Meet Your Neighbors Arnie and Joanne Deckwa

In January of 1987 this Whidbey Island cowboy went to Nashville to seek fame and fortune on the Grand Ole Opry Stage. But it was backstage where he found fame. And in the most unlikely way, at least for this ole cowboy.

Arnie Deckwa grew up in Cornet Bay. Raised in a commercial fishing family, salmon was just part of the meals at the Deckwa home.

Ten years later he’s in the food business, selling salmon dips in the largest grocery store chain in the country. How did that happen?

“It all began backstage of the Grand Ole Opry,” Arnie said

He went to Nashville with a $1500 cashier check that no bank would cash. Didn’t really know anyone. Then he met Brent Burkett, a member of the Four Guys. Brent loved to fish and he loved to eat. As a gift, Arnie brought Brent some hot smoked salmon from home.

Brent’s response, “I know you want to sing cowboy, but you need to do something with this.”

“Do what?” Arnie asked.

“Sell it.”

“To who?”

“To Kroger.”

Arnie had no idea who Kroger was, nor how to sell salmon.

“I had no idea I was raised on gourmet food until I went to Nashville, Tennessee.” Arnie said.

So Arnie went for it, thinking maybe if he got his smoked salmon in the grocery store it would help with his singing career.

“Maybe I could be a little version Jimmy Dean,” Arnie said.

Fate continued the journey and introduced him to Buddy Hayes and David Long, two Kroger seafood clerks who became instrumental in setting the course for the future, and the beginning of what would become the Cornet Bay Company. Arnie became a pioneer, the first to introduce hot smoked salmon to Kroger stores.

Before he knew it, seven Kroger stores were selling Arnie’s Smoked Salmon. Arnie refers to them as the Magnificent Seven. But there was a challenge —no one knew what to do with it exactly. So, the budding-food-engineer-entrepreneur looked for a way to improve sales—the answer, a smoked salmon dip. In apartment 35-A with a green glass bowl, he mixed and mixed until he found the right combination. In the first week they sold over 111 lbs, it was still 1987.

It was suggested Arnie do a food demo at the Green Hills Market in Tennessee; a higher-end store where all the entertainers and people with money shopped. Well business was still in its infancy and money was tight so Arnie went to Nabisco and asked for a case of Nabisco Original Wheat Thin crackers. He promised, if they gave him a case, he would put a box on his cardboard table and help sell their crackers. They believed him so he took a case and set up his little food demo table at the Green Hills Market.

During this time, Arnie met the love of his life, Joanne. Most men wine and dine their ladies, but with Arnie in the throws of getting his smoked salmon off the ground, their dates consisted of making dip, selling dip, and delivering the dip. But it wasn’t all about the dip, the cowboy would sing to his ladylove and the romance blossomed.

Arnie and Joanne Deckwa

After work Joanne would join him at the plant and help out. Even her parents joined the act and would drive 45 miles to help, dad would do the boxes and mom would help with the salmon. It was fast becoming a family a business.

Coming full circle, he went backstage at the Grand Ole Opry with his smoked salmon dip, met Porter Wagoner, and TNN did a story on him. The relationship with Kroger had grown and was still growing. And, he got to meet Jimmy Dean, who told him to stick with the smoked salmon dip. Life was hectic, crazy, and growing.

In 1997 they moved back to Whidbey Island for family emergencies and gave up the smoked salmon business. They tried to start a smaller business, something different, but Kroger was caught on the hook and wouldn’t let go. David Long called and wanted the dips back in Kroger stores. Arnie went out and found a manufacturer to start making the dip again.

Cincinnati Kroger approached Arnie asking him to consider letting them private label the dips under the Kroger label. Once it was agreed upon, they moved forward and Kroger now privately labels the Smoked Salmon Dip and Southern Crab Dip. Over the years, Kroger has privately labeled seven of Cornet Bay’s seafood dips and spreads.

They went into Sam’s Club for a while under the Cornet Bay private label. During that time, they bought a motor home and hit the road doing food demos and entertaining customers at the stores.

Over the years, Arnie has mentored and helped other food entrepreneurs weave their way into the food business, passing on some of his hard-earned knowledge.

A friend told him once he was the only cowboy to ride into the history of Nashville’s country music on smoked salmon. That title got him on television, radio, and write-ups in Wall Street Journal and other large magazines. One write-up was in a Sam’s club magazine and it went out to over 12 million homes.

In the last several years they have expanded the Cornet Bay label to include seasonings, sauces, marinades, dressings, and more. They built a gourmet food empire all from Cornet Bay on Whidbey Island. Built on hard work, perseverance, and passion, this Singin’ Cowboy found his fame at the Grand Ole Opry.

Find their Cornet Bay Products, recipes from Joanne's Kitchen, and The Singin' Salmon Man from Cornet Bay book on their website.

Read other Stories from the Front Porch on our website.

Created By
Karla Locke

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