Smokehouse success for Justin

Hard work has helped Justin Staal's fledgling business capture the public's imagination.
Hard work has helped Justin Staal's fledgling business capture the public's imagination.
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Burton Agnes hosts its popular annual Michaelmas Fair this weekend and Justin Staal of Long Riston will be among the stall holders with his award-winning smoked salmon, duck, chicken and kippers.

In three years he’s gone from being a total novice in the food business to supplying some of the East Riding’s best-loved restaurants and next month makes his first appearance at the BBC Good Food Show at London’s Olympia. He’s also a regular at the farmers markets at Humber Bridge and Hovingham.

Justin’s still fledgling business, Staal’s Smokehouse, has seen him leave behind a world of journeying north of the Arctic Circle, south of the Equator and working in estate management and event management, for a seven-day-a-week and an almost one-man-band enterprise that he’s sunk much of his reserves into.

His working week is no longer organising fishing trips for millionaires from Japan, the US and the UK (including Eric Clapton, Ian Botham and Chris Tarrant) so that they can experience catching Atlantic salmon for £10,000 a week. Instead he’s now smoking 80 sides of salmon each week from off the west coast of Scotland and dealing with the realities and complexities of food production and competitive pricing.

“It’s bloody hard work and I’m certainly not averse to it. I relish it, but I still didn’t think it was going to be quite such a job in establishing a business. I’ve funded it all myself, and it’s now just about washing its face. It’s all about creating critical mass, the number of sales.”

Justin is both grateful and heartened by the way in which others have embraced what he is trying to do.

“Where we are in the East Riding, and this probably includes many other rural areas around the UK, this kind of business wouldn’t have worked 15 years ago but the huge surge of interest in TV chefs and programmes about cooking and meals has brought about a new wave of food awareness. What I love about being here is the support you receive from the general public, farm shops, delis and restaurants. The community wants you to succeed.”

Having studied agriculture and land management at Cirencester and then a masters degree at Aberdeen University, Justin’s career has seen him work with Strutt & Parker in Harrogate and Edinburgh, designing a mobile pub for Theakston’s and sending ‘high end net worth’ (for this read millionaires) people to extreme destinations. He knew his next step was to set up his own business.

He met his future wife Georgina while working in Cirencester. She was working for a land agent but was born in the East Riding. They now have two sons, Archie, seven, and Sebastian, five. Georgina’s parents Stephen and Caroline Caley own around 1,200 acres of farmland in Routh, Long Riston and Holderness.

“My father-in-law had brought the land back in hand where we are now and we came to live in the cottage behind the house here at Riston Grange. Stephen said that if I’d like to start a business had I ever thought of moving to Yorkshire? It ticked all the boxes from a family and personal point of view. When we came here I decide that I wanted to work with land and buildings we had at our disposal but not as a farmer.

“I wanted a food business and had looked at rearing quail or developing a charcuterie but I felt that would take too long. I bought a hobby-style smoker to try out what smoking was like, having seen it done by the chefs at the riverside up above the Arctic Circle, and then I started finding out what would work best. My signature smoking is now oak and applewood that provides a sweeter taste and has proved to be a winner with all our customers.

“It would be great to get recommendations from people like James Martin, Jamie Oliver and the other TV chefs at some time but what I’m really concerned with is consistently producing the quality we have managed so far. I’ve now taken on a local girl from Skirlaugh, farmer’s daughter Emily Jackson who really gets what I’m trying to do. This week we’ve smoked 80 sides of salmon, 50 ducks, 50 chicken and 70 kippers. We’re certainly not the biggest but we’re growing.”