Q&A: Christopher Leigh, John Ross Jr.

Published on
May 17, 2012

John Ross Jr. in Aberdeen produces Scottish smoked salmon in traditional, 150-year-old brick kilns, which are so rare they have been awarded “Listed” status by Historic Scotland. The 25-year-old company, which holds the Royal Warrant, supplies its products to world-renowned hotels, restaurants and high-end retailers in the United Kingdom and to 36 countries worldwide.

In an exclusive interview with SeafoodSource, Christopher Leigh, director of John Ross Jr., said, despite the current economic uncertainty in many markets, there will always be strong demand for premium smoked salmon products. He revealed that the company continues to watch demand grow in the Middle East, Far East and Europe.

Holland: There are many smoked salmon products available to the market. In your opinion, what are the unique selling points of John Ross Jr. products?

Leigh: John Ross Jr. produces world-class, traditional smoked Scottish salmon products. Unlike many producers of smoked salmon, who use the term “traditional” in its loosest sense, John Ross Jr. remains true to time-honored smoking techniques that have been in use for hundreds of years. Our smoking methods haven’t changed, and we still individually hang each salmon in listed red brick kilns dating back to 1857. The kilns allow us to create a cold-smoked salmon product that is unique, and there are very few remaining producers using this technique for commercial supply. We are immensely proud of the heritage associated with the kilns and it means that everything we do — from developing the smokehouse to pre- and post-production — revolves around them. 

John Ross Jr. has launched a good number of new products in recent years. How important is it to innovate in the smoked salmon sector? And can you detail the process by which the company comes up with new flavors and formats?

For us, new product development is a relatively recent phenomenon. This is mainly down to the fact that people buy good quality smoked salmon because they like the taste and texture, and this is something that we’ve specialized in for the last 25 years with our classically prepared products. People don’t tend to want to buy smoked salmon that tastes of something else. With our recent products such as the “Tea Smoked” and the “Balvenie Whisky Cured,” we’ve aimed to enhance the flavor of the smoked salmon rather than detract from it. Equally, we don’t put on lab coats on with the aim of developing the latest gimmick or seasonal flavor. We often develop our products, such as our “Smoked Salmon Pâté,” in a home kitchen environment. We’ll then get feedback from focus groups and sampling sessions. If it’s positive then we’ll look to develop the product. If it’s not then we won’t. More than anything, we aim to produce world-class smoked Scottish salmon products that are destined for the finest hotels, restaurants and up-market retailers and where people that appreciate good-quality food will enjoy it.

A year ago, salmon prices were very high, but now they are extremely competitive. In what ways do these large fluctuations affect your business and the sector as a whole?

There’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace, so we have to spend a lot of time communicating with customers in order to create clarity and understanding about the pricing. If prices were consistent and stable then the time spent doing this would be eliminated.

How many fish farms are supplying salmon to the company? Where are they located and why did you choose their products?

We buy from a number of farms on the northwest coast of Scotland. We choose to work with reputable farms that are accredited to the highest standards in terms of animal welfare and because they have low stocking densities. They also pay meticulous attention to their stock. We look for lean, well exercised and well cared for salmon. 

In volume terms, how much smoked salmon is John Ross Jr. producing annually? And how much of this is consumed by the UK market?

We believe that we are the UK’s largest commercial producer of truly traditional Scottish smoked Scottish salmon. We supply 40 percent of what we produce to the UK market.  

What are your main export markets? And where do you see the most growth coming from?

John Ross Jr. currently supplies to over 30 countries throughout the world, so we’ve been an international company since the business was formed in 1987. Over the last 25 years, we have seen growth in international demand for smoked salmon, and we continue to see growth in the Middle East, the Far East and in Europe. Perhaps the biggest opportunity at the moment is China.

Scottish smoked salmon is widely regarded as being amongst the best in the world. Has this reputation made it easier to penetrate new markets?

Yes, of course. Scottish salmon is highly regarded throughout the world and considered the best, so naturally this helps us penetrate new markets. Our added advantage is that we are a traditional smoker in Scotland and we hold the Royal Warrant, which adds an extra layer of prestige and exclusivity to what is already a prestigious product. A relativity unstable market at the moment means that more and more customers have become more price-driven. However, we believe that there will always be a demand for premium products. 

In your opinion, has the smoked salmon sector struggled in these tough economic times?

I can’t speak for other smoked salmon producers. However, it is well documented that manufacturers and producers in general are being challenged by the current economic climate. One of our biggest strengths is the fact that we are a family-owned and -operated business that lives and breathes smoked salmon production in a way that larger commercial producers cannot. We have a very closely knit senior team. We focus more on staying true to what we believe in than company growth and we don’t compromise on quality. While we never cut corners, we keep a keen eye on what we do, have a good relationship with our suppliers and customers and ensure that we continue to produce the best smoked salmon in the world. Despite a turbulent economy, we’re proud to have a strong business that continues to perform well.

Can you outline any future growth plans, investments or new markets that you are looking to make inroads into?

We are expanding our factory to incorporate an additional high-risk area so that we can continue our focus on producing a larger volume of traditional smoked salmon. Once the expansion is complete, our smokehouse premises will have increased four-fold in size since John Ross was formed 25 years ago.

We’re also looking at value-added products, such as canapés and pinwheels, in response to discussions we’ve had with some of our retail partners. Our mail order and online ordering business is also an area that we’re looking to expand over the next five years in order to provide the general public with greater access to our portfolio of products.

Moreover, we want to carry on growing steadily and healthily as we have over the past 25 years. Our focus is working with loyal suppliers and customers and building on the relationships we’ve developed over the years.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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