Challenging traditions: How a young director and Scottish firm are shaking up smoked salmon

Published on
November 26, 2019

Scottish smoked salmon production has become a heavily congested space in recent times, with a growing abundance of products vying for market share. But while many of these competing brands seek to appeal to consumers and professional kitchens by selling on artisan traditions and tartan and feather imagery, one relatively new company is making its mark on the category through a focus on modern values and techniques, and with a young executive’s mantra “to make smoked salmon sexy again.”

Following the construction of a new factory, Campbells & Co. started production in July 2017. This facility is now processing up to 10 metric tons (MT) of salmon each week, Ross Hastings, the company’s 29-year-old director, told SeafoodSource.

“We went ultra-modern with our smokehouse, because we’re coming at this from a very modern, quality-led angle. We’ve got the most modern kilns and the most modern slicing machines that money can buy. These are machines that can do this better than even the most skilled individual,” he said. “Too often, people get caught up in the romance of things like hand-slicing. But I’m far more interested in the practicalities and actual quality control, and that’s why we run our kilns off Excel files.”

Typically, the full process – from order to delivery – takes a week, which Hastings suggests is longer than the majority of the market.

“One of our secrets is that we put an awful lot of care into our product after it is smoked. Traditionally, smoked salmon is packed very quickly to keep all of the oils in. And because you sell on weight, you don’t want to lose any,” he said. “But I believe many people moan about the product being too oily, and about there being excess weight in the packages, so we allow for maturation afterwards. That way, when you get one of our products, it’s perfect. You open it, it’s mature and ready to serve.”

In addition to its Scottish distribution, Campbells is now shipping a few hundred kilos of smoked salmon directly into London’s Billingsgate Fish Market each week. It’s also partnering with fine food company and cheese specialist Harvey & Brockless and supplying the Caviar House & Prunier seafood chain. There have also been exclusive products with U.K. two-star Michelin chef Michel Roux Jr., and promotions with whiskey distillers William Grant & Sons and The Langham hotel in London.

According to Hastings, these projects and the successes that Campbells has seen owe much to it being an “agile” business. As such, he explained that the short, medium and long-term vision means that its products won’t be made available to the control-heavy, mass retail market.

Instead, the objective is to continue to be a product quality-led company, he said.

“We’re not here to chase volume, because it’s becoming ever clearer to me that turnover really is for vanity and profit is for sanity," he said. "I would much rather we were producing a quality product than a lot of product.”

Differentiating product

While Campbells with its core team of just 10 is a fairly new entrant to the market, the company’s parent business, Campbells Prime Meat of Scotland, has a history dating back to 1910 and a butcher shop in Edinburgh. Today, this company is Scotland’s largest private butcher and fishmonger with a turnover in seafood and fish products alone in excess of GBP 13 million (USD 16.8 million, EUR 15.2 million). It also operates Scotland’s largest private refrigerated logistics network with around 83 vans delivering food products all over the region.

Hastings joined the Campbells business seven and a half years ago. Back then it was buying in approximately GBP 700,000 (USD 906,762, EUR 819,843) worth of smoked salmon per year. But most of these products were being shipped up from England. And often the company was processing the salmon and then sending it back down south.

Recognizing the juxtaposition that Scottish smoked salmon was increasingly being commoditized, while also featuring on the menu of the majority of five-star eateries, he submitted a business plan to the Campbells family that proposed building the company’s own smokehouse and to cherry-pick the very best salmon that it had access to for a new brand.

“I suggested we should try and challenge the traditions of smoked salmon and the old-school heritage. This all has its place, but I felt that times were changing,” Hastings said.

The perception of smoked salmon as a luxury item, he added, didn’t seem to be carrying over into consumer preferences.

“I had found that smoked salmon didn’t seem to have a luxury barrier, if that makes sense. There’s this perception that smoked salmon is a luxury item, and therefore it must be good quality. But because of the competitive nature of the market, so many people have got involved in the sector and the result is smoked salmon of varying quality,” Hastings said. “Also, because there’s now so much defrosted smoked salmon on the market, and often it’s mushy, soft, and not really meaty, a lot of people think that they don’t like smoked salmon. Some chefs have quite openly said that customers have refused our product because they ‘don’t like smoked salmon.’ It’s taken a different kind of presentation of our product to pull them in.”

In producing cheaper products, some market newcomers have picked up a lot of business, acknowledged Hastings. But he maintains that this wasn’t the course he wanted to take. Instead, he sought inspiration from other luxury goods sectors.

“I wanted to go in the completely opposite direction and challenge things by creating an even better-quality product,” he said. “Through this approach, I felt we could educate people and they would be encouraged to purchase more of our salmon.”

Market focus

Another trait of the sector that Hastings’ plan sought to address was the “huge variability” in the size of the salmon supplied to smokers and then accepted by professional kitchens.

“I had first-hand experience of this because at one stage we were buying more than 1,000 sides of salmon per week from other suppliers,” he said. “Within that order of 1,000 sides, the variability in size could be anything from 700 grams to 1.4 kilograms; that’s a 100 percent difference. And for any chef that [level of] variability throws all estimates out of the window.”

Campbells now works with a number of salmon farmers to secure high-quality four- to five-kilogram fish – to yield fillets of between 900 grams and 1.2 kilograms.

This greater uniformity is another quality reference, said Hastings.

Meanwhile, the company’s alcohol pairings – first whiskey and then gin – have led to sashimi-style, vertically sliced smoked salmon products. These are twice the thickness of standard sliced smoked salmon.

“We’ve had lots of success with people who have realized that there’s a lot more that can be done with smoked salmon,” Hastings said. “Also, unlike most companies in this space that add whiskey chips or alcohol before smoking, we only add our alcohol after smoking – to the final product. That allows the alcohol to coat over the top of the salmon. It’s then vacuum-sealed, so that when you open it, you get a big sensory hit.”

The company has also worked to educate consumers on the pairings and how the two products can complement each other.

“We educate people to try the product at the same time as they drink the alcohol. All of the oils in the salmon come through in the alcohol and vice versa,” Hastings said.

Cumulatively, the results have been “incredibly exciting,” said Hastings. “We’re seeing some amazing growth levels, with this year 200 percent-plus more sales than last year.”

“In the space of two years, we have doubled our volume,” he added. “Hopefully, we’re going to break the GBP 2 million (USD 2.6 million, EUR 2.3 million) mark by the end of this year.”

Of course, in such a broad and competitive sector, it’s only natural that Campbells’ products are not for everyone. So while the company has met with some market resistance, Hastings’ objective remains “to sell to the people that want to buy” the firm’s salmon.

“I’ve had quite a lot of fun pushing back against that resistance. I think that’s been what’s needed, because the smoked salmon market has just been allowed to continue without anyone really doing anything differently,” he said. “It’s about knowing your customer base. Plus, it’s much more exciting being in the position where you are trying to push a product upwards rather than joining a race to the bottom.”  

Photo courtesy of Cambells & Co.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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