A middle-aged man walks into Nunavut Country Food to buy some char.
“$28,” Joe Hess says when the vacuum-sealed package is placed on the counter.
Hess pauses. “$25’s good.”
Hess rings in the cash purchase and the man is out the door. He turns to me with a shrug. “I got the prices on them, right? It’s $28, right? So he’s got $25 in his hand and I go, ‘Ah, it’s $25.’ There’s not too many places where you can go do this,” he says and starts laughing.
The flexibility of the transaction is emblematic of the entire Iqaluit operation. “It’s an iffy business,” says Hess, who has been busy the last five years keeping the half-dozen freezers in his retail space—and the large industrial freezers in the back—stocked with everything from caribou hearts to narwhal mataaq for the capital city’s country food lovers.
That’s really the toughest part of his job.
Take his go-to product, Arctic char. He sells it smoked, candied, dried. But to keep it fresh, he has to buy in bulk during the winter when the fish are pulled through the ice and quickly freeze solid in the cold air. That’s because there’s a dearth of fishers in the summer that process and freeze large quantities of char for export. “Between April to December, I can’t get any fish,” he says. “I’ve got to buy it all through the winter and spring to supply all summer and fall, which is a real drag.” Hess calls up licenced fishers all over the region—“Iglulik, Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, Clyde River, they all know me”—and buys hundreds and even thousands of pounds of char, which are loaded frozen onto a plane, and then stocked in his freezer for processing.
Keeping up with caribou demand isn’t easy either. The government put hunting restrictions on Baffin Island caribou three years ago to try to revive their numbers and herds are in decline across much of the North. Hess now works with hunters in the Kivalliq region, where caribou populations are healthier. There’s a thriving market for caribou online, with people starved for the staple food outside the Kivalliq paying hefty prices for it. Hess worries about the impact this is having on caribou. “It’s going to happen to them what happened to us,” he says. “If everyone’s selling it on Facebook and dishing it out—it’s not regulated—I’m sure it’s going to happen.”
But he says the sales make sense for the hunter, who can come home with a couple caribou to feed their family and maybe sell one to offset their costs. “It pays for gas and it pays for a little bit of whatever you need,” he says. (Hess pays about $400 plus freight for a caribou.)
And although seals are found in abundance near Iqaluit, they can sometimes be in short supply at Nunavut Country Food. That’s because when local hunters get a seal they prefer to share it as per Inuit custom, rather than sell it to him.
Hess has been managing owner of the shop since 2013, when the sons of its founder, Jim Currie, approached him to take it over after Currie died. Hess’s own son Jacob is gradually taking over the business.
“Between April to December, I can’t get any fish.”
“I’ve got to buy it all through the winter and spring to supply all summer and fall, which is a real drag.” -Joe Hess
This isn’t Hess’s first business endeavour. In fact, he’s something of a serial entrepreneur. He’s tried his hand as a fish boat captain. (“Back in the early 90s, I used to have a bunch of guys and we’d go commercial fishing down the island.”) He had a taxi company in Cape Dorset. He’s supported himself as a carver. (“Ivory and silver. I took a course at Arctic College for two years.”) He’s even gone out in his own boat and mined tens of thousands of pounds of soapstone to sell to carvers.
And he’s taken a stab at expansion beyond Nunavut. With so many Inuit living in Ottawa, he kept getting orders to ship country food down there, where it’s not readily available. But federal regulators only permitted him to sell whole fish and he couldn’t make a go of it. He closed the doors a year later.
Today, Nunavut Country Food employs five people and their hours vary based on the amount of stock that needs to be filleted or gutted or smoked or sealed. The operating costs—electricity, water and heating bills and rent—can sometimes exceed $10,000 a month. But there’s one thing Hess can always bank on: the demand for country food when it’s harder and harder to get.