Just over 20 years ago, Mace Bollens was using his burly hands to weld, shape and form bronze and stainless steel metals for an architecture firm in San Francisco.
You could say his setting has slightly changed.
Upon entering Pacific Northwest Best Fish Co. — which sort of appears out of nowhere when driving along Northeast 10th Avenue in Ridgefield — the raw seafood smell permeates the air.
The 57-year-old Bollens works at the heart of the fishy smell, in the back room: a cold warehouse space, where he’s using his hands to slice, dice and smoke salmon, crab, and whatever other tasty morsels come through the shop. Bollens, in other words, is a fishmonger.
“Your clothes smell funny when you go home, that’s for sure,” he said. “They have their own spot in the house.”
The shop is small, including a traditional walk-up counter and display window where consumers can observe dead sea creatures resting in beds of ice.
Pacific Northwest Best Fish Co.
24415 N.E. 10th Ave., Ridgefield
Revenue: The fish market (not including the cafe or 3Peaks Public House & Taproom), tallies $250,000 to $300,000 a year.
Number of employees: Retail side has five employees; cafe has eight, but doubles in the summer.
Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook: Employment of food and tobacco processing workers is projected to grow 2 percent through 2026, while butchers and meat cutters will grow 6 percent. The Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro metropolitan area is a top-paying region for food and tobacco roasters, at $19.83 per hour or $41,250 a year. The average wage for Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro area for those working with meat is $17.89 per hour or $37,200 annually.
From hobby to job
In 1996, when his wife lost her parents, she wanted to leave the Bay Area. Bollens kept his job telecommuting for five years, but always enjoyed fishing in his spare time.
“They were hoping I’d get Washington out of my system and move back, but I respected my wife’s needs,” he said while waiting for some salmon to finish smoking on a recent Friday, a process that takes six to seven hours.
Travel back to the area became too much and metal work dried up in a worsening economy.
So he turned his interest in fish into a job. On that Friday, Bollens worked on an order of Alaskan salmon fillets. It’s still early in the season for the chinook, the fish’s Native American name.
“Right now the spring chinook are in small numbers. This is the highlight of the fishing year pretty much. They’re arguably the best salmon in the world,” he said. “It’ll go toe-to-toe with your Copper River (salmon caught in the namesake river in Alaska), which is one you hear quite often about but it just has better advertising.”
The chinook that day was $44.99 a pound. A few people browsed the selection. Others nibbled food at the few tables in the market. A separate building houses a cafe.
“It’s like you’re going to the coast and coming to get some fish and chips,” owner Kelly Beckwith said. He also owns the 3Peaks Public House & Taproom next door.
The company used to work more with wholesale accounts, providing fish for companies like Whole Foods and New Seasons, Beckwith said.
Those wholesale customers established their own smoke centers, smoke houses within their fresh fish categories, Beckwith said.
“So we decided to shift on our end and keep our fingers crossed that Ridgefield will continue to grow,” he said.
Now, about 10 percent of business goes to wholesale accounts, including Gartner’s Meats in Portland and Jessie’s Ilwaco Fish Co. in Ilwaco as well as Pelly’s Fish Market in Southern California.
They offer a smoking service, though not quite as often as they used to in years past, due to the manpower it takes, Bollens said. Their smoker — a 6-by-8-foot metal box — holds up to 400 pounds of fish.
“We’ll do a load a week usually — and when it’s busy, we’ll do up to two,” he said, pulling open the door of the smoker to reveal small pink strips of salmon carefully arranged on metal racks, the fragrant smoke rolling out of the oven.
Bollens works 25 to 30 hours a week, cutting back from full-time work after a knee replacement. He’s still having fun.
“I still haven’t lost it, I guess, so that’s a good thing,” Bollens said. “The feel and love of fish, and the different varieties. Yeah, sometimes things get to you.”
WORKING IN CLARK COUNTY
Working in Clark County, a brief profile of interesting Clark County business owners or a worker in the public, private, or nonprofit sector. Send ideas to Lyndsey Hewitt: firstname.lastname@example.org; fax 360-735-4598; phone 360-735-4550.