Foodie Families

The Entrepreneurs following in their Parents’ Footsteps

While many entrepreneurs around the country are moving into the food industry for the first time, for others a career in the sector was always on the cards. We talk to people who grew up immersed in food,    and who are now following in their parents’ footsteps.

Graham and Saoirse Roberts – Connemara Smokehouse, Ballyconneely, Co. Galway

Owned and operated by the Roberts family since 1979, the Connemara Smokehouse is one of the oldest in the country. Specialising in wild Atlantic Salmon, the business has built a name for itself – by selling hand-filleted, cured and smoked Irish fish.
“My mum and dad started the business back in 1979,” says Graham Roberts, who now runs the business with his wife, Saoirse.
“Dad was a fisherman before that, so fish is in the blood at this stage. I grew up with the business and I’ve alway loved it – from four 0r five years of age I was down here washing fish boxes, although I’m sure the lads had to do them again after me. I loved it though, and I felt that I was helping.”
The couple took over the family business around 14 years ago. “Dad has gone back to sea and does a lot of teaching and training in that area,” says Roberts. “Mum still works in the office and has a wealth of knowledge, Saoirse looks after all the marketing and web stuff, and I took after the fish, so we work well as a team.”
The couple have four children – Amy (11), Keith (10), Ethan (8) and Katie (6) – and all four of them are growing up immersed in the business. For Roberts, there is a direct connection between the state of the economy and a growing level of interest in food quality. “People are increasingly concerned about the quality of the food they’re eating, about who produces it and how it’s made,” he says.
“We saw that trend emerging a few years ago, and it turned out there was a role for us in it, because people like to be able to deal directly with their food producers if they can. When people come here, they meet us and see the passion we have for what we do- and that gives them great confidence in what they’re buying.”
Roberts describes smoked salmon as “a relatively simple product – you take fish, apply salt and smoke it”, but says it doesn’t lend itself well to mass production.
“It needs personal and individual attention, and there’s an art producing smoking fish well that just doesn’t translate to mass production, particularly when people are under pressure to meet a certain price point,” he says.
The difference between good and bad smoked salmon depends on two key factors, according to Roberts – fish selection and good production methods.
“Smoked salmon should be dried, but not dry in other words, a lot of water should be taken out as part of the process of dry salting, curing and smoking. As with so many foods now, it’s common for mass producers to try to keep the water content high because water is weight, which means more money. The result can be wet and greasy smoked salmon,” he says.
“We get worse yields than most producers, but the reason is that w’ere looking for quality. If somebody buys our fish then we have that one opportunity to make them taste the difference, decide it’s gorgeous and come back for more. A one-off sale isn’t really worth anything to us.
“ You have to source the best quality fish and then apply the best production techniques to it. There are huge variations in terms of what’s out there – there are some very very good small producers making a product that is different to ours but still very good.
“That’s a healthy thing because people’s tastes are different.”
The Sunday Business Post – Ireland’s Cultural & Lifestyle Magazine – March 4 2012 – Words by Alex Meehan & Photo by Aengus McMahon –!cat/Agenda