, are there some things that you can pull from your base knowledge or other industries to sort of help facilitate things?

MATT: Yeah, there's a lot of kelp farms that exist around the world. It's a very developed industry in Asia and is a little bit more far along in Maine and other parts of the East Coast. So, a lot of the knowledge base for Alaskan kelp farmers right now is coming from those Maine and Connecticut-based farmers from the East Coast who are sharing knowledge. However, to complicate things a little bit, the species of kelp that we use, bull kelp, is a species that to this point hasn't been cultivated, to our knowledge, anywhere in the world. So it would be a little simpler if we were working with sugar kelp or wakame or some of the other more commonly farmed species. We would be learning from those lessons that have already been learned. But with bull kelp, it's a very different anatomy for a seaweed because it has a very long stipe, the stem part. So, it can be up to 40 or 50 or 60 feet long. And then, on top of that, it has the reproductive leafy fronds which can then also be 20, 40, 60 feet long themselves. So, it's kind of like growing a whole bunch of ropes with buoys and hair on the top of them and trying to grow them all close together. It's a very cumbersome crop, but we're having some promising results and I'm looking to continue to figure it out and progress as we go.

Very cool. From a flavor standpoint, what's the difference there as far as taking into account the bull kelp versus other kinds?

MATT: That's a great question. Yeah, the bull kelp has a really unique flavor and texture, which lends itself especially well to the products that we're making. Bull kelp culinarily is more or less a complete unknown in the world. And that's in large part because it's not a native species to Japan and Asia. So, it only grows on the Pacific coast. And so, it kind of went under the radar globally as seaweed recipes have developed over the centuries. But what we like about bull kelp is the stipe is really hardy and crispy and fairly mild in flavor. It just has a nice salty base and really crisp fresh texture that it lends to food. It's kind of like a salty bell pepper. That's what we liken it to, which is perfect for making salsa or pickles out of because it already has that natural salty crunchiness to it. And then, in addition, bull kelp has the leafy fronds on the top that are more similar to the traditional seaweeds like sugar kelp and kombu. So, those are really nice for drying and using as a seasoning or a broth flavoring. And so, we've been able to use every part of the kelp for our products. So, we use the stipe for the salsa and the pickles. And then, we dry the fronds and make some seasoning blends with that, as well as selling just the straight kelp powder and flakes. And so, bull kelp is a particularly useful species for us. And eventually, down the road, we'll likely make some new products with other species. But for our current product line, bull kelp really works the best.

Right on. As far as when it comes to fine-tuning your recipes, where did the initial inspiration come from and how has it evolved?

MATT: That's a great question too. So, our original recipes that we learned and made with friends over the years come from the really rural coastal southeast communities. So, to our knowledge, those recipes were developed by some of the original homesteaders of Southeast Alaska and just kind of passed it on through communities as just a staple food to put up when food was not fairly available locally. So, if you wanted to go kind of make it through the season with jars of kelp pickles and kelp salsa and have some fresh food to eat all year round. But then we realized that the recipes we were making for ourselves were delicious and they were always gone before we could make more the next year. In order to actually sell something, there's a huge learning curve. And so we took it really seriously and made dozens of test batches and meticulously recorded recipes and had tasting panels and kind of got to our initial marketed products. And then, as we've continued to grow as a business and learn, we're still kind of learning more about that process of improving products, and we understand that there's always room to grow and improve. So we're always looking to add better quality ingredients to our products and making modifications that we can based on the feedback we get from customers. Just always trying to make it taste better.

Yeah, for sure. That's awesome. If you ever need a taste tester, I would be happy to help. *laughs

MATT: *laughs* Yeah. Thank you.

So I also want to kind of dig into the natural kelp harvesting process a little bit. I was reading on the website again and saw how, obviously, you're very conscious of your harvesting process, how it affects the environment. But can you kind of I guess dig into that a little bit, just what that process is like and kind of illuminate that for us?

MATT: Yeah, it's definitely part of our business that makes us very unique and that we're in large part going out into the wild and collecting this very interesting biological species and bringing that out with us. And also, which is very unusual about our businesses, it's a resource that has not been utilized commercially before. So there isn't really a framework to manage the harvest. And so we're working closely with Fish and Game to come up with harvest practices that ensure that the kelp beds remain healthy and we don't do any damage based on our harvests. And just with our backgrounds of being Alaskans and going out and enjoying the water and fishing, I think it gives us an extra caution about going out and harvesting. And just like the last thing we would want to do would be to overharvest the kelp beds to the point where some of them were damaged or disappeared. So we have been collecting information. And now we've been harvesting from some of the same beds for four or five years. And so we're kind of continuously checking up on the kelp beds and making sure that they're just as big as they've ever been. We're doing that with GPS technology, as well as photos and just written observations. We do have very specific times of year and tides that we like to harvest to ensure that the harvest is going to be as light on the kelp beds as possible. And so far we've been affirmed that our techniques are working. And more or less, the biggest consideration is just to take a very small portion of any kelp bed and not harvest from beds that are fairly small because they're going to be less resilient. As far as just a general rundown on our harvesting, we'll make sure the weather is cooperating. Go out at the low flat tide when more of the kelp is going to be floating above the water's surface and we go out by boat anywhere from an hour outside of Juneau to sometimes as far as 15-hour boat ride from Juneau. And so then, we go out by boat, find the kelp bed, and just kind of carefully take one piece at a time, reach over the side of the boat. And we make that look a little nice and carefully bring it back into the boat sort of between the leafy fronds and the stipe. And sometimes it can be just a couple hours of harvesting for smaller harvests. The larger harvests in the very large kelp beds of the outer coast, sometimes, it'll be like a 12-hour straight haul, so we're harvesting for a couple of tide cycles straight because of the distance we go to get out there. And so we'll do weekly small harvests and then, kind of monthly larger harvests further away from Juneau.

