While St. Jean’s Cannery & Smokehouse in Nanaimo, B.C. is widely known for producing Pacific seafood for more than 50 years, its story as a family business starts back in eastern Canada, pre-World War I.
Founder Armand St. Jean was born in 1913 and grew up in St. Jovite, Quebec, with his mother, father, and 15 brothers and sisters. He moved to Montreal at 16 and became a wrestler known as “The Flash.” His wrestling tours took him across Canada and down to California. On the road, he taught himself English primarily by reading the Sears catalogue.
During the 1930s and 40s, Armand worked in a wide variety of vocations across Canada: fruit picker, bouncer, miner, bartender, laundryman, and carpenter. While building gold mining dredges in Dawson City, he met his wife, Betty. The couple had four boys in the Yukon before the family of six moved to Vancouver Island in the 1950s, and Armand found work in construction.
However, Armand yearned to start his own enterprise. He combined his love of west coast seafood with smoking and preserving knowledge that he learned from his family in Quebec to create “St. Jean’s Smudgies Smoked Oysters.” Armand cooked the oysters in the family kitchen and smoked them in a smokehouse which he built himself—in a shed behind his garage. He would package the oysters into little plastic bags and go bar-to-bar across Nanaimo, selling them to hungry patrons.
Business was good, but the oysters didn’t keep long in the plastic bags. So, Armand invested in a little hand steamer and began putting his oysters into glass jars and then into metal tins. The ‘cannery’ was born!
With canning techniques in place, Armand invested in a business space and more equipment, adding oyster chowder to his lineup. In 1964, he developed a method of smoking and canning salmon to attract the sport fishing market.
In 1979, Armand began talking about retirement. While all four of his sons—Denis, Perry, Gerard, and Paul—had helped with the canning business at some point over the past 18 years, it was Gerard who put forward the intent to continue on the family business. He left his position in an engineering firm and took over the cannery.
“It just hit me that this was a family thing,” Gerard said. “All that hard work had been done. I didn’t want all the recipes that Dad had developed to disappear.”
Armand passed away in 1990, but Gerard gives a lot of credit to his dad for being “the pioneer” to break new ground, develop great recipes, and to put out all of the blood, sweat, and tears needed to start a business. With a similar work ethic, Gerard continued to learn the ropes of the business. The hard work paid off when, after gaining international attention on St. Jean’s products at Expo 86 in Vancouver, the business was able to open a new, larger headquarters on Southside Drive—the current location—in 1989.
The 1990s saw steady growth as the cannery starting canning tuna commercially and added a line of honey-sweetened candied salmon. St. Jean’s started to produce products that weren’t based on seafood, such as red pepper jellies, sweet mustards, and mushrooms. The cannery also increased its focus on the sport fishing industry by making connections with fishing lodges up and down B.C.’s west coast—to the point where 40% of the business was directly involved with sport fishing.
In the 2000s, the cannery expanded with a number of depots on the Lower Mainland, including two at Vancouver International Airport, and key spots in Campbell River and Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. A new line of gourmet marinades and sauces was developed under the “Niko’s” banner, and St. Jean’s custom gift baskets became extremely popular and desirable gifts.
In 2013, business is strong. St. Jean’s acquisition in the final quarter of 2012 of Raincoast Trading, a company highly respected for its sustainable fishing practices and gourmet seafood, adds further punch to what has grown into the largest cannery serving the sport fishing industry in British Columbia and the largest salmon cannery in southern B.C. But while the cannery has grown, the canned oysters and seafood are still hand-packed—just like the early days, when Armand St. Jean was working out of his own kitchen and a smokehouse in a shed.