Success from humble origins

Robert Crowson with smoked products on sale in his shop. Picture by Gerard Binks.
Robert Crowson with smoked products on sale in his shop. Picture by Gerard Binks.
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Why would a smokehouse be situated in the heart of the countryside and not at the seaside?

Perhaps it’s just me but when I think of smokehouses I think of kippers, salmon and haddock all oak-smoked and giving off an aroma that reaches the taste buds instantly. I think of Whitby in the summertime, the 199 steps to the abbey and Fortune’s Kippers on Henrietta Street, not Mackenzies on a blustery Hardisty Hill in Wharfedale during April. A meeting with Robert Crowson led to my enlightenment.

Robert and his wife Stella took over the smokehouse in 1997 and now run a flourishing business that is as far from its original spartan surroundings that the man who began smoking salmon here could ever have imagined.

“Peter (Mackenzie) started out in 1985. He lived in Birstwith and his son-in-law had Emilio’s restaurant (now Joe Rigatoni’s) in Harrogate. Apparently he had been bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t get hold of any decent smoked salmon and so Peter took himself off into the cellar, whacked up a kiln and came up with something rather good. It was all very small-scale and it is rumoured they even tied a pipe to a tree to hide the smoke.

“Within a week or two a close friend, who had contacts in London, took samples of smoked salmon to the capital for a blind tasting session and Fortnum & Mason put in an order. Peter couldn’t believe what was happening and not wanting to turn down the business he quickly set about finding suitable premises to fulfil the contract and build what he had only set up as a favour for his son-in-law.

“He then found this site - formerly Wood Nook Farm, which had become a bacon factory and had been owned by York Hams who had then been bought by a much larger company with production absorbed into other locations. It seemed ideal for Peter as the premises were fully lined for food preparation. He rented just one small area from Tony Clayton of Summerbridge who had purchased the building and set about his quest to produce quality smoked salmon on a larger scale.”

Peter contracted liver cancer and died quite suddenly but his family carried on the business for a short while, but they lost the order with Fortnum & Mason who switched to purchasing wild salmon from a London supplier.

That’s where Robert and Stella came in. Robert hails from Horsforth, Leeds and has a background as an industrial chemist in the textile industry working for the Bradford Dyers Association and was later employed with a handmade brick company that carried out remedial work at Hampton Court Palace. Latterly he started his own property company buying, refurbishing and renting out shops and it is still trading today. Stella was a training officer for Endsleigh Insurance.

They may hardly seem the most appropriate career paths before running what is now one of Yorkshire’s most successful independent food processors but it has clearly not held them back.

“It was Stella’s vision for us to come here. She had made a career change and had attended Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in London. When she came back we set about looking for a restaurant and just at that time we saw that Mackenzies Smokehouse was available. It wasn’t a restaurant but we could see its potential.

“After starting by renting a small corner we bought the whole of the site and set about a complete refurbishment Initially we were smoking just salmon and haddock. We became meat smokers when we purchased the smoked meat business started by poultry dealer Tom Motley and his son in Glasshouses. We brought the business here and now meat makes up 60 per cent of the smokehouse production. By far the biggest line is smoked chicken. We smoke four tonnes of chicken every week and also smoke duck, goose, venison and bacon.

“When York Hams was here they had a little shop. We reintroduced it and we now see regular weekly trade. Ten years ago you couldn’t buy smoked chicken anywhere but since the onset of TV cooking programmes and greater emphasis on eating out it has made it a must-have commodity.”

One-stop destination

Mackenzies is not just a smokehouse. It is also a quality food store and popular restaurant. It employs 42 staff with 18 of those in the factory.

Its salmon is purchased from the Shetland Islands, mackerel and herring comes through east coast ports and meat is mainly supplied by John Penny’s abattoir in Rawdon. Chicken comes from Nidderdale Poultry near Brimham Rocks and venison from Yorkshire Game near Richmond.

The site is also the home of various other companies that have added to its ‘rural destination’ attraction, including a baker, cabinet maker and a biomass boiler company.