As accustomed to the Miami climate as he is the unpredictable Scottish weather, Brendan James Maher could have been forgiven for thinking he was back in the States when he joined the great and good of the Scottish food and drink industry outside in the late May sunshine at the reception before the Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards.
Mingling with other guests at the “Oscars” of the industry at the Doubletree by Hilton Dunblane Hydro Hotel in Perthshire, Maher was quietly confident that his Dumfries and Galloway-based company, St James Smokehouse, might pick up an award in the fish and seafood category in which two of its premium Scottish smoked salmon products were shortlisted.
Chatting away at his table to Jo Macsween of the iconic haggis maker, who would later win the meat category award for her Edinburgh firm’s microwaveable haggis and black pudding, he was also looking forward to a sumptuous culinary extravaganza prepared by celebrity chef Nick Nairn using the finest Scottish and locally sourced produce – new season pea soup, tikka spiced Scrabster halibut with Isle of Seil langoustine, pickled cucumber, radish and coriander dressing, and slow braised neck of Dornoch lamb with skirlie potatoes, aubergine puree, British asparagus and crispy ham.
But when comedian and self-confessed foodie Hardeep Singh Kohli, the compere for the evening, outlined the shortlist before revealing the winner – a trio of Loch Duart salmon products – the St James Smokehouse team was left somewhat deflated.
Fast forward to Friday morning, however, and the previous evening’s disappointment was long forgotten when the good news arrived that the company had achieved British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standard accreditation at its most stringent Grade A level.
“It was a bitter-sweet couple of days for us,” says Maher.
“We were confident about the Excellence Awards because we’re so proud of our products and the quality of our products, plus we won Business of the Year and International Business of the Year in 2011.
“It just didn’t go our way this time.
But, you know, when we heard the news about our BRC audit….well, that really did feel like winning an award.” For those not involved in the food industry, BRC accreditation is a global standard that manufacturers and suppliers need if they want to do business with most UK, North American and European retailers.
“It was a great way to end the week,” he says.
“I have a great team of people and they’d all pulled together to prepare for the audit so I’m certainly not complaining.” On the contrary, Maher is ramping up operations at his Annan smokehouse, formerly occupied by Pinneys of Scotland, part of Young’s Seafood.
A ￡500,000 expansion of the premises in the town’s Station Road – bolstered by a ￡209,487 grant from the European Fisheries Fund – has recently enabled the firm to open a new filleting and portioning operation which will boost capacity and allow the business, for the first time, to handle whole fish.
It’s an exciting period in the history of the company, which was founded by Liverpoolborn Maher and his wife, Alexandra, in 2003.
St James Smokehouse started life initially as a brand with production outsourced to a number of small smokers in Scotland.
“This was a great way to get started,” says Maher, “and while we were happy with our product we were getting inconsistencies in flavour so we decided to work towards establishing our own smokehouse.” Under the auspices of master smoker Leo Sprott who oversees a simple salt and sugar smoking process, the first St James Smokehouse opened in Newton Stewart.
Business flourished and demand for the firm’s premium smoked salmon saw it outgrow these premises.
An opportunity arose to relocate to Annan and the business has been on an upward curve ever since.
While the domestic market remains important to the future growth of St James Smokehouse, it is exports that are currently driving the business with the US market performing particularly well.
Around 60% of current exports go to North America and the company has established a sales office in Coconut Grove, Miami where Maher, a former graphic designer, now spends around half his time.
“I saw a massive opportunity for us in North America quite early on,” Maher explains.
“There’s a huge demand for smoked salmon there and a perception that anything ‘Scottish’ is superior but what you had was US domestic smokers buying it in from Chile, smoking it and sticking it in a bag with a bit of tartan on it – the quality just wasn’t there so I decided to start knocking on doors.
“There was a gaping hole in the US market for a genuine Scottish product.
We were confident we could fill that void.” Maher’s intuition – and tenaciousness – paid off.
The company says it’s decision to move into the North American market has boosted its annual turnover to $25m (￡16.1m).
“St James Smokehouse is now the most successful Scottish smoked salmon brand in the USA,” he says, bursting with pride.
“It hasn’t been easy but we’re now supplying the likes of Whole Foods Market, Mandarin Oriental hotel group and Kings.”
In 2011, the company further enhanced its reputation in the US when its St James Scotch Reserve Smoked Salmon infused with Hendrick’s Scottish Gin & Tonic won the Best New Retail Award for Seafood Excellence at the high-profile International Boston Seafood Show.
Other awards include the 2011 Best New Chilled Food at Gulfood in Dubai, the world’s biggest annual food and hospitality event, seven Gold medals from the Guild of Fine Foods’ Great Taste Award in 2010 and 2011 and three gold medals from the Monde Selection International Quality Institute in the World Quality Selections 2012, two of them for the gin and tonic infusion.
It’s certainly an unusual flavour. Others include Garlic & Pepper, Whisky & Wild Honey, Lemon & Pepper, Orange & Pepper, Pastrami, Gravadlax and, of course, the stalwart of the range – St James Smokehouse Scotch Reserve Scottish Smoked Salmon.
“You’re not going to float everyone’s boat with some of our flavours but what we’re trying to do is produce premium-quality, Scottish smoked salmon that first and foremost tastes great,” says Maher.
“We’re not attempting to produce products that have an overpowering taste of gin or whisky – it’s about enhancing the natural flavours of the salmon and smoke in a subtle and complimentary way.
Not everyone gets it but in a mature market like ours you need to keep pushing boundaries.
“If you’re not innovative, your products become dull and that’s not good for the wider sector in which you operate.
When it comes to smoked salmon, retailers and chefs are constantly looking for something a bit different, something exciting.
I suppose we have a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll approach to what we do – we’re not afraid to be bold.
