It’s 10 a.m. on Thursday morning and Whitehorse’s newest fish and seafood store, Haines Packing Co., is filling up with customers.
They’ve come to get the first pick of the latest shipment of fresh fish that arrived last night from Haines. The coolers are full of fresh halibut and salmon, and the tank is crawling with live crabs.
“I just like good fish, and this is good fish,” said Dave Milne, who came in this morning to pick up some king salmon. “There’s no comparing the quality of getting fresh wild or fresh frozen wild fish.”
Milne used to get his fish from Haines Packing Co. when it was just a trailer, selling fish on weekends from its station on Fourth and Lambert. Since the company opened a full store on June 2, he’s become a regular customer.
“I just think having something like this in town is great,” he said. “This stuff was caught a few days ago.”
Behind the counter, Genny Rietze is all smiles. She opened the store with her husband, Harry Rietze, and she said the days when Harry arrives from Alaska with a fresh shipment of fish feel like Christmas.
“Harry said, ‘I’m here now, you can take the day off today.’ But I’m like, ‘This is the best day ever,’ because if someone comes in, I’m going to have what they want,” she said.
Genny said the last few days were tough. The store sold out of halibut and sockeye salmon, and she had to turn people away. But as a new business, too much demand is probably a good problem to have.
“Whitehorse has an appreciation for good fish, you know,” Genny said. “[People] understand the difference between wild and farmed and they like it.”
The Rietzes first started selling fish and seafood in Whitehorse in May 2011. Harry is a joint owner of a fish processing plant in Haines that sells fish in bulk to large buyers in Seattle. But they decided there was a market in Whitehorse, and began driving up with loads of fish to sell from their trailer.
They used to drive up on Thursday mornings, sell their fish for three days, and drive back down on Saturday evenings.
“It was a lot of time in the car together, and a lot of time in the tiny trailer together,” Genny laughed.
This spring, around the time they made their 100th trip across the border, they decided it was time to go big or go bust. That’s when they came across an empty storefront at 4th and Ogilvie.
“We were driving by and we saw this place, and I was like ‘That’d be nice, it’s a good intersection right across from the grocery store. Let’s call them and see,’” Genny said. “It came together kind of fast.”
Business has been steady so far. But keeping a store open six days a week has been exhausting, too. Harry still drives the weekly shipments up from Alaska himself, which means he works 80 to 90 hours a week. Genny now lives in Whitehorse to manage the store, so they’re spending a lot of time apart.
“I’m a little bit tired, a little bit worn out, I guess,” he said. “But it’s a good thing. I’m happy.”
Haines Packing Co. is filling a gap that was created when Wharf on Fourth closed in 2008 after 12 years in business. At the time, owners Mark and Jodi Richardson said finding enough fish to meet demand was their biggest problem. They also struggled with competition from major retailers like Superstore.
Since Wharf on Fourth closed, Haines Packing Co. and another trailer, Frisky Fresh Fish, were the main businesses in town specializing in fresh, wild fish. Now, Frisky seems to have disappeared, too. The company’s last Facebook post was made in March.
But the Rietzes believe they have a better shot at keeping things going, because Harry co-owns a processing plant himself.
“We don’t have to work through a middleman,” Genny said. “Harry sees [the fish] from the time it comes off the dock with the fishermen. He knows the fishermen. He’s doing everything except fishing.”
“He gets seasick, so he can’t fish,” she added with a smile.
Genny said they do worry about competition from big retailers, but right now, they’re focusing on doing the best they can with the tools they have. They recently bought a new cooler that will allow them to bring up more fish each week. At the moment, not having enough storage space to keep the place stocked for a full week is one of their biggest challenges.
Eventually, the Rietzes hope to hire more staff. That will take some of the pressure off Harry, who currently drives back and forth from Alaska every week. And it will allow the couple to live together in Haines, where they’re in the process of building a house.
And Harry has a dream of one day moving the store into the old site of Wharf on Fourth. The new store is decorated with an old lobster trap and a life ring from Wharf on Fourth, donated to the couple by the store’s original owners.
But for the moment, the Rietzes are focused on keeping the coolers running and the freezers stocked. And their biggest asset may be the way they work together.
“You can love someone and not work well with them,” Genny said. “Being in business together is hard.
“We have really complementary skills. He’s really good at sourcing and packaging and knowing about the product. And I’m good at the business end, at the bookkeeping and the advertising. It’s special.”
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