Selling direct the answer for Grimsby’s oldest traditional smokehouse

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Alfred Enderby is the oldest traditional smokehouse in Grimsby. Despite experiencing something of a rough ride since taking over in 2016, the company’s owner, Patrick Salmon, is banking on quality. 

For a time, Grimsby was the largest fishing port in the world. In its pomp, the town’s docks was said to be so busy that workers struggled to cross the street.

Today, the streets around the harbour are almost deserted and just a handful of businesses remain in Grimsby’s ‘kasbah’, the red brick labyrinth of warehouses, factories, equipment suppliers and smokehouses that bring to mind the old East End of London – albeit in the immediate aftermath of a visit from the Luftwaffe.

Grimsby’s famous Kasbah

The crumbling area has largely been abandoned by businesses in favour of more practical modern warehousing further back from the water. An exception is the Alfred Enderby smokehouse.

Enderby’s six, tar-caked, chimneys date back to 1918, making it the oldest smokehouse in the town, and the only one of those holding the PGI that smokes salmon.

But the current owner, Patrick Salmon, is a relative new comer, having bought the business in 2016. With Brexit, Covid, and the worst recession in history, it’s been quite a time.

“Had we not got this breadth and diversity of customers, we would have been knackered,” says Salmon, a plain-spoken man, who occasionally forgets himself and drops in a quote from a Victorian philosopher.

“We would have been absolutely bollocksed,” he repeats, warming to his theme. “All our wholesalers rang us up and said, ‘We’re closing. We’re furloughing our staff – and by the way, we’re not paying our bills’.”

How did this make him feel? “Shit.”

“Having said that, wholesale trade has been vital to us over the decades and remains vital, some of them are brilliant and have supported our business through thick and thin. The discerning wholesaler selling to the top end of the restaurant trade we will always be a part of our trading,” he pauses. “On the other hand, some of them are interested in price alone and they are not good.”

Patrick Salmon, owner of the Alfred Enderby Smokehouse

Selling direct
So what then is the answer? A deal with one of the big supermarkets?

“Christ, no. I wouldn’t want to work for those rascals.”

“We do sell a small amount of both salmon and haddock through the Lincolnshire Coop in their love local range and they are good to us, part of the mix of business we do. The move to direct sales future proofs our business.”

“I want to supply the consumer directly.” He adds, “Either people walking in, as you’ve seen here, they can come to the smokehouse and buy it or, or we’ll deliver it locally, as well as send it all over the country by mail.”

As Salmon indicates, the interview is constantly interrupted by a stream of visitors wandering into the smokehouse. Which, given the post apocalyptic vibe outside, is some testament to people’s desire to get their hands on his fish.

“They will do the research on the internet and understand our provenance and our history and our genuine keenness to produce a really fabulous product. As Marco Pierre White said, this salmon is a bit like what old man Forman used to produce in the East End when they still had a traditional smokehouse.”

The direct approach worked says Salmon. “From March last year onward, we got really busy and of course now it’s gone back to normal a bit and so we’re less busy on the direct sales but we’re trying to grow that and we using every method available to us.”

There were once 80 smokehouses in Grimsby’s docks

Dealing with farmers
The proprietor of the smokehouse has equally forthright views when it comes to the broader industry. “Are the salmon farmers greedy bastards? Perhaps! Like everybody else in the food industry,” he laughs.

“We buy a lot from the Scottish Salmon Company, and from Loch Duart. Right now its around six and a half quid a kilo. But it’s going up because there’s a shortage of larger salmon.”

“I’m told Loch Duart and Scottish Salmon Company probably won’t resolve their large salmon deficiency issues until the New Year. In December when the price of salmon goes up, we struggle to pass that on to the wholesale trade.“

This week, Salmon says, the company has effectively worked for nothing on their smoked haddock, because the fish itself has been so expensive. “There’s been a shortage because the weather’s been bad in Iceland. So we really do struggle. But if we’re selling direct to the consumer, there’s enough margin in there to protect us from occasional price hikes”

PHOTO: Alfred Enderby

Quality will out
“The answer to improving profits is to drive volume and and they do tend to end up selling it for a smaller margin but bigger volume and they compromise quality nearly always.”

“I think that’s probably why the salmon farms are struggling because they’ve taken over all the small ones. And the big guys are just focused on one thing.”

For the smokehouse, the answer is quality, not quantity. “We’re thoroughly honest, and dedicated to an objective, which is to be the very best we can. I could smoke for less time – and then lose less weight. But I wouldn’t produce as good a quality fish, that’s simply not what we’re into.”

Salmon finishes with a flourish. “It was John Ruskin who said, ‘There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.'” Pausing, to reflect, he says, “And you know, he’s not wrong.”

PHOTO: Matthew Wilcox