Island SME to Expand in Japan Seafood Market

Sept. 8, 2017

After four years of relationship building, largely via travel between its base on the remote Scottish island of North Uist and Tokyo, Hebridean Smokehouse Ltd. has found a firm following in Japan.

Its flagship peat-smoked salmon has been snapped up by discerning consumers who value high-quality fish from the pristine Outer Hebrides, leading to expansion into more outlets from autumn 2017. But, with a staff of 16 and no Japan experience, it has taken time, effort and financial resources.

The BCCJ spoke to Christopher West, general manager of Hebridean Smokehouse, to find out about support in Japan, market prospects and the firm’s post-Brexit business.

Why Japan?

Japan is a great market; the population has a good, solid knowledge of fish and is really open to new things. It’s so refreshing.

A few years ago we made the decision to target Asia because we didn’t see things working out for us with the UK and Europe [situation]. Japan was one of our target counties. We hope to start exporting to Thailand next year and meetings are ongoing in Singapore about doing business there.

Our income from Asia is currently 15% but we aim for it to be 50% in three years from now. We expanded our premises in preparation for growth and are now working at only 40% of our capacity.

What was your first contact with Japan?

We came to the Japan International Seafood & Technology Expo in August 2013 at the invitation of Scottish Development International to see what interest there was in our products. After the show I signed up to attend Foodex in the following spring. In the meantime we considered how we would work in Japan and decided that finding an importer/distributor was the way to go.

How did you find one?

We were approached by many distributors at Foodex in 2014 but it took about a year to find the right one. We chose Honda Seafoods: a small company with no experience of working with smoked salmon but it was well-connected, motivated and a well-known face in Tsukiji Market. It is obviously very difficult given the language barrier, as well as the unfamiliar culture, to make decisions on who you want as a partner, no matter how much due diligence you conduct. But Honda Seafoods had a genuine understanding of the Atlantic salmon market, as well as a deep understanding of the salmon caviar market, and there was an instinctive element to our choice, and theirs, which has proved to be fruitful.

What are your impressions of the seafood and Foodex trade shows?

They are quite different. At the seafood expo, we are introduced to new contacts by appointment while meeting existing customers. At Foodex we make contact with many more people because they are attracted by our individual booth and samples; for us, Foodex has always been a case of putting bread on the water and seeing who comes along, to generate new business and exploit existing contacts.

What Japan-based support have you received?

It would have been near impossible for a company like ours to get a foothold in Japan without the support of Scottish Development International and I can’t praise them highly enough. I have attended briefings and received guidance from them on topics as diverse as the seafood industry and Japanese culture. They continue to introduce me to a lot of people and, even without prompting, actively work with our importer on leads. We’ve also received small travel grants from them over the years.

During each trade show, we’ve had the opportunity to invite guests to a reception at the British Embassy Tokyo. In 2013 the budget allowed for two or three guests but last month we were able to invite 10 guests, so we welcome that. The legitimacy gained from using the facilities of the embassy is invaluable: it means little businesses like us can punch well above our weight. 

The 2017 seafood expo had the largest ever Scottish seafood delegation. How was the mood?

There was a fantastic camaraderie and a feeling that we were part of Team Scotland; it’s a culture that comes from working with people from Seafood Scotland and Scottish Development International. Many of the delegate companies do business together so we support each other. For example, Scottish Salmon Company is our supplier of fish so we introduced visitors to them and they introduced visitors to us. 

What scope do your products have?

Obviously we offer and present our range in a way that reflects its European origin, but we also want to exploit the possibilities of serving smoked salmon in a more Japanese way as well. A representative of the Japan Fisheries Association told our delegation that 20 years ago salmon sushi would have been unthinkable but now it is one of the most common varieties. In the same way, we think smoked salmon on sushi has real possibilities. The challenge is to present it to establishments so that chefs can use it without transferring the smoky flavour to other sushi during preparation. We have presented sushi and sushi rolls made with our smoked salmon at trade shows and everyone said they were as fantastic as they were surprising.

What inroads have you made?

In fiscal 2014 (April 2013 to March 2014) we exported 70 kilos of produce to Japan. By the end of fiscal 2017, we forecast that number to be at least 1,000 kilos.

 We’re replicating our high-end markets in the UK, where we supply Fortnum and Mason, John Lewis and the first class passengers of British Airways. In Japan, our products have been sold in Isetan department stores and at Hankyu department store’s British Fair in 2016. We are stocked in some independent wine shops and restaurants and have plans to be available in National Azabu supermarket in Tokyo.

We are expecting to work with Aeon pre-Christmas 2017 and beyond and, in September, our products are being shown to the Co-op [Japanese Consumers Co-operative Union]. This potential business opportunity started with meetings and an invitation to a British embassy reception.

From September 13th to 18th, our produce will be displayed at Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi’s special event, British week. In October, I’ll also be in Japan again to show our produce at Hankyu department store’s British fair in Fukuoka and Osaka.

What challenges have you faced?

Building relationships and having face-to-face meetings are important so I have been to Japan twice a year since 2013. In 2017, I will visit Japan four times.

Being seen in the market is vital and a lot of money is needed to get anywhere. Last year our total company turnover was £890,000 and, since 2013, we have invested more than £60,000 in our Japan business, but we see it as a long-term investment.

Produced by Sterling Content for the BCCJ