Well, as far as we were concerned, our main floor kitchen was the perfect production area for making our Smokin Salmon but we knew the inspectors would disagree and so our first location search started.
In the beginning we only had two commercial customers and our sites were set on getting some retail but as I was still working in construction on a night shift, we wanted to continue to work from home but sell in a tiny retail shop some place close.
My mother, Ann, found a great tiny little 300sq.ft. store front on Sammon Ave. which was walking distance from our house and we thought a salmon shop on Sammon ave was just perfect. We called the CFIA to ask questions on what inspections we should expect and were surprised to be told that our new location is not registered for food!
This is very important information and so now we hired real estate agents to tell us what was considered food safe locations and we found our first official location on Laird Dr. and called for our first inspection. The company was official opened and named Valentino’s Smokin’ Salmon to honour my step father who had passed away several years prior; just as they were perfecting the recipe.
I assumed that we were too small at the time to be under the radar of all the inspectors as our original federal contact came only once in our few years at this location. The city inspector came every 6 months to ask us to add something else but they were very kind to the new kids and taught us as we went along. Also the fish industry was going through a lot of changes in the safe handling requirements so I got the feeling that we were all learning together back then and I joined Ann part time to handle the inspectors and bookkeeping and night production. Word of mouth began to spread about our fabulous Smokin’ Salmon and we even had to hire our first helper, David.
David deserves a chapter to himself but I will at least give him a paragraph here all to himself. Poor David had to clean the skin and fat off each side which can take 10 to 20 min a side and kills your shoulder and hands as you pull the skins off. That would not have been so hard if David did not suffer terribly from degenerated spinal disks that were just getting worse from standing for hours at our cutting tables. To add insult to injury, we did not have proper air conditioning and the windows had to be closed often due to the dust from the gravel drive. 135 Laird dr was old house and the electrical was having enough trouble with the cooler and smoker that our window air conditioners kept blowing fuses. The heat made us all stop working before our time was up; including the equipment that had to be repaired often due to overworking to keep the fish at 4c. When we had to move home, so did David and he continued to help from his own kitchen at the time; hopefully a lot more comfortable. David kept going for as long as he could and our friendship based upon great respect thrives to this day.
Unfortunately we got to enjoy this location for only two years and in 2010 the owners decided to sell our location to a car dealership and we were asked to find a new location. As it took us over 6 months to find the Laird dr. location so the three months’ notice given to us was not long enough to find a location. We now needed a location that was large enough to fit our coolers, smoker, triple sink, cutting tables and all our other equipment that the inspectors have slowly mandated. So we cleared out the solarium at home and moved the smoker and cutting table home for a temporary solution. We promised the inspectors to stop producing for commercial customers until we could find a new location. At this time, I took to doing research on salmon suppliers and fish production practises in Canada. I found a CFIA “Fish Processing manual for CFIA inspection compliances” but as it was over 100 pages long and seemed to be for a mass production factory, I only skimmed through it.
It took till September 2011 to find our second location at 140 O’Connor Dr., a ten minute walk from our house, large enough for production and retail and zoned for food sales by inspectors but little did we know that a good landlord is hard to come by for retail stores. We found out quickly that our landlord did not care about us at all except to constantly try to charge us more money. We suffered constantly from leaky plumbing, cracked sewer pipes, flooding basement, electrical mayhem due to uncontrolled use, mess from previous tenants, extremely abusive tenants above us and all the landlord wanted is to try to make us pay for gas and water bill for entire building. All I wanted to do is make our Smokin’ Salmon but bullshit reigned the day often.
For the next four years, I was a slave to our production. Never seeming to make enough money to pay all the bills or afford employees; always working too many hours and too hard for my body to take. I was so close to home and yet it seemed so far away for my kids that went without me at home for 10 to 12 hours / 7 days a week. We tried to hire help for me but we could not pay a regular pay and minimum wage was even too much to pay especially after taxes. The few helpers that we had would decide to work or not on little notice due to our inability to pay on time. It was a true labour of love and I truly loved my ever growing customers. It did it for them and my reward was their joy. It was as simple as that.
Love does not pay the ever growing bills and constantly increasing prices to our customers was not a good solution so that is when I tried to get other products into the store. We began selling meat, soup, salts, dips and anything else we could think of to sell and attract more income. We began smoking all different kinds of fish and even offered to cook fish fillets at one point. Unfortunately the costs kept rising faster than the income and then we were hit with new inspectors. The federal and provincial governments were proceeding with their new mandate to get ALL fish producers in compliance with that insane manual. That insane manual pretty well doubled our operating costs as we now had to purchase only federally approved cleaners and cleaning products, knives, shelves, a towel and uniform service,…etc. of whom all charged a premium. My extra workload due to all the paperwork double as well and this is the last thing in the world I needed as my arthritis was also causing my health to deteriorate.
By 2015 we had had enough and the landlord was doubling the lease when it came due. We began to announce our closing. I also briefly entertained the idea of moving to a larger location with more products but my body made sure that I did not go through with that crazy idea. My whole body bouts went from every 3 months to every two weeks. Our retail customers began to worry but our wholesale customers freaked out. By Feb 2015 one of our wholesale customers, Chapman’s Essential Foods, offered us a space to share with them. This worked well for a while and would have continued to work well if it wasn’t for my health. In the end we had to close as I could not even get to the store that was now an hour long bus ride away.
Looking back I can see how much the new government fish program had really affected us and was the final nail in our coffin. We were always extremely clean. That was not the problem. The problem was the paperwork and expecting us to act like a large factory. Next week I will talk about the inspectors and the program that needs adjusting to accommodate small businesses or none of your local markets are going to survive once they are all forced into the program like we were.