A Different School of Thought
Try to wrap your mind around this picture: Sara Pozonsky was born 37 years ago at home in an Eskimo village on Lake Iliamna in Alaska, while the village chief sat in her parents’ living room drinking coffee and eating cookies.
Today, she drives a Buick Renegade SUV—”midsize,” she stresses—around the wilds of Washington County, chauffeuring her four children to football practice and basketball games while often deep in negotiation via cell phone with fishermen in their boats in the Gulf of Alaska.
The exotic Pozonsky is a well-spoken, highly focused woman who runs her own business shipping wild salmon from Alaska’s icy waters near her childhood home while making a life in North Strabane with her husband, Paul, whom she met shortly before he was elected a Washington County judge.
“If he lost, he was going to have to move to Alaska, but he didn’t, so I took the plunge,” she said only half joking.
She is the very definition of a new kind of food entrepreneur who is changing the way Pittsburghers and Americans eat. As president of Wild Alaskan Salmon Company, she travels lightly. Armed with just a laptop and a cell phone, Pozonsky delivers fresh, premium-grade wild salmon filets in season from Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound to wholesale customers while also, via her online retail service, selling smoked salmon and flash-frozen filets to individuals, who may also purchase her products at Wholey’s Seafood in The Strip.
Bob Wholey is unequivocal about Pozonsky’s salmon. “It is the best I’ve ever eaten,” he announced at a meeting after sampling the fish.
Credit homesickness for that particular epiphany. She travels lightly—with cell phone and laptop—hawking fresh, premium-grade wild salmon from her home state of Alaska Try to wrap your mind around this picture: Sara Pozonsky was born 37 years ago at home in an Eskimo village on Lake Iliamna in Alaska, while the village chief sat in her parents’ living room drinking coffee and eating cookies.
Last winter, Pozonsky had been on the phone with an old friend, Loren Leman, who is also the lieutenant governor of Alaska. “With only 750,000 people, Alaska is like a small town and you get to know a lot of people” she said. Leman also owns a commercial fishing site near Homer, where, under the state’s strict fishery management laws, salmon are caught only during specific times of the year.
“I had been craving good wild salmon and my husband suggested I ask him if I could buy some from him to bring back home with me,” she recalled. Leman told her he was actually looking into marketing or selling his fish “in the lower 48” and to let him know if she knew someone who was interested.
Pozonsky was interested.
Within two months, she had talked her sister- in-law, who still lives in Alaska, into starting the business with her, and by last summer, they were shipping fresh salmonÑwithin 24 to 36 hours of being caughtÑto some of Pittsburgh’s upscale restaurants and a handful of independently owned Giant Eagle stores.
till, breaking into the market here hasn’t been as easy as she expected.
“In some places I am welcomed, and other places I am shut out. Obviously being new in the business, I have to pester people to allow me to sell them fish, but once they see the quality and get their customer feedback, I believe they will want more.”
Pozonsky hasn’t looked back since, except, occasionally, to pine for Alaska, a feeling she indulges with once-a-year, sometimes twice-ayear trips back to visit her family and friends.
Her childhood, while “wonderful,” was fairly rugged, so much so that her mother, the daughter of Alaska homesteaders and a member of the first graduating high school class of the new State of Alaska in 1959, “eventually sent me to charm school. ‘You are going to be a lady,’ she told me, and I guess she had the right idea, given the way I was running around with my brothers. We lived right on the beach and had a most spectacular view of the mountains and ocean and spent most of our free time riding three-wheelers up and down the beach.”
Her father was a pilot, big game hunting guide, commercial fisherman and educator who, along with her mother, started a private school on the Kenai Peninsula, as well as a summer camp for native children at Lake Clark. His reputation as an educator spread far beyond Alaska: shortly before his death last year in Kunming, China, where he was teaching at an international school, he was invited to Oxford University to discuss his teaching philosophy.
But like so many Alaskans, he was also a man of the sea. And just as mid-20th-century Pittsburgh teenagers would often spend summers working in the steel mills, Pozonsky, like so many young Alaskans, went to work on her father’s commercial fishing boat during her vacations. Out on Bristol Bay, she learned to handle seasickness and was given, increasingly, more responsibilities — picking fish and helping to cook during six- to eight-week stints at sea.
“Growing up in Alaska is like living in a different world,” she says. There were mornings she couldn’t drive to school because moose were blocking the garage door and wouldn’t move. “I would yell and honk my horn but they would just stand there and look at me. They are huge creatures so you really don’t want to make them mad.”
Today, it’s a long way from her early days in Pennsylvania, when she struggled with severe culture shock. Divorced with two young children when she married Paul Pozonsky, she profoundly missed Alaska, where she had built a career in public service, at one point winning election to her local city council in Soldotna, and, later, serving on the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct. She was also on the founding board of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court, in which young people “try each other before their own peers in a real court of law.”
But it all changed after she met Pozonsky at a judicial conference in Texas. “My husband was such a great comfort to me during those hard first years here. If it weren’t for his total love and support I would have panicked and left. Actually, there were many times that I did panic, but he would talk me down from the ledges.”
Today, she is on solid ground, with a rich network of friends and a fast-growing business that reconnects her to her childhood roots.
Pozonsky’s busiest season will come in May, during the first salmon run, when “our fisherman call at all times of the night and day to tell us their catch and to let us know what to expect.” Because all of her king salmon are usually presold “we are always desperate to know how many they caught and the weight. It’s pure chaos sometimes,” she says.
It’s clear she relishes that chaos as well as the reaction from people here when they learn where she’s from. But she also considers Western Pennsylvania her home, with, of course, the usual caveats. “I think people tend to hang on more to the past here than in Alaska.
“But, having said that, I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of people here who really didn’t know me but did their best to make me feel welcome. It’s not perfect anywhere you live, it’s really about what you make it.
“My mom always told me to ‘thrive wherever you’re planted.’ And I think I’m doing that, but I’m also honoring where I’m from. Salmon and fishing was in my father’s blood, and it’s in mine too.”