CORNET BAY — Arnie Deckwa sat in his boyhood home off Cornet Bay Road and talked with red-rimmed eyes about his father.
“He was one of the most beautiful examples of life you could find,” he said.
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Deckwa, with his booming voice and cowboy charm, is as colorful and fun as the John Wayne poster and 5-foot spread steer head that hang in his office. (The steer, by the way, is named Blackie.)
Deckwa grew up in a 494-square-foot yellow house on North Whidbey. Though his family made its living commercial fishing, Deckwa has held such positions as a deputy sheriff, contractor, land developer and rodeo contestant throughout the years. His dream, however, had always been to become a country music star.
He moved to Nashville in 1987 to pursue his passion, never knowing that the venture would lead him away from song and land him knee- deep in his current life’s mission, hot smoked salmon.
When Deckwa first arrived in Tennessee, he had no connections, no money and a tiny apartment in the city. He remembers sitting in his living room at # 35A and thinking to himself, “Deckwa, you’ve done a lot of dumb things in your life, but this is certainly the dumbest.”
But soon, Deckwa, with his boisterous personality, was spending time backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, befriending country music legends like Garth Brooks, Roy Acuff and Little Jimmy Dickens — though never singing to an audience himself. After sharing some of his smoked salmon from home with his new pals, Deckwa was urged to market the product in local stores.
Though he didn’t know anything about starting a food label, Deckwa began standing around the meat counters at grocery stores in his hat and boots pitching his product, and was quickly welcomed to set up sample tables. But since many costumers in the South had never heard of hot smoked salmon, Deckwa had to get creative with his fish.
“This flashbulb just went off,” Deckwa said. “Nobody knows what to do with smoked salmon, but everybody knows what to do with a dip. Pretty soon the rumor was out that this cowboy can make a hell of a dip, but doesn’t know jack squat about the food business.”
But Deckwa knew people, and after schmoozing multiple store employees, making the right connections and making pounds and pounds of seafood dips behind store counters, his product was picked up by the nation’s largest grocery chain, Kroger.
“You can pull off what you want to pull off, but you’ve got to have passion and you’ve got to have drive,” Deckwa said.
Deckwa moved back to the island years ago to care for his family home, and has 80 products ranging from dips, mustards to marinades selling across the country. Locally, he has products in Saar’s Marketplace, Haggens, Top Food, Payless in Freeland and QFCs in Seattle. He will pop into Payless for a cooking demonstration today that will run from noon to 5 p.m.
He’s made numerous cross country trips in his Cornet Bay-painted motor home to promote his products in distant stores, and recently published a humorous and heartwarming book titled “The Singin’ Salmon Man from Cornet Bay” that captures his memories from childhood and his adventures in Tennessee.
There are many things people can learn from reading Deckwa’s words, but perhaps the most inspiring lesson he teaches is that any idea can become reality with the right attitude.
“You can throw me a seed, buddy, and I’m gonna make that thing grow,” Deckwa said. “Let’s roll.”