Tough times felt by renowned Port Townsend lutefisk business | Working Waterfront

Posted 2/11/21

Scott Kimmel, owner of Port Townsend’s New Day Fisheries, says COVID-19 has caused his lutefisk operation to take a nosedive.

But the pandemic isn’t solely to blame for a downward …

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Tough times felt by renowned Port Townsend lutefisk business | Working Waterfront

Scott Kimmel, owner of New Day Fisheries stands in front of his fishing boats, Adriatic and Ellie-J.
Scott Kimmel, owner of New Day Fisheries stands in front of his fishing boats, Adriatic and Ellie-J.
Leader photo by Nick Twietmeyer
Posted

Scott Kimmel, owner of Port Townsend’s New Day Fisheries, says COVID-19 has caused his lutefisk operation to take a nosedive.

But the pandemic isn’t solely to blame for a downward trend in sales of the polarizing northern dish.

Lutefisk is dried cod that has been rehydrated in a lye solution before being boiled or baked and served around the holidays and other special occasions. It is perhaps more-aptly described as a traditional Scandinavian dish which either strikes mortal fear into the hearts of those who’ve known it, or nostalgic memories of wholesome meals shared in the company of family and friends.

It just depends on who you ask. But as Kimmel’s lutefisk sales show, most folks these days probably fall into that former category. 

“Our sales have been declining for years and years just because our customers have been passing away and the younger generation’s not picking up the slack,” Kimmel said.

“So, it’s a dying business, is what that is. This year’s even worse because of the COVID virus.It’s just killed it; we’re selling barely anything.”

Tradition, too, we have learned, is one of the many luxuries that can rarely be afforded in a world wracked by a pandemic. With large group gatherings on the COVID no-no list, many traditional community lutefisk dinners have been put on hold.

“Most of our lutefisk business has been with these traditional Scandinavian dinners,” Kimmel explained. “They can’t have these gatherings and dinners with elderly people and the younger generation doesn’t tend to pick up on eating lutefisk.”

As one of Kimmel’s crew passes by, the owner turns to him, “You hear that Dylan? Wou’ve gotta start eating lutefisk.”

“Hell no,” was the instant reply.

While there may not be a large market for lutefisk into the future, Kimmel said New Day still takes great pride in their product.

“It’s sad to say, but I’ve never been a lutefisk fan. However, we do make the best lutefisk there is,” he said. “I’m a firm believer, if you start out with the best, freshest product, you’re going to end up with the best finished product. We do produce the best and that’s how we’ve survived in the business.”

“When I first started we had tons of competition. Now our closest competition is in Minnesota. We’re pretty much it,” he added. 

A taste for lutefisk, it seems, has been replaced by a fondness for avocado toast and nut milk in today’s younger generation.

Though a marketable lutefisk demographic remains a question mark, Kimmel said sales of his renowned Poulsbo Pickled Herring have been up lately despite the pandemic, though he’s not really sure why.

“I don’t know if they think the cure for COVID is pickled herring or what, but they’ve been buying the heck out of Poulsbo Pickled Herring,” Kimmel said. “[It’s] the only product I do that has seen probably a 5 percent increase over last year.” 

If one looks to the customer reviews on New Day Fisheries’ Facebook page, the reason for the rise in Kimmel’s pickled herring sales actually may be quite simple: It’s just really good. 

“Just the best there is,” wrote one customer. “I eat a jar a week. Sometimes just drain a jar then add some Tillamook Sour Cream.”

“Their ‘Poulsbo Pickled Herring’ is simply the best pickled herring I’ve ever eaten!” Said another reviewer. “I’m in my 70s and grew up in the Nordic community in Minnesota ... so coming from me, that’s a huge endorsement!”

With many more reviews on the page continuing in similar fashion, it’s probably worth mentioning here that in addition to the typical 16-ounce jars of Poulsbo Pickled Herring found in retail stores, New Day Fisheries also sells a one-gallon tub. And for the true devotees, a five-gallon bucket of pickled herring is also available.

Kimmel said sales of New Day’s other specialties, live shrimp and live Dungeness crab, have seen a pretty big hit during the pandemic. The owner estimated overall sales to be down by about 30 percent in 2020, mostly attributable to decreased demand from distributors no longer providing fresh seafood to restaurants.

“Our shrimp market price was down 20 percent because of COVID,” Kimmel said. “I don’t sell directly to restaurants, but most of my customers do. I sell to distributors in Seattle and Tacoma that distribute to the restaurant business and that’s been a huge impact without having the restaurant trade at full capacity.”

New Day Fisheries’ live Dungeness crab and shrimp remain the company’s bread-and-butter, Kimmel said while tromping through a couple inches of saltwater covering the cement floor of New Day’s Washington Street location.

Blue plastic tote bins line the walls of the industrial building, a constant flow of saltwater passing through each bin. A solitary crab has apparently executed a futile escape plan and is soaking, half-immersed, in the floor water. Kimmel stoops down, grabs a leg and plops it back into one of the saltwater-filled totes.

Water rushes out of a pipe routed through an exterior wall. The saltwater cascades down a series of troughs before being funneled through a series of stacked totes, each filled with Dungeness crab.

Kimmel said the water is pumped in from Port Townsend Bay and cycled through each tote before flowing onto the cement floor. A drain in the floor ensures that the water passes back into the bay.

The system, the owner explained, is crucial to keep his stock of live crab alive. Constantly flowing water refreshes oxygen levels, which would otherwise become depleted and kill off the crabs in the totes.

Kimmel said his two fishing boats, Adriatic and Ellie-J, were preparing to head back out to Washington’s coast and drop their pots for the winter crabbing season.

The boats, he said, would crab from January through April, and cut the season short to return to Port Townsend and load up with the shrimping gear and head out again, this time bound for the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The shrimp season, Kimmel said, would likely last from May through September.

If last year was any indication, Kimmel said the winter crabbing season was not looking too promising.

That said, as a third-generation commercial fisherman, he has become accustomed to planning for the parabolic swings of fishing seasons, a common trait among those who share his profession. It’s a trait which he expects will see him through the stormy days of the pandemic, as well. 

“We’ve been here for 36 years and we’ll get through it,” Kimmel said. “We’ve been through lots of ups and downs in the fishing industry.”

Those looking to snap up some seafood from New Day Fisheries are welcome to come right up to Kimmel’s shop at 2527 Washington St. in Port Townsend.

To reach New Day Fisheries by phone, call 360-385-4600.

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