Source: The Victoria Times Colonist
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Gerard St. Jean, left, during St. Jean’s Cannery and Smokehouse 50th anniversary celebrations
St. Jean’s Cannery has survived waves of recessions and downturns in the fishing industry over the last half century.
But the family company has always been a fighter, riding out the ups and downs on hard work, community support and diversifying its product lines.
This week, the Nanaimo cannery celebrated its 50th anniversary with an open house and tours at its modern facility and smoke house on Southside Drive.
Second-generation owner Gerard St. Jean, 63, said his father, who died in 1990, would have been proud.
Armand St. Jean started the company in 1961 when he started selling his home-smoked oysters under the name “Smudgies” in Nanaimo. He would be “overwhelmed right now at what is going on,” St. Jean said.
The company built what it calls the world’s largest can of salmon for the occasion. At 7.6 metres in diameter and 2.7 metres tall, the big can is actually made of wood and is draped in the St. Jean’s colourful label.
It’s being used as a museum, showcasing St. Jean’s history, and it will become the company’s boardroom, said St. Jean. A double burner Coleman camp stove used by Armand St. Jean for his oysters has been spruced up to display.
Hand-packing and cooking seafood, including tuna, in cans is a specialty of the business.
A variety of packaged St. Jean’s products are now sold from the cannery, through retail outlets and online, including Chanterelle mushrooms, smoked salmon, tuna, oysters, butter clams, antipasto, marinades, mustards, red pepper jelly and gift boxes.
As far as St. Jean knows, the company is the only one canning tuna in Canada.
It has retail outlets in Nanaimo, Campbell River, Port Alberni and Richmond. So far, there’s no store in Victoria, but “it’s something we are going to be looking at,” St. Jean said.
The company is at its busiest between July and November, handling seafood for the sports fishing sector, First Nations food fisheries and commercial fishermen who bring in personal orders.
About 90 workers are on the job during the busy season, dropping to 25 in the winter, said St. Jean, who has no immediate plans to retire.
St. Jean’s is celebrating not only its birthday but survival through tough times. The company almost failed in the 1980s, but pulled through. Diversity has been crucial to success. Even as the economy faltered in recent years, St. Jean said the company has been able to maintain its sales.
“We have held steady and now we are looking at the next phase,” he said. A new emphasis on sales and marketing is underway, with Dave St. Jean – Gerard’s son and a third generation - focused on those areas.
Last spring, $80,000 was invested in equipment to meet federal regulatory standards. “We are always upgrading our machinery,” said St. Jean.
Sports fishermen continue to play a big role at the cannery.
More than 10,000 anglers visit the business every year, St. Jean said.
The company will process a minimum order of eight pounds, meaning a youngster can walk in with a salmon. Fishing lodges along the coast send in catches from their customers and anglers deliver their fish to several dropoff locations on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.
A sophisticated tracking system ensures individuals receive their own fish after processing. Customers choose from a range of options, including canned salmon or tuna with only a small amount of salt added, or smoked as lox, or with flavours added such as peppercorn, and honey.
St. Jean’s does custom processing, and will find materials, package, label and deliver products in jars as well. Customers can also submit their own recipes.
Larger companies will put in orders for thousands of cans. Another customer might be running a home-based business and wanting to expand with larger production runs, said St. Jean.
The company has also published a new book to commemorate its 50th year. It is packed with personal stories, clippings and photos of the family, workers and customers.