From the Flying Fish shack on Hawthorne, Lyf Gildersleeve passion about seafood is palpable. Maybe because it’s a passion that can be traced back to his upbringing in northern Idaho.
“My dad used to be a flight instructor for small planes. And trips from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Seattle were very common. During those trips, he would bring back fish to sell inland. That’s how Flying Fish got started in 1979, before I was even born.”
The business idea permeated the entire family, and in 2007, Lyf’s aunt opened the second Flying Fish in Durango, Colorado. That entrepreneurial gene found its way to Lyf, and in 2009 he and his wife, Natalie, opened up the third location in Park City, Utah — but two years later they sold that location and moved to Portland.
“Portland has an amazing resource for food production. both farmed and wild. Being only 90 minutes from the ocean is awesome. It allows for sustainable seafood direct from the fishermen. There are no flights required to get you to this natural resource. Oregonians are lucky.
“In addition, the farms around portland are into raising their animals differently — not in confined feedlots. Portland residents are into living a more sustainable lifestyle. And it’s been awesome to see how we can move forward as a culture… and ultimately be a role model for the nation to follow.”
Starting at the source
Fresh and sustainable seafood is only one part of the equation Lyf is trying to address through Flying Fish. The other focuses on the fishermen, and how his simple process is looking to affect the supply chain to make it more fair to them. To that end, he took his knowledge of the industry and spent a lot of time building up the fishermen he engages.
“Since I grew up with my family owning a fish market, I knew what to look for and how to handle fish. When I moved to Oregon four-and-a-half years ago, I started with a clean slate so I had to build all my relationships one by one. I started by driving up and down the coasts, talking to fishermen on the docks and eventually building relationships which are still in place today.
“Currently, I have direct relationships with fishermen throughout Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, and a few on the east coast. I go out fishing with some of my commercial fishermen to see how they handle the fish after being caught.”
With relationships in hand, the business of bringing fresh and sustainable fish to customers in Portland began. While costs are always a concern in a retail environment, Lyf worked with these initial partners on equitable pricing for everyone.
Equitable pay for fresh and sustainable seafood are parts of the equation Lyf is trying to address through Flying Fish, and by focusing on the fishermen first, his simple process is looking to affect the supply chain in very impactful ways.
“We pay the fishermen more money for their catch, and we also try to buy their bi-catch so they can get more value for their fishing trips. In addition, we work on helping them improve their quality, because in the end if it lasts longer and is better quality, they can get more money for their product.”
But as Lyf has waded into the supply chain, the challenges began to become more apparent.
“As I work with more fishermen, the complexity gets deeper. If the large processors find out that a fisherman is selling direct to me or the consumer, then the processor won’t sell them fuel, ice, or bait. This ultimately makes it hard for the fisherman to be able to fish.”
These hurdles have not deterred Lyf, because in the end he knows his process is better for both the environment and fishermen.
“Even with the potential challenges associated with the relationship, fishermen love Flying Fish. I pay them more than the larger processors on the coasts, and they know the consumer is enjoying their amazing product, which gives the fisherman a good feeling about working with me.”
Taking it a step further
Being on the coast is far from the only requirement to meet Flying Fish standards. With a background in aquaculture and his mission, Lyf focuses only on engaging those who are doing it right.
“Part of my evaluation process is to make sure the farm is raising them properly without artificial color, hormones, antibiotics, and lower stocking densities. Sustainability, for me, is really important, and sustainability is more than just how the fish is raised and caught. There are factors like the amount of fuel used to transport fish direct to me, instead as opposed to sending them to China and back to be processed, which really happens. We are also cognizant about not supporting overfished species, and buying what’s in season — all important steps in the total sustainability cycle.”
Kicking it up a notch
But making an impact now, and a bigger impact as Flying Fish evolves, is the basis for Flying Fish’s current Kickstarter campaign. The campaign funds will allow them to expand their warehouse facilities, and also open up a new retail location on NE Sandy.
“I am pretty unconventional in that I haven’t had to get big bank loans up to date. So I’m trying to continue that methodology. I think we, the business community, need to re-wire our practices to be more geared towards people, not just corporations selling each company to each other. The crowdfunding method is community backed, which is how we want to grow. The bottom line is that we are not selling out to a big company. Period.”
Even with the new funds, however, Lyf sees additional challenges on the horizon.
“Keeping the value of a small business as we grow is difficult — both from a staffing and supplier standpoint. Our goal is to work with more small farms rather than to simply choose the larger farms who could supply us the quantities that we need. This is a key difference between the Flying Fish model and other retailers. We use the small guys only, no big co-op farms. And from a staffing perspective, it’s important to keep my friends and community working with me, not just hire ’employees’ so to speak. We are all family around Flying Fish.”