Fish broth project, Enoki Eatery win $1,500 prizes in fifth Sitka Food Business Innovation Contest

One group of winners is using parts of fish that normally are wasted to create fish broth, while the other winner has a Japanese-Hawaiian pop-up restaurant with an Alaska twist. Congratulations to Lexi Fish-Hackett and Edith Johnson of the as-yet unnamed fish broth business and to Gretchen Stelzenmuller of Enoki Eatery. They are the winners of $1,500 each in the fifth annual Sitka Food Business Innovation Contest.

“We are happy to encourage more businesses to get into the local food system with our contest,” said Charles Bingham, board president of the Sitka Local Foods Network, which sponsors the contest. “Even though we had other entries, our judges were unanimous in picking these two standouts. We really liked the fish broth business, since it is reducing wasted parts of the fish. Enoki Eatery is offering new tastes in Sitka, and the smoked salmon musubi is really tasty. The Sitka Local Foods Network’s mission is to increase the amount of locally harvested and produced foods into the diets of Southeast Alaskans, so we hope our prizes continue to encourage local food entrepreneurs here in Sitka.”

The fish broth business is still getting off the ground, but the two women behind it have deep roots in Sitka’s food system. Edith Johnson owns Our Town Catering and was head chef at a couple of Sitka hotels before opening her own catering business, while Lexi Fish-Hackett is co-owner of Fish and Family Seafoods and studied nutrition in college.

“Our food business idea is to create a fish broth product and bring it to market. Broth is such a kitchen staple and can be used in so many types of cuisines. Plus we both love soup. Who doesn’t?” Edith and Lexi said. “There’s so much goodness in the bones of fish, which don’t get fully utilized on a commercial level, and we want to tap into that.”

In their entry form, Edith wrote, “Lexi approached me with an idea that she has had for years, the thought of using fish ‘waste’ — heads, bones and the meat left on the bones — to make a product that is very sustainable but also helps use fish parts that are thrown away. Every year in Sitka alone, thousands of fish carcasses are tossed into the ocean or disposed of. We would use these to make a fish bone broth.”

Edith and Lexi plan to make three types of fish broth. The first type is a bone broth that is clear and versatile using salmon bones and meat. The second type is a smoked salmon broth, which uses fish heads smoked by Catch Sitka Seafoods, and produces a concentrated broth that is richer and flavorful, meant for soups with heavy creams or milk. The third type is a Sitka-style fumet, which is a rich, high-end French broth with leeks, garlic, white wine, and gently poached halibut. A fumet is targeted to fish sauces on a high-end scale for delicate broths.

“We are really excited to work on creating a pantry essential that is sourced from our local Southeast Alaska waters,” Lexi and Edith said. “Another goal is to help to improve food security in Alaska by focusing sales within our region and state, at least to start. We want to create a product that is convenient, nutritious, and that people love!”

Gretchen Stelzenmuller grew up in Sitka, but spent time living in Hawai’i before coming back to Sitka. She worked in kitchens along the way. She started Enoki Eatery a few months ago, and had pop-up restaurants at Harbor Mountain Brewing and the Backdoor Cafe. She was using the Sitka Fine Arts Camp kitchen for her pop-up cooking, but will be looking for another kitchen to use this summer. She hopes to have a bicycle food cart for special events, such as the Sitka Farmers Market, and to use pop-up locations at other times. Eventually she hopes to find a more permanent location.

“Enoki Eatery was born from my love of making food as beautiful as it is delicious, sustainable as it is convenient,” Gretchen wrote on her entry form. “Enoki Eatery combines unique Southeast Alaskan flavors and ingredients with the style and inspiration of Japanese street food.  We specialize in musubi, a Hawaiian/japanese snack food of sticky rice, togarashi seasoning (mainly sesames and seaweed) topped with protein, such as smoked salmon, chicken, or mushroom wrapped in sheets of nori seaweed, for easy eating and extra nutrients. 

“It is most commonly served with spam, and though I do serve it this way, I am trying to use healthier and more sustainable ingredients that reflect Alaskan culture. Our other menu items include a pork katsu sandwich, soba noodles with black garlic sauce, kimchi rice bowls, mochi cupcakes and much more. It changes with the seasons. I focus on high-quality ingredients, simple menus, and artful presentations.”

Sustainability is a concern of Gretchen’s, and she knows it can make for a costly business model in Sitka. She wants to use local ingredients, since that supports local growers and harvesters. “This not only helps our economy, but cuts down on my environmental impact through barge and air freight use,” she said.

“The Sitka Local Food Network winnings will allow me to stay sustainable by financing biodegradable packaging for my take-out only food cart,” Gretchen said. “Staying dedicated to creating less waste is expensive and this is a step in the right direction. Sitka already faces mounting issues with shipping waste off the island. As a new business we aim to be part of the solution by being conscientious of our impact. I am sourcing biodegradable packaging specifically so that I know, no matter where it ends up in the waste stream, it will not negatively impact our environment.” 