Got you. And then that schedule of harvesting, that's specifically tying back to keeping them healthy?

MATT: Yeah. Harvesting during the windows when the kelp is going to be most resilient. And then, yeah, we're able to put up enough kelp during the summer harvesting window so that we can continue to process and dry and make our products throughout the entire year.

That's great. Awesome. I saw that you have some recipes on the website. Are those all sort of just self-created? Are they like adapted from others? Is it a bit of both?

MATT: So we have three owners at Barnacle and several employees. And we're all just extremely into food and cooking. And so we have some recipes that are kind of handed down or just family recipes. Some of our staff have really taken a big lead in working with our products and then coming up with exciting ways to use them. Some of those are internally developed and others are adapted from other recipes using seaweed or any recipe that calls for salsa or pickles. We can easily work out, get into those. Yeah.

Right on. I'm all about it, man. I saw that there's a bunch of large publications that you guys have been featured in, like the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times. How did that come about?

MATT: We feel very fortunate to have gathered a lot of attention from the media. And I think a lot of that is due to the uniqueness of what we're doing. We're really one of the first food businesses to work with kelp in such a familiar food. So we're using it in everyday staple foods like salsa, instead of using it in more traditional dried nori sheets or sushi or those types of applications. This kind of uniqueness of the products and then the backdrop of Alaska has made us a very intriguing story for the media. And so we've been reached out to for most of those stories pretty organically but then any time we catch wind that a story is coming out on kelp, we'll sometimes send out some samples to strategic folks and see if they can get in the hands of the authors or whatnot. So there's definitely some work that goes into getting that exposure as well.

That makes a lot of sense. I guess this next question is sort of adjacent to that, maybe it's related in some ways. I also saw that there is a lot of connection you guys had made with businesses. Not just obviously in the state but also out of state. I noticed that there were a lot in California and then all the way in New York and Maine. And Maine, now that you mentioned Maine as kind of being on the kelp train, that makes sense to me but what about these other places?

MATT: We've found that collaborations are a very effective way of growing the business and getting our name out there. And we've been really fortunate to be partnered up with some pretty influential businesses that are in a place where they can work with us. We're hoping someday to be able to support small businesses like us and leverage our brand eventually for other businesses. But most of the time it's us partnering with a bigger brand who is intrigued by our story or is interested in getting into kelp or infusing that into their products. So, yeah, probably our most notable collaboration to date is with the salad chain, Sweetgreen, which is apparently a pretty big phenomenon along the coasts. I have yet to eat at one, but it sounds like they make a wicked salad. *laughs* They really see a lot of potential in kelp as a food source. Just as far as the sustainability of the resource and how abundant and fast it grows and then the nutrition benefits. And so they reached out to us and were interested in doing a co-branded product. And so, yeah, it's just a really great way, rather than compete with an existing company or a new company, to put your minds together and also expose yourself to other customers and get recognition from both customer bases. And I think that's just a big appeal to a lot of customers is seeing companies working together and collaborating.

I love that. You definitely hear about small businesses having to compete with other larger companies and having it be a little bit more cutthroat, not as collaborative. And so, to hear that, I love that for one. And two, I just really hope that more and more companies will kind of follow suit and realize that you don't necessarily -- even if you're in somewhat of a similar space even, it doesn't mean you have to have a necessarily an adversarial relationship. There's ways to help build both of each other up and mutually benefit each other, which I think is really cool.

MATT: Definitely. Yeah.

I'm always curious about new things, and you don't have to tease it if you don't want to, but are there any new upcoming flavors or salsa or anything that you can tease for us?

MATT: Yeah. So our latest release, which was a long time coming and we're really excited about, was the Bullwhip Hot Sauce. So that was a long time coming, lots of research and development to get it figured out. So that has kind of been a big push that we're taking a little bit of a break on the product launches right now. But I think in the coming months, you're going to see some more collaborations with Alaskan businesses and maybe businesses outside of Alaska that are going to bring some brand new condiments that we haven't worked with before into the Barnacle product fold and some kind of cool twists on stuff we're already doing. And then going into next season, we're going to continue to branch out into some of the non-kelp foods that we have going. So we're working with blueberries, rhubarb, and spruce tips. And so we'll be expanding that land-based product line as well because it's been received really well.

