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Interior Alaska Fish Processors.

For a while, Virgil Umphenour was content to make a steady living cleaning and freezing salmon and shipping the fish to Los Angeles. He also produced smoked fish products and processed local hunters' game.

After more than four years in the business, the urge to expand his Santa's Smokehouse in North Pole got the better of him. Umphenour incorporated his business as Interior Alaska Fish Processors Inc. in 1988. The following year, he leased a building that had been constructed in the mid-80s as a slaughterhouse. From this second site on Davis Road in the Fairbanks industrial area, Umphenour expanded his enterprise from a seasonal operation to a year-round one.

The 8,845-square-foot structure is six times the size of his original quarters in North Pole. Built on a 75,000-square-foot parcel of land that belongs to the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the building was financed through a state Agricultural Revolving Fund loan and was nine-tenths complete when the state took it over in 1986.

Umphenour added a loading dock and modified the building's electrical system and plumbing. He installed an industrial-sized smoker, experimented with a recipe for fish sausage that has since proven popular, and began attending seafood shows. Umphenour also opened a "factory-direct" retail store carrying the company's own fresh, frozen and smoked fish, as well as seafood, poultry, meat and cheese products.

According to Umphenour, Interior Alaska Fish Processors is growing steadily. Besides operating the local market and supplying several tourist stops and military commissaries, his Santa's Smokehouse fillets, jerkys, sausages, hot links, hot dogs and burgers are now marketed nationwide through distributors on the Lower 48's east and west coasts.

Although the Santa's Smokehouse products are manufactured for sale in Alaska with fish or meat ingredients, Interior Alaska Fish Processors has been able to send only fish products outside the state. The company is being reviewed for U.S. Department of Agriculture approval that would allow it to ship red meat products Outside as well. Other products Umphenour hopes to begin marketing include a cream cheese and salmon spread and smoked cod.

Umphenour estimates he sends about 200,000 pounds of fresh-frozen fish, primarily chum salmon, to Los Angeles each year. Another 30,000 pounds of chum and king salmon are air-freighted fresh to Los Angeles and Boston each summer.

The corporation also sells a special-recipe ikura, or caviar, to Japan, along with regular caviar and sujiko, or salted salmon roe. "It depends on the run," Umphenour says. "We can sell all we can get." He attributes the success of his caviar sales, at least in part, to the help of Japanese egg technicians who advised him regarding upgrading that operation two summers ago.

The Santa's Smokehouse label has proven especially popular in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. After a recent trade show and seafood festival in Long Beach, Umphenour and his partners - Janet McCormick, his wife, and Donna Gatto, who handles outside sales - signed on with at least two more distributors.

According to Umphenour, Interior Alaska Fish Processors is the only processor in Alaska manufacturing fish sausage. He notes that at least two Outside companies also were marketing fish sausage at the Long Beach show.

Until two years ago, Umphenour's business employed just four people year-round; today, employment averages 10 full-time, permanent workers. In the summer, that number quadruples.

Salmon processing once accounted for 80 percent of output - with whitefish, sheefish, halibut and game making up most of the rest - but now constitutes about half. In 1990, the company processed about 200,000 pounds of salmon.

Interior Alaska Fish Processors also handles large quantities of poultry and meat, mostly game brought in to be custom-processed. Umphenour estimates workers last summer butchered as many as 5,000 pounds of moose a day and in October were smoking as many as 1,000 pounds of game sausage a day.

Though operations again threaten to outgrow available space, Interior Alaska Fish Processors is equipped to do just about anything a customer requests. The company has smoked whole hogs and bear hams and made ptarmigan jerky and sausage.

According to Umphenour, his company's biggest obstacle to growth has been financial. "We were undercapitalized, so we didn't have the ability to aggressively market products," he explains. Umphenour also notes the high cost of new equipment has made many purchases prohibitive.

But Umphenour's wife, McCormick, feels there's an up side to having to operate out-of-pocket. "When you're undercapitalized, you're more cautious, as in how to balance your money," she says.

The couple feels that being headquartered in Interior Alaska, rather than hindering efforts, has given business a boost. Umphenour and McCormick say that salmon from the Yukon River is the most flavorful, an advantage that has helped them to hold their own against their Alaskan competitors. The company buys its fish from a number of outlying areas, including Galena, Ruby, Tanana, Rampart, Stevens Village and Circle.

"Yukon River salmon swim the farthest from saltwater to the spawning ground of any fish in the world," Umphenour says. "They're genetically the strongest. They have the highest oil content. They have the best flavor. We have the best raw material."

Virgil Umphenour of Interior Alaska Fish Processors, Clint Elston of Human Endeavors and Sam McConkey of SportsVision are small-business people who take pride in their growing operations. Their enthusiasm for the products they are developing, the lessons they learn and apply in manufacturing and marketing, and their resourcefulness in financing expansions are fueling successful Interior enterprises.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Special Section: Small Business; Alaskan company specializing in fish, poultry and meat processing
Author:Martin, Ingrid
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Human Endeavors.
Next Article:Wringing out an overseas water sale.

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