Boston Smoked Fish: A hobby turned thriving business
Less than 10 years ago, Chris Avery and Matt Baumann – co-founders of Boston Smoked Fish – were both practicing attorneys who had burned out on the legal life.
Baumann, who originally hails from the Midwest, had gotten into smoking fish as a hobby, and at the time was thinking of taking it from a hobby to a full-time occupation after experimenting with some recipes. In January 2013, Baumann approached Avery in a bar and pitched the idea of partnering up.
“I thought he was a little nuts, to be honest,” Avery told SeafoodSource.
Avery, though, was in a similar situation with his role as an attorney. His job, at the time, was winding down and he was moving closer to Sudbury, Massachusetts, U.S.A, where Baumann was planning to start the first iteration of the business.
That early business was modest, to say the least. Baumann’s brother let him use a part of his lawn, and the newly-minted business owners set about converting a 500-square-foot llama barn into an FDA approved smokehouse facility.
At the time, Avery wasn’t fully into the business yet, but the more he learned about the state of the market in the Boston area, and the opportunity, he jumped on board 100 percent.
“I said, 'OK Matt, you’re a one-man shop right now, I think you’ll need a business partner,’” he said.
Boston, despite being famous for its seafood products, didn’t have any established commercial fish-smoking operations, and to this day still doesn’t aside from Boston Smoked Fish. That void in the market left plenty of room for opportunity.
However, that void also presented an obstacle: Few people in the area were in the habit of eating smoked fish. So the pair started to market their product in the old-school way – face-to-face interactions at dozens of farmer’s markets in the Boston area.
“It was all about boots on the ground, doing farmers' markets, facing customers and getting product into their hands,” Avery said.
Getting the product into people’s hands, and their mouths, was one of the best ways to get the flavors that Boston Smoked Fish’s process creates. The company hot-smokes their fish, as opposed to more familiar cold-smoking processes. That makes their product different in a way that isn’t easily conveyed without getting people to try it first.
“Hot-smoked fish appeals to people who don’t necessarily eat a lot of seafood,” Avery said. “The hot-smoking brings out a lot of the healthy fats, its chock full of omega-3s, It has a wonderful moisture content.”
One of their signature products, salmon bacon, highlights that bacon-like quality and is something that people who may be uncertain about seafood tend to gravitate to.
“As soon as they get that salmon bacon in their mouth, they say ‘Whoa, what?’” Avery said.
As their smoked fish started to develop fans in and around Boston, they managed to secure a spot in the Boston Public Market, in part because of the reputation they had created through the local farmers' market circuit. That spot further increased the company’s notoriety, leading to them securing their first big retail contract.
In December 2015, the company moved to its current location, graduating from a 500-square-foot shed on a lawn to a 9,000-square-foot facility on Boston’s historic fish pier.
From there, Boston Smoked Fish has only grown. Avery and Baumann now employ 15 other people, and have made headway into a number of grocery stores from their home-base of Boston to grocery stores in Washington state.
The obstacles that existed when the pair first started are still largely the same, only on a larger scale than they once were.
“Hot-smoked fish is a real artisanal specialty product that is not a staple food item.” Avery said. “We have to create the market a little bit, when people go to the supermarket, the first they think isn’t, ‘All right, where’s the hot smoked fish?’”
Still, Avery said they knew they were on to an opportunity when they first came up with the name for the company. Initially, it was going to be Sudbury Smoked Fish, but when they discovered the URL for Boston Smoked Fish was available, they decided to dream big.
“That vindicated the choice, that there really wasn’t anybody else doing it,” Avery said.