Great Lakes Food Company

Entering the Asian Market as a Small Fish in a Big Pond
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Forrest Lancaster

In the last several years business has been moving quite swimmingly for Great Lakes Food Company (GLFC). Located near the shores of Lake Erie, the Ontario-based smelt processor and international distributor continues to make big waves in the little fish market in North America, and more recently in Asia’s largest market. As the largest harvester of Lake Erie’s freshwater smelt, GLFC is quickly obtaining new customers from around the globe due to the smelt’s delicate, sweet, wild-caught freshwater flavor and the company’s techniques in handling and processing.

“Lake Erie’s annual quota is approximately 15.5 million pounds of smelts and GLFC’s share is about 7.2 million pounds of the quota, making us the largest player,” reveals John Neate, president of GLFC. “We harvest in season, freeze, process and ship to customers all over the world.”

“Lake Erie has one of the world’s largest natural aquiculture-like environments,” adds Bob Thickett, vice president of sales for GLFC. “The shallow, fast-running water and sandy bottom, coupled with plenty of food, makes it an ideal place for smelt to thrive and helps to contribute to our smelt tasting better than those found in other parts of the world.”

Climbing up the Food Chain

Smelts haven’t always been so sought after. When the shiny silver fish first entered the Great Lakes Region at the turn of the 20th century, smelt were actually considered an invasive species. “GLFC is a result of Omstead Foods [Omstead], a family-run fishing operation founded in 1911,” reveals Thickett. “Omstead originally fished for perch, walleye, white bass, pike and lake whitefish based out of Wheatley, Ontario. Smelt then started showing up in their gill nets in the 1950s and early 1960s.”

Thickett goes on to note that Lake Erie processors decided to do something with what some considered the pesky fish, and started to grow smelt into a viable commercial business. “Other traditional and larger species continued to decline from the Great Lakes due to overfishing and changing environments, processors made up for the shortfall with smelt,” recounts Thickett. Freezing technology rapidly developed and what was initially a fresh seasonal business quickly developed into a frozen business and volumes increased. Before long, word of the Lake Erie smelt spread beyond North America and into Japan.

“In the late 1960s, the Asian market began to bud,” continues Thickett. “The Japanese were in search of a small fish that could substitute for their overfished wakasagi. Like wakasagi, the Lake Erie smelt could be consumed whole with soft, flexible bones and a freshwater taste. The primary market was for school children in Japan due to the high levels of calcium found in the fish.”

Today, GLFC is the largest processor of freshwater lake smelt and the principal harvester of Lake Erie smelt. “We have five of our own boats fishing Lake Erie and we own 49 percent of the smelt quota,” notes Thickett.

The company runs one of the largest individual quick freeze (IQF) fish operations in Canada with massive freezers running around-the-clock, freezing millions of pounds of smelt. “To handle the high volume of smelt we generate requires a huge capital investment in freezer equipment and you also have to have the market to sell to in order to make it work,” explains Neate.

Smelting out a New Market

Not only does GLFC have a significant share of the freshwater smelt market in North America, the company also recently entered the largest developing market in Asia. “In 2009, we outsourced our cutting operations to China,” shares Neate. “During a trip in early 2010 we met with some of the processors and received some great news. Companies were serving our smelt in their cafeterias and the workers were commenting on how much better our smelt taste in comparison to the local variety.”

Neate goes on to note that pushed the company to start selling to the Asian market. “In 2011 we started with a booth at the International Seafood Show in Qingdao,” he continues. “It was as much to introduce our product to China as it was to learn about the Chinese seafood market. Our little booth was right in the midst of the large North American seafood companies that had professional chefs and wait staff.”

Of course, there were challenges. “At first, there were few people coming to our booth, but as we started to cook the smelt the crowds started to form,” continues Neate. “Over the next three days, we cooked 100 pounds of the tiny little smelt and gave out more than 1,000 business cards.”

A Fish Out of Water

With such positive early feedback, Neate and Thickett were hopeful that the sales would pour in. However, as with any new market, especially a foreign one, GLFC has faced some early challenges in China. “Initially, we were dealing with Chinese importers, but they treated GLFC like any other protein provider and were only concerned with getting the lowest price,” notes Neate. “As we were strong believers in our product and potential we made the decision to incorporate our own company in China in order to broaden our base and sell directly to end users, but that’s no small task.”

Finally, after about a year, Shenzhen Great Lakes was formed as a Chinese company acting as its own importer and began selling to food service and retail companies in China. “It was all about developing good customer relations,” explains Neate. “You need to find good, local partners you can trust and understand what they want, because the Chinese consumer is very different from one in North America.”

“The Chinese want to see the whole fish, whereas in North America people want a more processed product,” adds Thickett. “Most of it was trial and error for us, we thought the Chinese would like the same style fish but that was not the case.”

Now that GLFC has established customer relationships the company is looking at the possibility of supplying other high quality proteins and non-quota species that lack in North American demand, such as carp, white perch and white bass to Asian consumers. Furthermore, now that GLFC has its feet wet, Neate and Thickett hope to expand offerings and continue to learn about the Asian market. Thanks to a little fish there is big opportunity for Great Lakes Food Company in the coming years.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
DC Foods
PBL Insurance Ltd.