It might not always work, but at least we’ve tried.” As one of the few remaining traditional family-owned smokehouses in the UK, St James Smokehouse has had to be ambitious.
Operating in a fiercely competitive market dominated by seafood giants such as Young’s, the company focuses very much on the premium end of the market and trades on its “100% Scottish” attributes.
All product is sustainably sourced and free of antibiotics, growth hormones and nitrates.
“You need a point of difference in this business,” Maher points out. “That’s one of the reasons we’re moving into filleting. Again, we’ve done our research and while there are a lot of players out there, very few are handling a whole-head product and there’s a shortage of filleting plants for fresh salmon portions.
“Our aim is to become a one-stop-shop for salmon and persuade the retailers taking our smoked salmon to buy our fresh salmon portions.
It’s about cementing our position as an all-round salmon specialist.
I don’t think I’m being over-ambitious when I say this new operation has the potential to add another $20m [￡12.9m] to our business.
“Our size allows us to be pretty nimble so we can produce salmon fillets to whatever specification our customers want. Everyone’s hugely excited about it and we’re having to take on new staff, too – that’s fantastic for Annan. We’ve got around 40 people just now and they’re a great team. There’s a real camaraderie among the staff and recognition that we’ve all got the same goal – it’s one of the things I love about the business.
“We all muck in because we’re a small team. St James Smokehouse has grown organically and a lot of the staff have been on the journey with me since the beginning. I still help out on the factory floor and do what needs to be done – we all do – and even though I spend so much time travelling I always fly economy class. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur. With me, what you see is what you get and people respond well to that.”
Does he ever run short of inspiration? “No, because I’ve got such a great team around me,” Maher states without hesitation.
“I think as well that because I started my career as a graphic designer and worked in some of the top design companies in London, I was bitten by the creativity bug and became fascinated with marketing, advertising and brand development.
The experience also made me realise that I wanted to run my own business and transfer my skills and knowledge into a company of my own.” The early 1990s saw Maher move north to Cumbria where he accepted a job with a smoked salmon company.
“I had a gut feeling that there were real opportunities in Scottish smoked salmon and the Cumbria job confirmed this – there was a huge gap in the market for handcrafted, artisan-produced Scottish smoked salmon.” Maher’s creative juices soon kicked in and the St James Smokehouse brand was born, gradually taking shape around his aspiration to create a high-quality, luxury product which was destined to be marketed and sold around the world.
Meanwhile, St James Smokehouse continues to expand into new overseas markets. Existing territories including Dubai, Egypt, Germany, Hong Kong, Portugal, Spain, Singapore, Thailand, Uruguay and UAE.
“Increasing our presence in international markets is very much part of our business strategy over the next 18 months although the UK is equally important,” Maher points out. “That’s why our BRC accreditation is so important.
We’ve invested heavily in quality control and product development because we want to grow the business and extend the reach of the St James Smokehouse brand, both in domestic and international markets.
Smoked salmon is such a wonderful product and we want ours to be the best.” Talking generally about the current state of the Scottish food and drink industry, Maher is upbeat.
“It’s doing well,” he suggests. “In fact, there are parts of it that are in extremely rude health and exports are up. There’s also a tremendous amount of innovation in our industry just now. You only had to look around the room at the Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards to see who was there and when I got talking to people afterwards, I was amazed at what some of them are doing.
“We have some outstanding manufacturers in Scotland who are overflowing with ideas and it’s great that there’s such a lot of support.
At St James Smokehouse, for example, we’ve had our grant from the European Fisheries Fund but there’s also the expertise and knowledge that you can tap into at organisations like Scotland Food & Drink and Scottish Development International (SDI).” St James Smokehouse has worked particularly closely with SDI, travelling with the organisation and other salmon companies to exhibit on the Scottish pavilion at Gulfood earlier this year.
The company also exhibited at the European Seafood Exposition in Brussels. The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation backs up Maher, pointing out that Scottish salmon has recorded impressive market growth in a number of new emerging markets, with exports to the Far East having increased nearly 900%.
Meanwhile, a collaboration of Scottish seafood bodies is seeking to boost exports in largely untapped markets, with a focus on growing high-end sales in the Far East.
Activities in emerging markets to maximise opportunities for Scottish seafood include educational and networking sessions with hotel chains, restaurant groups, chefs and buyers, and special “Scottish Seafood Weeks” aimed at both consumers and the food industry.
A seafood marketing toolkit is also being developed to help Scottish businesses promote their products in the Asian marketplace.
SDI chief executive Anne MacColl comments: “The Asian market offers huge potential for Scottish food and drink companies and it is a very good fit for Scotland’s strategic focus on premium products, health and provenance.
“Our international food and drink strategy for Asia, developed in consultation with key stakeholder organisations, aims to fully exploit these opportunities.
“Focusing on the areas where Scotland already has a global competitive advantage, such as whisky, seafood and red meat, the strategy promotes Scotland as the ‘Land of Food and Drink’, helping to ensure that food and drink companies in Asia see Scotland as the ideal partner of choice.” Scotland’s international trade and investment strategy, launched last year, sets ambitious targets for Scottish companies to increase the value of exports, with a target of 30% growth by 2017 for the seafood sector.
With Scotland the third-largest salmon producer in the world – a statistic that is often overlooked – salmon is of critical importance to the Scottish economy, particularly in rural and more remote areas where the industry is a major employer.
In fact, the salmon industry in Scotland supports some 8500 jobs, around half of them in remote rural communities.
Mayer says: “There’s a real buzz about the industry just now and it’s great to be part of something that’s so robust and making such an impact.I think when you consider the economic climate we’re living in just now and the restraints on everyone’s budget, the food and drink industry is a fantastic success story and there’s much to celebrate – St James Smokehouse is very much a part of that success story.”