Prizing Provenance - A Chat with Duncan Bates, Akaroa Salmon
I have heard about Akaroa salmon for a long time and have long wanted to offer their products at The Fishwives. At a recent serendipitous meeting with Duncan Bates, the second-generation farmer-owner of New Zealand-based Akaroa, we both discovered many common values - aside from our love of quality salmon, and our decision to work together was a mutual and natural one.
Akaroa’s philosophy is my ideal checklist - I would call them almost ‘back-to-nature- farmers. We believe in sustainably-farmed, ethically-grown products - quality animal welfare with no additives, chemicals, or genetic modification at any time throughout the production chain. We look for traceability and accountability.
Akaroa’s approach to salmon farming is very holistic - they manage every step of the process from the hatchery to the harvesting. They’ve also taken deliberate steps to ensure minimal impact on the environment and take exceptional care of their salmon.
We’re so excited to have Akaroa with us, so to give more insight on the delicious salmon and the Akaroa difference, we’ve decided to let Duncan do the talking.
Tell us about Akaroa’s core values and the key differences between a boutique brand like Akaroa and the larger, more commercial King Salmon exporters.
It would be fair to say we take a more holistic approach to farming our salmon by providing a good environment for our salmon and being very aware of the environment in which we operate in. The Akaroa harbour has been important to my family for close to two hundred year and I don’t want to be the one abusing this unique environment. I believe we operate a truly sustainable farm - we’ve been in existence for almost 30 years at the same sites without any permanent damage on the environment.
One of the key differences is that the Akaroa Salmon brand is genuine in our claim as an artisan producer. Our feeding philosophy forgoes quantity for quality - we use a low-energy, slow-grow feeding regime to produce a salmon with more muscle integrity and flavour without being cloyingly rich. We found that wild Pacific salmon in New Zealand has a fat/oil percentage of 7.2%, compared to 23.1% of New Zealand farmed salmon. Akaroa salmon has a fat/oil percentage of 11.6%, and we currently produce 320 tonnes per annum. Other producers in NZ and around the world will develop a brand that portrays them as artisan producers but are in fact producing up to 10000 tonnes of fish per year.
We farm our salmon at what many would think is a ridiculously low density - even my farm manager shares this sentiment. 8 kg/cubic metre is our maximum density; Pacific salmon is usually farmed at twice that amount while Atlantic salmon is farmed as high as 35kg/cubic metre. As a result, our low stocking rates are far less likely to lead to environmental degradation and production issues.
We are also the only farm in New Zealand which farms salmon where wild salmon live. We nurture and grow a product that we are extremely proud of, and we don’t believe in manufacturing by the numbers to satisfy shareholders.
What are some of the challenges you face being a small family run business ?
Even though Mum and Dad sold their shareholding in 2012, my new partners are based overseas and have very little to do with the day to day operations of the business. It would be fair to say that we essentially operate as a small, family-run organisation with the same nuances associated with a family business. There is no larger overarching corporate type structure, so in that context, there are always challenges around where you place yourself in a competitive market and challenges around scale.
Akaroa Salmon is a bit lucky because we are producing a niche product; that is, we are not competing directly on a price point. On a personal level I think the biggest challenge I face is to maintain the personal integrity that the business was started with. It is my responsibility to pass on this attitude to my staff and it is my responsibility to trust and respect my staff that they can do a better job than me. If they don’t, then I’m not doing my job very well. There are lots of other challenges, but at the end of the day I really love what I’m doing and consider myself to be very lucky.
Why have you chosen to appoint The Fishwives as your retail representative in Singapore?
It’s really quite difficult to find customers overseas that ‘fit’ the Akaroa Salmon brand. In Rebecca’s and The Fishwives case it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. It was a very serendipitous meeting organised on the spot by my food service distributor while I was in Singapore.
As soon as I walked into The Fishwives I could feel the synergy on a number of levels. The Fishwives is all about quality and service - they expect it from their suppliers and in turn provide it to their customers.
Other synergies that I picked up on very quickly were that we are both passionate about what we do and essentially owner operators who have a close connection with our staff and our respective customer bases. I would even be bold enough to suggest that both Akaroa Salmon and The Fishwives are motivated not by money, but by doing a really good job, and financial success is just a result of that.
From the water to the shop in 24 hours is a big claim. How do you do it and how important is it?
From the water to the consumer in 24 hours is a genuine claim we can make when supplying the New Zealand market. If we allow for time differences, salmon is delivered to The Fishwives within 57 hours, at least 48 hours faster than any other New Zealand exporter. We are able to do this because our farms are located within two hours of Christchurch International Airport. We all know that fresh fish is best, so the sooner we can get it to the end user the better the quality will be.
This is the time frame we use to get our salmon to Singapore:
· 5pm Salmon is harvested
· 7pm Salmon is primary processed
· 7am Salmon is secondary processed and packed
· 2pm Salmon is taken to air freighter
· 9.30am Salmon departs Christchurch direct for Singapore
· 5.30pm Salmon arrives in Singapore
What's the most striking difference consumers can expect from their first bite of Akaroa salmon?
There is a marked difference between Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon in taste and texture. Chinook salmon [Pacific] is rich, oilier, and has a wonderful creamy texture. I know Akaroa Salmon always tastes superb. It has a crispness to it - it’s less oily than other Chinook salmon in the market so it’s slightly easier on the tummy. Chinook salmon that is too oily can leave an oily, unpleasant aftertaste.
What's your favourite way to eat salmon?
I love to eat it cold, generously spread on a thick slice of super fresh white bread.