By Jennifer Sasseen
For the Bellingham Business Journal
The story of how an Alaska salmon fisherman became an avid nutrition advocate and built a company to ship wild-caught seafood across the country is a fish tale of the passionate sort.
“We are really passionate not only about great quality and customer service, but really about education, nutrition education,” said Randy Hartnell, 60, founder of Bellingham-based Vital Choice Wild Seafood and Organics.
At the core of that education is the belief that wild salmon is nutritionally superior to farmed salmon.
“While farmed salmon has about as much omega-3 fat as wild salmon does,” according to the Vital Choice website, “farmed salmon are also (unlike wild salmon) high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats, derived from the grains and vegetable oils they are fed.
The diet of farmed salmon can include fishmeal, fish oil, antibiotics and pellets, while wild salmon feed on krill, zooplankton, sardines and herring.
“Wild salmon’s sort of the grass-fed, pasture-raised beef of this business,” Hartnell said. “There is no more sustainable food on the planet than wild salmon.”
Hartnell said that wild salmon don’t require large swaths of land to grow feed for them, nor do they require antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease.
There’s also a difference between farmed salmon and other types of aquaculture, Hartnell said.
Shellfish actually filter and clean the water they’re grown in, but farmed salmon create sewage that is pumped out into the environment.
Any perception that there may be a shortage of wild salmon is untrue, Hartnell said.
Wild salmon thrive in Alaska, where biologists carefully manage the rivers to ensure enough salmon are spawning before fishing is allowed.
As a result, last year’s sockeye salmon run was the biggest in 20 years.
Yet it wasn’t until farmed salmon — raised mostly in countries like Chile and Norway — flooded the American market in the late 1990s and threatened his livelihood that Hartnell came to realize the true value of the fish he’d been pursuing for more than 20 years.
It was a dark time in his industry, he said.
Grocery stores and restaurants across America had quickly switched to farmed salmon because it was everything the wild version was not: cosmetically perfect, consistently priced and readily available.
Buyers were telling Hartnell and his fisherman friends that no one wanted wild salmon anymore.
“One fellow said, ‘You guys are the last of the buffalo hunters, get over it, move on’,” Hartnell said.
But they couldn’t move on.
They knew there were advantages to wild salmon and they couldn’t give up on it, even though the bills were piling up.
Then came what he called “a series of sort of serendipitous events.
First, a television commercial for Omaha Steaks caught his attention, for the very ordinariness of the product.
“So they’re selling red meat you can buy in any grocery store,” he said. “It wasn’t organic, there really wasn’t anything special about it, other than the fact that they would deliver it to your doorstep.”
Next, a friend invited Hartnell to accompany him to a Whole Foods.
The friend had made a deal with the store: he’d grill salmon in front of the store for taste tests and the store would sell his salmon.
“He said, ‘Randy, I’ve got a tiger by the tail,’” Hartnell remembered, “‘These people love our fish.’”
When customers asked questions about protein content and omega-3s Hartnell turned to his computer and to bookstores for answers.
“And what I figured out was, oh my God, this salmon that I’ve been catching and sending to Japan for 20 years is incredibly healthful,” he said. “And all these diet and nutrition books were recommending wild salmon as one of the healthiest proteins you can eat.”
One day a Whole Foods customer grew distraught because she didn’t know where to get wild salmon on a regular basis, Hartnell said.
An idea born of the Omaha Steaks commercial was slowly coalescing.
Perhaps he could find a way to get the healthiest, most flavorful wild salmon to people who wanted it but didn’t know where to find it.
He would form a company and he would call that company Vital Choice.
Spreading the word was Hartnell’s next hurdle.
He was working on his boat, half-listening to a PBS program on a TV in the cabin.
It featured skin specialist Nicholas Perricone, promoting his book “The Wrinkle Cure”.
“I heard him say that part of ‘the wrinkle cure’ was a salmon diet, eating salmon,” Hartnell said. “And so then I tuned in a little more closely and he was distinguishing between wild and farmed salmon, which nobody was doing back then.”
That was in late 2001, Hartnell said, he wrote Perricone a letter outlining Vital Choice’s plans to deliver wild salmon to anyone on a Fed Ex delivery route, suggesting they work together.
“It was kind of like putting a note in a bottle and pitching it off,” Hartnell said, “because I had no expectation I’d ever hear anything back.”
But he did hear back, from Perricone’s publicist,who told him Perricone wanted to put Vital Choice in his next book.
That was it.
Hartnell felt like he’d won the lottery.
He missed herring season, flying to the East Coast to meet Dr. Perricone instead.
Vital Choice made it into Perricone’s book. And into every book since, Hartnell said.
It was a mad scramble getting Vital Choice up-and-running before that first book came out, he said.
At first it was just Hartnell, his brother, Terry Hartnell, who had also been a fisherman, and their sister, Shari Hartnell.
Vital Choice has made numerous appearances in the media, including in Martha Stewart’s “Body+Soul”, Rachel Ray’s EveryDay Magazine, Sunset Magazine and the Dr. Oz Show, as well as in Mother Earth News and the Wall Street Journal.
It was named Whatcom County Small Business of the Year in 2013 by the Whatcom Business Alliance and the editors of its Business Pulse Magazine.
Vital Choice is a Certified B Corporation, a growing global movement of “people using business as a force for good”, according to www.bcorporation.net.
Besides a variety of seafood and shellfish, Vital Choice also sells organic, grass-fed beef from the Skagit River Ranch, heritage chickens, fish oil supplements and organic berries, trail mix and dark chocolate bars.
In 2014, the company acquired California-based I Love Blue Sea, also a catalog and online seafood supplier.
Today Vital Choice employs about 35 people, Hartnell said, including his wife, Carla, and daughter, Rachel.
The company has a second warehouse in Richmond, Virginia, ships all over the country and has $20-$30 million a year in sales.
His biggest source of new customers is word of mouth, Hartnell said.
Once they taste Vital Choice products, they become advocates for the company.
“We’ve never lost money,” he said. “Every year we exceed the prior year’s sales, even through the recession. We’ve never had to lay anybody off.”
It’s all about nutrition, said Nick Juenemann, quality assurance supervisor at the warehouse in Ferndale.
“We’re selling good health,” he said. “It’s not just food.”