That's very exciting. It's cool just hearing about the growth and then just seeing the ideas that branch out from there. That's really exciting, man. So, as far as The Bear Box, what was it that made you guys want to be a part of it?

MATT: We were honored that you reached out to us and asked us to be a part of it. And it really just fits in with our hopes of collaboration. And so to be part of a box that is trying to show some of the great handmade items being made in a particular region or just in Alaska, in general, it meant a lot to us. And so we would love to be involved in any and all types of Bear Boxes in the future if possible just because it is such a cool way to get our name out there and be associated with this movement of locally made and quality products coming out of the state. We think it fits perfectly with what we're trying to do, and I actually just got an email from someone the other day who found our product in The Bear Box and was eager to try some of our other products.

That's awesome. That's exciting. I mean, that's always the hope, is that going into it, it was always about building connections. Not just helping to get the product out there, but also building these connections between customers and then, introducing them to new businesses that they maybe weren't aware of or maybe they were and they just hadn't gotten around to trying the products. And just hoping to turn it into not just a one and done, but this sort of longstanding relationship, whether that's the relationship between us or introducing new people to you guys.

MATT: Cool. Yeah, I think you guys are achieving that goal. For sure. You’re doing something really interesting.

Appreciate that.

MATT: Yeah.

So do you have an inspirational quote or maybe just words of wisdom that you can share with us, whether that's just in general or maybe for up and coming business owners?

MATT: I guess I'd say the biggest thing that we do at Barnacle is we take the seasonal bounties and we preserve it. And we try to do so in a way that will feed people and show respect to the resources in the land where we got our ingredients from. And so we're trying to not get too lost in all the different complex things that the business is doing and really just take it easy, one day at a time. And so a lot of our time is in the kitchen because we go out and harvest kelp once a week or we work with harvesters who are sending us berries and rhubarb. And every day we're in the kitchen through the monotonous process of putting it in jars and packing it, and this and that. I'd say a motto of ours is something I learned while doing an apprenticeship at a pickle company in New York, actually. And I learned from this man who is just the most amazing worker I've ever met. And his ability to make these pickles was just off the charts. I was struggling to do about a 20th of the work he was doing per hour. It's just ridiculous. He would make 30 jars in the time that I'd get one jar done. So he was like, "All we do here is we make it nice." And so that just kind of instilled into our kitchen and our processing that no matter how much work we have to do and how bogged down we are in the day's tasks, every jar is just like, "Make it nice." And so we're always putting that philosophy into our work because we know that if we want for people to come back and buy this product more than one time, it's got to be really good. So every jar we try to make it nice and keep that in the back of our minds so that you never get totally lost in the moment or totally lost in the monotonous.

Yeah. Well, I'm sure just like anything else, certain aspects can potentially be a grind at times, especially based on whatever else you have going on at that moment. It's a simple mantra but an incredibly effective one, which it seems like sometimes the simplest ones are the most effective ones. Love it. Last thing, is there anything else that you haven't mentioned yet that you'd really like to? Something that maybe we haven't touched on?

MATT: I guess I'll just mention a little bit more specifics on kind of the virtues of kelp. I don't know if I've quite covered that but I guess the other thing that got us really excited about kelp was it is a zero input crop. And so as these farms begin to pop up and start producing kelp, they're producing this really amazing food source without any need for fertilizer, without any need for fresh water, and without any need for land. So it's a crop that can feed the world and really doesn't need much in terms of inputs, which is very different than a lot of the high nutrition foods out there. And then on top of that, not only does it require very little and produce a lot, it actually does some great things for the ecosystem that it's a part of while it's growing. It provides a habitat for fish. It actually is a carbon sink, so it pulls carbonic acid out of the water that can help buffer ocean acidification locally. And so it has all these great ecosystem benefits, requires no inputs, and then on top of all that, it's really good for your body. I think a lot of people kind of have this base intuition that eating seaweed is really good for them, but the struggle is finding a way to incorporate it into their diets and find a way for it to taste good. And so I think at Barnacle, we're trying to solve that problem by helping people get this amazing sustainable healthy food into their diets without the pain of busting out the sushi roller or making food that's really unfamiliar. So we're really trying to help people get kelp into their diets.

That's awesome, man. Sounds like you guys are already well on your way as far as that goes.

MATT: Working on it. For sure. *laughs*

Yeah. One day at a time. *laughs*

MATT: Yeah. Exactly.

Right on. Well, I guess I will end on that note. It's been a pleasure, Matt. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me and we're glad to be able to have you in The Bear Box.

MATT: Thank you so much, Chad. And yeah, really nice talking with you. And let me know if you need anything else in the meantime.

Likewise, man. Appreciate it. Talk to you soon.

Thanks for being a part of The Bear Box, Matt and Lia! Their salsa is great and if you'd like to check out that and more of what they have to offer, head on over to their website. Or connect with them on Facebook and Instagram!