Sweet smell of success for artisan producer
FUTURE PROOF: Ummera Smoked ProductsFrom near collapse to winning awards, doing business has been a rollercoaster
It has been in operation for nearly 40 years and has acquired a string of accolades, but things have not always been easy for artisan food producer Ummera Smoked Products.
After being reluctant to adapt to new technologies, the company nearly went under in 1998. At the time, the business had been selling by direct mail and to a few hotels and shops in the Cork area.
Less than a decade later, the business won Best Irish Speciality Food at the Great Taste Awards in the UK and it is now stocked throughout Ireland in speciality shops including Avoca, Fallon Byrne, Butlers Pantry and Mortons. It also exports 25 per cent of its products to countries such as Italy, Holland and the UK.
Its managing director, Anthony Creswell, joined the business after a career in the wine industry, working in vineyards France, Italy and Australia.
“I had worked in the wine industry for nearly 20 years, ultimately running my own wine importing business based in Kinsale.
“Unfortunately, we suffered massive increases in Vat and excise duty in the early 1980s which really hit me. So I went into business with my dad, Keith.”
Keith, a chicken farmer and a keen fisherman, had started smoking the salmon he and his friends were catching on local rivers in the west Cork area in the late 1970s, before setting up Ummera Smoked Products.
“In the early years we lost money for 11 months of the year and made money in December. Our business was completely reliant on the Christmas rush.
“We were about to be closed down at the end of the 1990s. We had to change everything. I took over running the business and we moved to a new purpose-built smokehouse.”
In the years following, Creswell noticed the demand for wild salmon was starting to exceed supply, with a decline of salmon stocks inevitable.
“We could see the writing on the wall that wild salmon was being seriously overfished. It was getting scarce and less reliable so we started looking for alternatives.”
The company was initially reluctant to become involved in the processing of farmed fish, but following extensive research decided it would be a positive move.
It began sourcing organic farmed salmon from Clare Island, Co Mayo, and in 2002 was awarded the Organic Trust symbol for the sourcing, processing and distribution of organic smoked salmon.
It was a clever move as a wild salmon drift net fishing ban consequently came into force during the summer 2007.
A year later, in the wake of the financial crisis, sterling surged against the euro, putting increased pressure on Ummera’s exports to the UK.
“The collapse of the euro against the sterling affected us greatly. UK demand for our products declined rapidly. We were supplying Harvey Nichols but lost that.”
The company began innovating, and in 2010 brought out their Breast of Smoked Silver Hill Duck which went on to win a gold award at the Great Taste Awards in the UK.
Always trying to stay one step ahead, Creswell then signed up to Twitter as a new means to promote his business and has seen its positive effect.
“I think Twitter has helped promote our business. For example, La Cucina in Limerick heard of us through Twitter and now they are one of our customers.
“Once I tweeted that there were some good recipes for smoked eel on Masterchef on RTÉ. Ten minutes later I had an order over the website for €250 of smoked eel from Hawaii!”
Christmas is still the busiest period for the business, with orders flooding in to the website from all over the world.
“We use couriers to deliver it. If you order before 10am you’ll have it for lunchtime the next day in most of Europe.
“It’ll cost €65-€70 for a side of our smoked salmon delivered which doesn’t seem to frighten too many people. We’re appealing to a high-end market.”
Creswell has recently started supplying shops in Northern Ireland, but has no plans to branch out on a large-scale.
“We can’t produce tons of smoked salmon and maintain the high quality. We are expensive, we don’t deny that. But we have a high quality, hand-crafted, artisan product and products like that don’t come cheap.”
The business has also begun looking into the area of food tourism, following a recent trip Creswell undertook with Fáilte Ireland’s Food Champions to Prince Edward County in Canada.
“The big growth in the tourism industry around the world now is food tourism and we’re in the lucky position that we can give tours of our premises. Not many artisan producers can do that,” he says.