Whether you are a food connoisseur or an enthusiastic dinner guest, the rich flavor will usually be the first thing that strikes you. And perhaps the more refined eye may be drawn by the color and size of the fish eggs. Producing such a high-quality delicacy is what makes Sterling Caviar jump out from the crowded market these days.
Dating back to the 1200s, caviar has been an integral part of elaborate feasts for centuries. In recent years, about 95 percent of all caviar in the world came from the Caspian Sea, which was controlled by two entities—the Soviet Union and Iran. Through the breakup of the Soviet Union, however, the level of control that the Soviets had on the whole industry—from the fishing, processing and marketing of the product, to the returned investment from exports—was lost.
By the mid to late 1990s, about 90 percent of caviar consumed worldwide came from poached sources from the Caspian Sea which led to a decline in the overall quality of product as well as created other challenges for companies like Sterling Caviar LLC. In addition to that, an increase in poaching led to massive overfishing of the Caspian Sea. This caught the attention of environmental groups who pushed for regulation of the industry worldwide.
That’s just the back story of how they got started in the business. About three decades ago a business opportunity presented itself to an executive who attended a party where they were serving caviar. Someone at the function made a comment about how the U.S. had embargoed Iranian caviar from being imported when the Shah had been overthrown, and a new supply would be needed. Soon after, executives at Sterling Caviar LLC began to look to science to find out if they could raise White Sturgeon for caviar domestically. “A lead scientist emigrated from the Soviet Union and ended up at the University of California’s Davis campus, in 1979. He got a grant to see if the technology that the Russians had developed on spawning sturgeon in the Caspian Sea would work on the same species in the U.S.,” tells Peter Struffenegger, a biologist by trade and general manager at Sterling Caviar.
UC-Davis partnership gives competitive edge
Over the years, Sterling Caviar has grown and now operates three separate Sturgeon farm sites around Sacramento County, California. With advanced technology acquired through its research, Sterling Caviar’s fish farms continue to work closely with the researchers from various institutes but primarily from UC-Davis. “[UC-Davis] has built an entire infrastructure around this particular fish and so Sterling Caviar works in partnership with researchers to find out more about them,” explains Struffenegger. He adds that its strategic partnership with the UC-D scientists also involves carefully monitoring the sturgeon fish, especially the females who take up to 15-20 years to mature in the wild.
These fish farms produce three grades of caviar—two of which are higher-grade products namely, Royal, a darker type of caviar and, Imperial, which is lighter with full flavor, texture and egg size. Then, there’s the Classic, which usually has smaller or softer eggs (and is of a lesser quality). At any one time, over 1.5M lbs of White Sturgeon fish are swimming in their tanks, raised for both meat and caviar.
Global distributionkey to jumping over hurdles
From over fishing and poor quality of caviar caused by poaching to a more recent trend of U.S. consumers avoiding indulgences during the recession, this successful fish farming business has certainly faced many adversities over the years. But it has come out on top with a global reach and worldwide presence, much to the thanks of its strategic partnership with a well-established global distributor.
In 2000, Sterling Caviar formed an exclusive agreement with worldwide distributor, Petrossian, which helped strategically position its product line in the market. “[The distributor] was impressed with Sterling Caviar’s overall level of quality and grade. At first, they wouldn’t listen to us because we were just a bunch of farmers and biologists,” Struffenegger admits but that perception has since changed.
Although this company is no small fish, the company is keenly aware that there are other competitors who are looking to make caviar their very own bread and butter. “In fact, many of these fish farming businesses overseas—in China, South America, Europe—are offering cheaper prices and that is a challenge,” explains Struffenegger, adding the cost of competing in a highly-regulated environment poses big challenges against cheap imports created by an unleveled regulatory and financial playing field. Good thing Sterling Caviar has worked hard at building and maintaining strong relationships with its partners, including environmentalists and chefs.
Moving forward, Sterling Caviar will continue to produce high-quality caviar and meat products available worldwide. As part of its growth plan, Sterling Caviar is currently rebuilding one of its facilities. As a division of Stolt Sea Farm, Sterling Caviar is headquartered in Spain where a majority of their employees—over 200—work and, 25 employees in its U.S. operations work in sales, administration, processing and production. Sterling Caviar is 75 percent owned by Stolt Sea Farm and 25 percent owned by Sierra Aqua Farms.