By Kirsti Salmi
For business partners Rob Armstrong and Jay Barnard, Walleye Wings is about creating a local culture of sustainability, and celebrating Northwestern Ontario’s freshwater cuisine. “Our end goal is to use 100% of the fish,” says Barnard. “We want to create as many products as possible so no part of our resources are wasted.”
Walleye Wings began 20 years ago, when Armstrong noticed American fishermen discarding the ventricles of walleye, located under its chin. Armstrong dubbed them “walleye wings” and served them to friends and family for decades, then partnered with Barnard in 2015 to pursue the venture. Barnard was an executive chef at Boathouse Restaurant who was interested in experimenting with freshwater cuisine. “You’re always looking for the next big thing, which is tough to find in the Canadian food scene,” he says. After working seven locally sourced fish onto the menu, Barnard noticed enthusiastic reception to freshwater fish dishes.
In June 2015, Armstrong and Barnard offered Walleye Wings free to Kenora residents for two weeks. Feedback was overwhelming: locals enjoyed the crispy, tasty product, and supported using discarded fish parts in innovative ways. Encouraged by the response, Barnard and Armstrong now distribute to fifteen restaurants, twelve grocery stores, and gas stations in the region. Their product line has expanded to include Pike Cakes, Popcorn Pickerel Cheeks, breadcrumbs, and they are developing chowders and stock soups. The products are marked by freshwater fish characters in hospitality roles, from a smirking pike polishing a pint glass to a walleye waiter in a tux. “The industry uses 46% of the fish,” says Barnard. “Our products currently use 14% more than that. We’re hoping to get up to 90% in edible product, and use the remaining 10% for cat food or fertilizer.” Walleye Wings Inc. was awarded the Innovative Small Business 2016 award last month by the Kenora and District Chamber of Commerce.
Armstrong and Barnard conduct their operations from a provincially inspected fish processing plant, and they now employ three others. Local fisherman from communities and reserves surrounding Kenora bring their fish to sell at the plant. Their long-term goals are to establish official partnerships with these communities to ensure money is being put back into the region, expand to employ 40 to 60 people over five years, and upgrade the plant to a federal facility to open up their products to international markets. They’re currently negotiating with OceanWise to get official sustainability certification.
“We want to boost local economy and put freshwater cuisine on the map for northern Ontario,” says Barnard. “It’s amazing how much can grow from some tiny fish part nobody else wanted.”
For more information, visit walleyewings.com or find Walleye Wings Inc. on Facebook.