WARSAW, Ill. — Joe Clarke wasn’t what you’d call a caviar lover, and neither were four of his friends.
“To tell you the truth, I had never tasted it until we started looking into it,” the Warsaw man said.
But Clarke and his friends — Doug Buelt, Brian Froman, Stu Froman and Lance LaBonte — soon developed a taste for the business.
Warsaw Caviar makes sales to date in 39 states, primarily to gourmet food distributors along with online sales to individuals of one-, two-, four-, eight- and 16-ounce tins of the roe, or eggs, of Mississippi River sturgeon.
“We make a very delicious product. I don’t necessarily crave it. Many of our customers do,” Clarke said. “We could sell 10 times what we take in each year, but we only have so much we can sell. There aren’t that many fishermen, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources very tightly watches the sturgeon catch.”
IDNR awards a limited number of licenses, with fishermen allowed to catch roe-bearing species only in certain areas of the Mississippi, including from the Saverton dam to the Wisconsin border, and areas on the Ohio and Wabash Rivers.
The Warsaw men already had a commercial fishing license and sold their catch to the fish market in Niota to make extra money for improvements at the Warsaw Gun Club.
While fishing, they met Perry and Sylvia Chisholm, a Tennessee couple making caviar who suggested the friends fish for sturgeon. Clarke said the friends did some research, entered the state lottery to harvest hackleback sturgeon and sold the roe to the Chisholms again as a money-maker for the gun club.
Several years later, with the Chisholms wanting to retire, they asked if the men would be interested in learning how they made caviar.
“We ended up making a proposal on purchasing some of their equipment, training on how they did it and forming a limited liability company. In fall 2018, we began our first season,” Clarke said. “From there, we started looking for customers, sent out samples of product. Many are repeat customers. Around the same time each year we get the same order from customers. They really enjoy our caviar.”
The next year, they transitioned from working out of a small facility to a former construction trailer remodeled into a state-of-the-art processing facility.
“We branched out, got more customers, contracted with more fishermen,” Clarke said. “From that point, it’s grown every year. This year it’s a little slow. The river’s fairly slow, not the right conditions for a good catch.”
The season for roe-bearing species on the upper Mississippi, by state law, begins Oct. 1 and ends May 31.
Clarke said the process of making the wild-caught hackleback caviar is “pretty straightforward” and little changed from what they learned from the Chisholms, who had come to Warsaw to find the sturgeon and also processed paddlefish caviar.
The business buys roe from fishermen, who sell the fish to local fish markets or use them on their own. Harvested roe is cleaned, rinsed and drained, then salted and allowed to cure before being packaged for sale.
“The salt amount and the cure time is a secret,” Clarke said. “We preserve the flavor. Our customers have raved about our quality and our flavor as top-notch.”
Making caviar’s a sideline business for the friends, who all have other jobs. Clarke, for example, works as director of quality at Allied Blending in Keokuk, Iowa, which supplies ingredients to the cheese, tortilla and baking industries. Buelt is a physical therapist, Stu Froman a banker and his cousin Brian Froman and LaBonte work at Roquette America.
The caviar’s appeal varies from customer to customer.
“Some people really like the taste, the nice health benefits. For others, perhaps it’s just the prestige of eating caviar, something thought of as a luxury item,” Clarke said.
Celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern and rocker Sammy Hagar have eaten the caviar, which is sold to wholesalers distributing product to top restaurants across the country.
The friends all have specific roles in the business. Clarke works with customers, who may buy hundreds of pounds of product at a time, while others work mostly with fishermen, the “lifeblood” of Warsaw Caviar, processing and packaging.
“We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t like it. We have a good time doing it,” he said. “We have a really strong wholesale base, but one thing we want to do is divert more wholesale to retail or direct-to-restaurant sales.”