Business smokin' hot; St. Mary's salmon products so in demand that Sherbrooke firm's smokers run 24 hours a day

IT'S NOT ONLY the workforce in the Sherbrooke area that benefits from the good times at the St. Mary's River Smokehouses. "The bear at the dump is the healthiest, shiniest bear you'd ever want to see," plant manager Margaret Harpell said, pointing out a bin of salmon skins and flesh destined for the landfill a couple of kilometres away.

Half the salmon smoked in Sherbrooke comes from the Bay of Fundy, with the rest farmed in England, Scotland, Norway, Chile and the U.S. Here, after any bone or gristle is removed from the fillets, they're either hot- or cold-smoked or made into gravlax through a curing process that uses salt, sugar and dill. The biggest market for gravlax is Saskatchewan, and "demand is through the roof," says Harpell.

In fact, sales for all St. Mary's products are so strong that Harpell confesses to sometimes being reluctant to pick up the phone. It could be someone in sales, calling to tell Harpell a deal has just been struck to provide an airline with very lightly smoked fillets, 120 grams each, to serve to passengers in first class. Oh, and the deal is for 46,000 of those fillets. Per week. Get right on that, will you?

"We're hoping it's going to be continual, but it also goes in cycles as to when it comes up on their menus," said Harpell of the fillets, which are much more appealing than the food served in economy class. "The airline might serve this in first class for three months, then they change and put other things on the menu."

After trimming, each fillet goes through a machine where needles inject a brine of salt and sugar. Most of the equipment in the smokehouse's packaging room comes from Europe, and some of it is custom-made, allowing St. Mary's to offer products that no one else in North America can. Programmable smokers that burn oak sawdust from Quebec can hold up to 1,000 fillets at a time, where they stay for five to eight hours. From September until Christmas, the smokers run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Cold-smoked fillets are what most people think of when they think of smoked salmon, rich orange in colour, a staple with cream cheese and bagels and commonly featured on fancy buffets or for special occasions. Hotsmoked salmon is cooked while it's smoked and is much more versatile. St. Mary's sells hot-smoked salmon across the country in a variety of formats to labels like Our Compliments and President's Choice.

"Initially, you send an idea. If it's for a President's Choice product, you send an idea to them," said Harpell. "They'll come back and say whether they like it or don't like it. Over time, they'll say they want more smoke, more salt, less salt, a bigger slice, a thicker slice, cut on a different angle, any number of variances. Likewise with spice, they can change what they want; they might want a little more colour, less flavour of this or that. They will always try to put their own spin on it."

Since former Nova Scotia Liberal leader Sandy Cameron and his cousin George Newell opened the business in 1996, both the building and the business have expanded to six times their original size, with annual sales now topping $6 million.

Alan Archibald, now the president of the company, said a combination of factors allowed for the rapid growth.

"We rode that private-label horse in the sense that we got some good listings with some national retailers, which gave us distribution across the country," he said. "That's key. And then we were able to ride on the coattails of that with our own brand - because we had product going into 1, 500 Loblaws stores, for example.

"The other obvious thing would be the ability to produce quality product. We work with product that's coming out of the Bay of Fundy; it's not very far away, so the raw material is close. It's excellent quality raw salmon, that's No. 1, but just as important is your ability to produce consistent quality product month in, month out with no complaints, no problems."

Whether it comes from Chile or the Bay of Fundy, all the salmon that goes through Sherbrooke is Atlantic salmon, all of it raised in aquaculture operations.

"A lot of people don't realize that it's farmed salmon, not wild salmon. They don't realize that there's not a fishery of wild Atlantic salmon anywhere in the world. There's a little fishery off the coast of Greenland, I think, that's it," said Archibald, who doesn't
expect the downturn in the economy to have a discernible impact on the business.

"If you looked at the full spectrum of smoked salmon, some of our product, like our strips that we sell, is at the bottom end, so it's an affordable treat, an affordable indulgence. The coldsmoked salmon, it's a celebration-type food, you have it at Christmas time.
Typically, even when times are tough, you're still going to treat yourself occasionally."

The smokehouse is the largest nonseasonal employer in the Sherbrooke area, with 35 full-time employees and room for five or 10 more.

Even with raw material coming in from half a dozen countries and finished product being shipped all over Canada, Harpell said finding enough workers is her biggest challenge.

"Actually, we've recruited some crews to come down on the weekends from the city," she said. "Five of them carpool down and they share accommodation, and it's a good way for them to make some extra money on the weekend."

Roy Wilmott has been working at St. Mary's for six months, after returning home from Alberta, where he's lived on and off since 1977. He's working 50 to 60 hours per week.

"I was in Alberta and I wanted to be in this area, so I took a job with these people and I get to stay in the area. My last hitch (in Alberta) was probably three years," said Wilmott, whose nephew also works in the smokehouse. "Now, I don't have to move away; I can stay here and do what I want. I like to hunt and fish, I'm from the area, and it's a pleasant place to be."

A sign on the wall where employees punch in offers bonus pay for working extra shifts, and Harpell is looking into bringing in foreign workers. For now, she said, there's a different strategy for keeping up with the demand for smoked salmon. "We've got everybody's relatives working."

St. Mary's River Smokehouse company president Allan Archibald, holding one of the firm's products, says a
combination of factors allowed for the rapid growth of the business, which now has annual sales topping $6 million.
(All photos by Peter Parsons / Staff)Kim Tibbo places smoked salmon slices on trays for the wrapping machine.Dawn
Moser, left, and Adam Milmott pack salmon portions. The company has been contracted to provide 46,000 fillets like
these to an airline each week.

St. Mary's River Smokehouse company president Allan Archibald, holding one of the firm's products, says a
combination of factors allowed for the rapid growth of the business, which now has annual sales topping $6 million.
(All photos by Peter Parsons / Staff)Kim Tibbo places smoked salmon slices on trays for the wrapping machine.Dawn
Moser, left, and Adam Milmott pack salmon portions. The company has been contracted to provide 46,000 fillets like
these to an airline each week.

St. Mary's River Smokehouse company president Allan Archibald, holding one of the firm's products, says a
combination of factors allowed for the rapid growth of the business, which now has annual sales topping $6 million.
(All photos by Peter Parsons / Staff)Kim Tibbo places smoked salmon slices on trays for the wrapping machine.Dawn
Moser, left, and Adam Milmott pack salmon portions. The company has been contracted to provide 46,000 fillets like
these to an airline each week.

Bill Spurr, Features Writer

The Chronicle-Herald
ArtsLife, Tuesday, October 28, 2008, p. E1

© 2008 The Chronicle-Herald - Halifax ; CEDROM-SNi inc.