Swimming against the current

Fresh off the back of an award-winning creative rebrand, Bleiker’s Smokehouse is combining expertise with innovation to change the face of the smoked salmon market

Jürg Bleiker had a problem. A Swiss chef in the Yorkshire Dales, he found that he disliked all the smoked salmon delivered to his restaurant. The Scottish salmon was over-smoked, the London salmon was under-smoked, and neither seemed fit for his guests. Determined to find great quality smoked salmon in the UK, Jürg eventually decided that – as the old adage suggests – if you want something done, it is best to do it yourself. Thus, in 1993, using a kiln in an outbuilding of his North Yorkshire home, Jürg began producing his own smoked salmon and serving it in his restaurant. The salmon’s popularity soon soared, so much so that, after 21 years in the restaurant business, Jürg left the kitchen and formed Bleiker’s Smokehouse.

In its humble early years, Bleiker’s was a small-scale production outfit supplying smoked salmon to the food service and farm shops in North Yorkshire’s Golden Triangle of Harrogate, York, and Leeds. Today, the company is in its third location and distributes its products to major retailers across the UK and Europe. Having joined the business in 2004, Jürg’s son-in-law, Charlie Andrew, has experienced Bleiker’s rapid expansion first-hand. Now the firm’s owner and Managing Director, Charlie claims that the superior quality of Bleiker’s smoked salmon means its increasing popularity is no real surprise.

“I had always been disappointed by the smoked salmon I’d bought from supermarkets and when I compared it to my father-in-law’s products, I truly tasted the difference,” Charlie says. “I thought to myself, this is what smoked salmon is actually supposed to be like, and it made me quite excited when I looked at the marketplace and realized the opportunity we had to take it into retail distribution. That’s when we created the Bleiker’s Brand.

“It didn’t take us long to find traction through the likes of Booths Supermarkets in the north. Within a few years we gained Morrisons, Budgens, Londis, and Waitrose. I realized it was all about how the product was presented, the perceptions the consumer took away from the branding, and ultimately, that the product always delivered on consumption. Eventually, we achieved scalability when we invested in a new factory at one of our sites before arriving at our current location which is near Northallerton, in the heart of North Yorkshire.”

Always searching for ways to help the business evolve, Charlie performed extensive research in 2019 as part of an attempt to understand the consumption patterns of the UK smoked salmon market. On discovering that the market was growing at around 10 per cent each year, and that this growth was being fueled by consumers in the 25 to 45 age bracket, Charlie decided it was time for the company to rebrand and reposition itself for the new decade.

“Lots of our previous branding, and lots of our competitors’ branding, was all gold, silver, and dark colors and had what I would call a ‘Royal Warrant’ feeling to it,” he states. “This is probably because in the past, smoked salmon was seen as a treat reserved for special occasions like Christmas or birthdays, but generally speaking, 25 to 45-year olds have a slightly different attitude and see it more as a convenient source of protein. As a result, we’ve repositioned ourselves to be a contemporary premium brand and more relevant to the people who are contributing most to the growth of our products. This market segment is eating smoked salmon for breakfast with scrambled eggs or as a protein element in pasta and other every day meals because it is a healthy, convenient, solution for busy, time-starved lives.”

Development process
Rolled out across all main supermarkets, including 262 Morrisons stores, the rebranded products were positively received and picked up a Silver Food and Beverage Design Award. Despite what has been a difficult period in retail, Bleiker’s has seen sales in some retailers grow by up to 28 per cent since the launch. Charlie believes the rebrand has succeeded because the new products stand out on the shelf, but do not alienate the older demographic.

“Our research told us that consumers generally found that smoked salmon looks quite boring and dull in supermarkets, so rather than dark designs, we’ve gone for a much more pastel-focused look,” Charlie reports. “At its core, it’s about proper smoked salmon. It’s about cues that the fish is responsibly sourced and high in both protein and Omega 3, and all those things that are important to, primarily, 25 to 45-year olds, whilst still appealing to the over 45’s too.”

Though the company also produces a small range of alternative fish products, such as mackerel, Bleiker’s is heavily focused on smoked salmon. One area in which the new packaging excels is in showcasing the huge breadth of flavors the company has developed to help enhance taste, add value, and take its offering to the next level.

“Of course we have a basic smoked salmon range, but what we are known for is our innovation and flavors like Yorkshire Peat smoked salmon, right the way through to Buck’s Fizz. Just this week, we launched a miso, nori-inspired flavor called Japanese Cure and have already received wonderful feedback letters and emails from some of our customers,” Charlie declares. “We are always thinking about trends and obviously sushi is growing in our target market, so that’s why we decided to develop Japanese Cure. Another flavour we’ve recently launched is Summer Punch, which uses a Pimm’s-based product to subtly bring out those summer flavours. By observing the market, bringing in our own ideas, and utilizing consumer panels, we develop products that we think can be a success. More than anything, we take consumer feedback incredibly seriously because, ultimately, they are the people buying the product and so we develop it accordingly.”

The more Charlie reveals about Bleiker’s development process, the clearer it becomes that passion, innovation, and a commitment to quality are some of the key factors differentiating the company from its competition. One thing’s for certain, everything Bleiker’s does is consumer-centric. Twenty-seven years since Bleiker’s opened its doors, the firm still hand tends its smokers and hand cures its salmon. This commitment to tradition, coupled with the company’s modern, creative approach, is something that Bleiker’s calls ‘smoke craft’. Unlike other larger, more corporate organizations, for Bleiker’s, producing great smoked salmon is an art.

Family company
Still, Charlie is keen to express that Bleiker’s could not create products of such high quality without sourcing the best responsibly farmed salmon the UK has to offer. As Charlie puts it, quoting his grandmother, ‘you can’t create a silk purse from a sow’s ear.’

“It’s pretty simple,” Charlie asserts, “in order to make good quality smoked salmon, you have to start with good quality salmon. As a result, all our farms are Global G.A.P approved, meaning they adhere to standards that are recognized in the industry for the correct husbandry and rearing of salmon.

“Speed is important to us too. The quicker we can get the salmon from harvest to cure, the better the quality of the smoked product. We target four days and that is an important part of the quality process as it ensures that we retain the freshness of the fish.

“Salmon as a protein is very responsible in its sustainability of global resources,” he adds. “For every ton of salmon produced, it only needs 1.2 tons of feed, whereas beef requires about six tons of feed for every ton produced. Salmon is also very efficient in terms of the percentage of the fish that is edible.”

Looking back over the last three decades, it’s safe to say that Jürg Bleiker solved his smoked salmon problem. From that solution has sprouted one of the UK’s most creative and exciting smoked salmon producers; a firm that maintains a distinct family culture thanks to Jürg’s continued involvement, along with his daughter and son-in-law Charlie’s contributions.

“We’ll always be a family company,” Charlie remarks, “and that means we will go out of our way to help people when they have problems, working over and above what a corporation would do. The power of the family values in this business means we look after our staff and reward them accordingly.”

Led by the passion of its management team, and their intrinsic connection to a product they have been hand-smoking over smoldering fires in the heart of Yorkshire for more than 25 years, Bleiker’s is looking forward to a bright future ahead.

“In the next three to five years, we want to be in a position where discerning consumers both in Europe and the UK have access to Bleiker’s products via all major retailers,” Charlie proclaims. “We want people to recognize the brand for what it is – proper smoked salmon with an innovative edge. There is always going to be something new coming along from Bleikers – it’s just who we are and what we do.”
www.bleikers.co.uk