Last year’s winners were Joanne “Chef Jo” Michalski of Muddy Mermaid Mudd Pies (frozen yogurt pies) and Nalani James of Eggstravgant (eggs from her chickens). The 2020 winners were Andrew Jylkka of Southeast Dough Company (fresh sourdough bread and fermented foods) and Levi Adams of Forage and Farm (mushroom growing and foraging). In 2019, our winners were Brittany Dumag of Castaway (food cart with Cuban pork sandwiches using Alaska pork) and Tamara Kyle of Sitka Sauers (fermented foods), with a special youth winner award for Abigail Ward of Sitka Spices (meat and fish rubs). In 2018, the winner was Hope Merritt of Gimbal Botanicals (beach greens and local teas).

Joanne Michalski, Nalani James win $1,500 prizes in fourth annual Sitka Food Business Innovation Contest

One winner is making frozen mud pies while the other winner is raising chickens for fresh, local eggs to sell to Sitka residents. Congratulations to Joanne “Chef Jo” Michalski of Muddy Mermaid Mudd Pies and Nalani James of Eggstravagant, who won the two $1,500 prizes in the fourth annual Sitka Food Business Innovation Contest.

“We are happy to encourage more businesses to get into the local food system with our contest,” said Charles Bingham, board president of the Sitka Local Foods Network, which sponsors the contest. “Both businesses already are selling products, even with the pandemic, even though these are relatively new businesses. The Sitka Local Foods Network’s mission is to increase the amount of locally harvested and produced foods into the diets of Southeast Alaskans, so we hope our prizes continue to encourage local food entrepreneurs here in Sitka.”

The Sitka Food Business Innovation Contest has $1,500 prizes for each of two categories, start-ups (less than two years old) and existing businesses. This year all of the entries were in the start-up category, but since Chef Jo already owns Jo’s Downtown Dawgs and has been selling her mud pies to restaurants, her entry was moved to the existing business category so there could be two awards. “We felt both entries were deserving of awards,” Bingham said.

Chef Jo has a long association with food in Sitka, being a former chef with the Westmark and current general manager for the NMS contract with the Sitka School District. She started Jo’s Downtown Dawgs four years ago next to Russell’s, and last summer started making her Muddy Mermaid Mudd Pies. A Muddy Mermaid Mudd Pie is double layers of hand-crafted sea-salted caramel frozen yogurt, with a house-made caramel ribbon in the middle topped with home-made fudge sauce and crushed peanuts. She also has made special-occasion mud pies with crushed Oreos crumb crust, and for Valentine’s Day it was Dutch chocolate-raspberry with a ladyfinger crust. She currently is selling her Muddy Mermaid Mudd Pies through the Mean Queen and she sells retail whole pies to the public. She also sells slices of her pie at her food cart.

One of her barriers to being able to produce more mud pies is the lack of a commercial-grade ice cream maker, so she’s only been able to produce two pies at a time. She plans to use her prize money to purchase a commercial-grade ice cream maker so she can increase her production. She also will use it to buy product supplies, and to give a tip to two teenage girls who helped her last summer, twin sisters Michelle and Andrea Winger.

“My challenge at first was how to keep it frozen, and I found a ‘cooler’ that seriously keeps it frozen for 24 hours. YES!” Chef Jo said on her entry form. “The local response has been amazing, and in this time of ‘what’s next’ indulging in a slice of pie is something we all can use.”

Nalani is fairly new to Sitka, but already has been active in the local food scene as a co-manager of the Sitka Farmers Market in 2020 and vendor in 2019, and as an occasional instructor of Sitka Kitch cooking classes. (NOTE: Even though Nalani has an association with the Sitka Local Foods Network, which hosts the Sitka Farmers Market, she did not participate in the contest judging).

Nalani said she plans to use the prize money to help improve her chicken coop’s protection and deterrence from predators, such as rodents and bears. She and her family are moving to a new location in town, so she is in the process of rebuilding her coop, and wants to provide an electric fence perimeter to protect her birds. She started selling eggs through her Facebook page earlier this year, and plans to sell them through the page and at Sitka Farmers Markets during the summer. She plans to hire two intermittent employees to help her in the summer with cleaning the chicken coop and taking care of the chickens.

“Eggs will be a great addition to the fresh vegetables and fish in town,” Nalani said in her application. “There are many essential vitamins in eggs, and protein needed for children and elderly in the area. They taste better, too.”

Last year’s winners were Andrew Jylkka of Southeast Dough Company (fresh sourdough bread and fermented foods) and Levi Adams of Forage and Farm (mushroom growing and foraging). In 2019, our winners were Brittany Dumag of Castaway (food cart with Cuban pork sandwiches using Alaska pork) and Tamara Kyle of Sitka Sauers (fermented foods), with a special youth winner award for Abigail Ward of Sitka Spices (meat and fish rubs). In 2018, the winner was Hope Merritt of Gimbal Botanicals (beach greens and local teas).