Can you tell us a bit about AKI’s history, heritage and family ties – when and how it was founded?
Our company was founded by the uncle of my father – Mr. Max Schuldt – in 1925 in a district of Hamburg called Altona, nearby the fish market. At the beginning, Max Schuldt bought his caviar from sailors heading with their ships to the port of Hamburg and delivered it all through Germany. In the course of this time, the business developed well.
My father, Gustav Rüsch, took over the business in 1959, while he started to work for AKI some years before. Mr and Mrs. Schuldt were without children and looking for a successor to run the business. And his choice fell on my father, a lucky punch for him. With passion, enthusiasm and good confidence in this unique product, my father started to develop the direct business with the producers of caviar at the point of origin, the Caspian Sea. His main target was The Soviet Union, where the roots of caviar production had been for centuries. He was one of the first western businessmen to visit the Volga Region, the heart of sturgeon fishing in the mid-sixties. Based on this, our parents developed one of the biggest globally-operating caviar import and export companies with a maximum turnover of some 80 000 kg of sturgeon caviar in the peak of the 1980s.
I’ve been in the company now for almost 30 years, and have been running it since April 1st, 2001. Since that date, the changes and the corresponding challenges in our business have been huge: due to over-fishing, pollution, environmental impacts and other issues, the population of sturgeon have been on the declined year after year, and are now sitting at a critical level. Consequently, the wild sturgeons were put on the red list of endangered species worldwide and the international trade strictly limited and regulated by the rules of the CITES management, which had a huge impact on the trade, of course.
That was the time for us to act: either to stick to the wild sturgeon caviar, hoping the situation would improve one day, or change the company’s philosophy and focus on caviar from farm-raised sources and caviar from fishes other than sturgeon, like salmon, trout and others! We decided to move ahead with the second option, and it was the right one.
After difficult years of change, we are now one of the leading caviar-producing companies globally, selling some 16 mtons of farm-raised sturgeon caviar and more than 300 mtons of the so called “trend-caviar”, which is the perfect alternative to dive into the delicate world of caviar with at a reasonable price.
We are happy and proud to continue the heritage of our parents and carry our company into the modern world of caviar!
What was the philosophy behind the brand when it began and is it still the same today?
At the beginning, the philosophy was to bring the world’s best caviar to the Western European connoisseurs. At that time, indeed, the best caviar came from the Caspian Sea. Experts were always fighting about where the best caviar came from, from Russia or from Iran – a kind of point of view – but it was undoubtedly from the Caspian Sea.
Today’s philosophy is inevitably different, as we don’t have Caspian caviar anymore. But it is not less exciting – it’s challenging to reach the traditional caviar buyers for the modern caviar, and find new passionate friends among the younger generation, which isn’t aware of caviar’s great taste and its versatile usage in modern cuisine!
Tell us about how the caviar knowledge was passed on over generations and how this gives the brand an advantage?
That’s one of our key competencies. And we are happy and proud to be one of the very few in our industry to have it: not just us, my family, but also most of our team still knows the caviar from the Caspian Sea. They know how it should taste and look and they can perfectly select the good ones from the second class!
When the producers of farm-raised caviar started to offer their products some 25 years ago, I can say it was – with all respect – awful. A very bad appearance and structure of the grain and – the worst of all, as caviar is for eating and not for looking at – a taste which couldn’t convince anyone at that time to consider farmed-raised caviar as a real alternative to the wild caviar, which it is today.
Together with our knowledge of how caviar should taste and look and the growing know-how of the farmers, we have developed high-quality, farm-raised caviar that doesn’t need to hide away from the wild Caspian Sea caviar. It’s our job to use our experience to procure these delicacies.
Another important point to mention is that to this day we still pack ALL our caviar on an order-to-order basis. All caviar leaving our facilities is hand-selected and hand-packed, taking the individual preferences of our clients into consideration. We are seeing a lot of newcomers in the market selling caviar which they are buying already packed from the suppliers and dealing it, without checking its quality tin by tin. The consumer is buying the pig in a poke – a bad option for a valuable product like caviar, which should delight you with every single grain!
What else sets AKI Caviar apart from its competitors – what makes your product so special in your opinion?
The freshness of our caviar is unique. There are not too many competitors running a volume like we do. Consequently, the caviar isn’t kept too long in our fridges. We have a fast rotation in our stocks, which enables us to always sell very fresh caviar to the benefit of our clients!
What themes/trends are going on in the world of caviar production and use?
A major trend is certainly the desire for a new ease when enjoying caviar. They want the highest quality, but straightforward, without a golden spoon and ice bucket. Another very big topic is certainly the origin and the ecological footprint of products; this applies to all branches of the food industry.
Can you tell us more about the modern way of using caviar – i.e. the new lightness and caviar’s contemporary new image?
The topic is close to our heart. Why? Because this is about the future of one of the most beautiful and legendary delicacies in the world. Today we have caviar varieties in all price ranges. And extremely good ones. Comparable to the decision whether to pick a high-end vintage champagne or a good sparkling everyday wine. It is the same with caviar.
Caviar has long ceased to be a symbol of decadence and opulent feasts. Nowadays top chefs combine it with down-to-earth ingredients, it also tastes great with good bread and a fresh pilsner.
Can you provide details on your caviar ranges and assortments – both pre-existing and new?
We have worked together with responsible aquacultures for many years and our mission is to show how great the diversity is today with very good quality and attractive prices. We have the iconic Beluga caviar and we have the easy everyday caviar, targeting the younger caviar fans. Above all that we have one of the biggest caviar ranges in Europe with over 20 different qualities. The “caviar” doesn’t exist anymore. Diversity is key.
The new range produced in Germany has a lower carbon footprint – why is this important to your brand and its consumers?
It is a real-time development. We fly fewer long-distance flights, and also pay attention to the environment, which will also increasingly apply to products such as caviar. Customers want to know where the product comes from as well as the conditions under which it is produced and transported. With us, all of this is understandable and transparent. And wherever we can, we become better with an eye on the environment.
Your caviar is only preserved with sea salt – tell us more about the significance of this and why it makes your product superior?
Pure enjoyment. Roe, salt, done. Where else can you find this? Caviar is actually the most natural product ever. Nothing designed, nothing artificially refined. Basically, you can only order each caviar from us preserved with sea salt.
We are 100% convinced of caviar made in Germany with sea salt from Sylt. You have to try it yourself to understand this umami taste of caviar, these subtle oceanic notes.
Once tried, you will never forget the good taste of our caviar!
To find out more about AKI, visit their website.