At the Carbondale Farmers’ Market
By Justin Patrick
Sopris Sun Contributor
It is easy to under-appreciate a local farmer’s market. Patrons show up during open hours, and voilà: where there was once a quiet intersection there is now a bustling bazaar with an array of fruits and vegetables, organic honeys and jams, and, in the case of Carbondale’s weekly 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. farmer’s market, wild-caught Alaskan fish.
Kaleb Walker of Kaleb’s Katch is a farmer’s market star. He sells fish six days a week — ready-to-eat, grilled, in a wrap, as well as frozen in a large portable freezer by his side. Walker knows his goods as well as any farmer who has tended his or her onions, peppers, and tomatoes lovingly from seed to harvest. That’s because for years he spent seven weeks each summer on an Alaskan fishing boat catching the very salmon he now provides to mountain-dwelling Coloradans. Although he’s off the boat now — too busy working the markets — he still sources his fish from those same chilly waters, and his passion for his product is the bedrock of his business plan that includes several ambitious ideas for expanding the operation.
After earning a degree in natural resource management, Walker became captivated by stories his brother told him about commercial fishing in Alaska. At 25, Walker landed a job as a deckhand on a three-person crew in Bristol Bay, one of the famously abundant and beautiful areas to fish salmon. He was offered an attractive commission and a free plane ticket. “I went to fulfill a dream of being a commercial fisherman,” he told The Sopris Sun.
After a few summers on Bristol Bay, and after his brother began selling honey successfully at a farmer’s market in North Carolina, Walker speculated about the viability of taking his wages in fish and selling his portion of the catch in Colorado. He knew the locals were foodies, and that there were “some phenomenal markets” in the mountains. “I told my skipper, ‘hey, I want $10,000 worth of fillets’” in lieu of cash wages. He was figuring it out as he went along, learning how to register a business and comply with health regulations. “It was just trial and error for the first couple of years,” he said.
Walker got the hang of it and Kaleb’s Katch became a mainstay of the Glenwood Springs farmer’s market. Colleen Williams, standing in line for a salmon wrap in Carbondale this summer, said she has been a fan since Kaleb’s Katch appeared in 2009. “I would go to the farmer’s market in Glenwood Springs for that,” she said. Why is it so appealing? “It’s an explosion of taste!”
Walker has a simple strategy. He offers one menu item — a salmon wrap — that he devised himself. It’s a fresh-grilled fillet served on a pita with a bed of slaw (the recipe came from his days on the boat where fresh veggies were hard to come by), tomatoes, onions, and a homemade avocado sauce or basil vinaigrette. As customers wait for their wrap, they have a chance to look over a chalk board list of items that includes frozen fish, shrimp, prawns, crab legs, and whatever else Kaleb’s Katch has in stock. “I’m here to sell frozen fish,” he said. “Salmon wraps are bonuses.”
Kaleb’s Katch is now in numerous farmer’s markets statewide: Evergreen (Tuesday), Carbondale (Wednesday), Estes Park (every other Thursday), Dillon (Friday), Edwards (Saturday), Vail and Basalt (Sunday), as well as once a month in Glenwood and Fort Collins. While Walker enjoys steady business at these markets, he wants to break into a larger market as a broker or delivery service.
He earned a breakthrough with national organic foods delivery service Door To Door Organics. For a year, Walker had tried to attract the company’s attention. At the time, they only had 25 employees (they now have 500, said Walker). One day, he hatched a plan. “I prepped for 25 sandwiches, called them up, and told them ‘I’m comin’ down to serve you salmon wraps, so don’t let your employees eat lunch,’” he said. He served them salmon wraps and won their business. Through Door To Door Organics, Kaleb’s Katch sells fish in several states as far as the East Coast.
Walker plans to launch his own online business delivering fish directly to customers, starting in Colorado, as early as February. Katchbox.com will offer mixed cases of seafood on a subscription model. The Skipper’s Box, Deckhand Box, and Greenhorn Box will include a mix between customers’ specific choices as well as seasonal picks, so “they still get a surprise.”
Walker knows it will take hard work and perseverance to start the online component of his business. But working with his fiancé (they are set to be married later this year) who already has a great handle on marketing and social media, along with his earned market share, he is confident they can make it work.
While farmers’ markets gave him his start, selling on location is demanding. “The market grind is harder than fishing,” he said.
The Farmers’ Market is located at 4th and Main and takes places on Wednesdays through Sept. 28. The market is in its 12th season and has 24 vendors. “It’s a bustling market and the vendors who participate year after year are enjoying good sales as Carbondale grows and as the market grows more established,” said market manager Jewel Campbell.
Published in The Sopris Sun on July 28, 2016.