by Chris Bush – Nanaimo News Bulletin posted Jun 8, 2016 at 4:00 PM The cannery and smokehouse that Armand St. Jean started in 1960, selling oysters and soup to local bars and grocery stores, has been purchased by the Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood Development Corporation. The sale was announced Friday with a celebration at the cannery […]
By Goody Niosi
“I had an engineering company in Vancouver and I came over here to help my dad sell the business. He was getting old at the time and wanted to get out of it. I worked with him for six months and decided to keep it.”
And so Gerard St. Jean stepped into the family business in 1978 and went from engineering design in the forestry business to canning and smoking salmon, trout, tuna, Alaskan Black Cod, clams and mushrooms. “We produce a product that we’re proud of,” Gerard explains, “that’s one of the reasons I stayed in it.”
He goes on, “We’re high profile because we do gift packs; we have a mail order business and do fish for sport fishermen. We smoke and we pack…we do all kinds of things. We cold pack and we can four pound tins for institutions and companies back east. We do a lot of commercial work. In fact, we’re sending out two containers of salmon to Japan this week.”
St. Jean’s Cannery, in the south end of Nanaimo, occupies a unique niche in the canning market. There are only five or six major companies that can a lot of salmon; that means 600 cans a minute on an automated system. “We’re a hand-packing operation,” Gerard says. “We speciality pack. We run around 60 cans a minute. There are smaller canneries but we have a little niche where we fit in. Other than the smaller canneries, we are the only custom cannery on the Island. We pack for a high end store in Japan and other speciality markets.”
A large part of St. Jean’s business is mushrooms, specifically wild chanterelles. The company ships the chanterelles to Europe: Germany, Switzerland, France, Sweden–about a hundred tons a year–and pine mushrooms to Japan. “Mushrooms happened in a big way in British Columbia in the late 70s and we got into them in ’81,” Gerard says. “We have stations from Oregon all the way up to Alaska; the stations are places that families or anyone who picks mushrooms can sell to. The mushrooms are brought into the stations, collected and shipped to Nanaimo.”
Another major part of St. Jean’s business comes from sport fishermen and most of those fish come in from the fishing camps from the Queen Charlottes, Campbell River and Ucluelet. St. Jean’s trucks go up and down the Island, picking up the fish; those trucks also make three trips a week to the Vancouver airport and pick up the fish dropped off there for processing. Most fish used to be canned but with so many processing options available now, canning is not necessarily the most popular way to go. Now a sport fisherman can have his catch smoked, lox style or barbecue style. They can choose sweet Indian candy, plain canned, smoked and canned, filleted, steaked and frozen and know that their product will be shipped overnight by Fedex.
Gerard explains that this has been a tough year and it doesn’t worry him one bit. “I expect to see it come back up,” he says. “Over the last years as the big fish have been coming back from Alaska past the Queen Charlottes, both the sport and commercial fishermen have been targeting the big trophy fish. Less of them have been coming back. What the government wanted to do this year was make sure the fish got back up the rivers so they cut back how many fish you could keep. Everybody in our business realized that was true. Unfortunately there was so much negative publicity, fishermen got the idea you couldn’t keep any salmon. That wasn’t true. It was just the spring salmon that you couldn’t keep. The inside of the gulf wasn’t shut off: it was wide open. There was good fishing in Campbell River. But you have to cut back sometimes. You have to then restock the fish.”
Gerard’s father started the business in 1963 in the back of his house. Now the company employs between 35 and 50 people with a payroll close to $600-thousand a year. During the summer months, the busy season, St. Jean’s employs college students for jobs like putting labels on the cans; labels that read, “This one didn’t get away.”
A sport fisherman comes in the front door and heaps his catch on the scale. The fish are given a tag, “Just like at a dry-cleaner’s,” Gerard says. That number is written on the cans and all the cans are sorted by number. The customer gets back the fish he caught–guaranteed.
Eight to 10 thousand pounds of fish come through the cannery every day. The average weight of a sport fish that comes in is about 40 to 50 pounds. Gerard has seen sixty and seventy pound salmon come in. A 50 pounder will yield about 85 cans.
A new product for St. Jean’s is canned Albacore Tuna. “Most tuna is cooked off the bone,” Gerard says. “The natural juices are all poured out and then they add water or oil. You’ll see the labels on the cans read “Tuna in water” or “Tuna in oil.” We filled it fresh off the bone and pack it without water or oil. I think that once you taste it, you’ll stay with it.”
This intrepid correspondent felt obliged to put Gerard’s claim to the taste test. I took home a can of tuna. I opened it with the trademark easy-lift top. I forked the white meat onto a slice of fresh sourdough bread. The meat is very firm; there is no oil, no water, only solid tuna. I take a large bite. It seems fine. Just to be sure, I take another bite. I decide on further investigation. I devour the slice…then I eat the rest of the tin. No doubt. My taste buds are ruined for any other canned tuna. Long live St. Jean’s!
Seafood farmers create niche markets with B.C.’s fine catch
By Judy Creighton
The Canadian Press
Many of the customers who stop to pick up fresh oysters at Mac’s Oysters Ltd, in Fanny Bay on Vancouver Island waste no time digging into their purchase.
“People open the containers in the car while they are still in the parking lot and eat them raw,” chuckles Gordy McLellan Jr., the affable general manager of the busy clam and oyster plant on the old Island Highway 25 kilometers south of Courtenay.
The company, founded by his grandfather 51 years ago, cultivates oysters and clams on about 97 hectares of shoreline both at Fanny Bay and on leased land near Powell River, B.C.
Mac’s employs about 50 people, some of whom spend their days shucking oysters or digging clams to be sent for processing or fresh consumption in other parts of western Canada and the U.S.
McLellan says demand for oysters and clams is growing, especially in the value-added processing market.
“There is a lot of interest in ready-to-serve meals such as oysters Rockefeller,” he says. The most common version of this is oysters on the half shell topped with a mixture of spinach, butter, breadcrumbs and seasonings which can be either baked or broiled.
The clams and oysters from Mac’s are trucked south to St. Jean’s Cannery and Smokehouse in Nanaimo. There, the oysters are smoked and canned and the butter clams are minced and packed into tins.
Gerard St. Jean, son of the founder Armand St. Jean, whose first profession was wrestling in the 1940s and ‘50s, says his dad started the cannery and smokehouse in the garage of their Nanaimo home in 1961.
“He started out by making clam chowder and smoking oysters,” he says, “and that led to the canning and smoking of sport fish.”
About 20 years ago, St. Jean joined his father in the business and assuming ownership when he died in 1990.
And although it’s a small cannery, St. Jean notes the business fills a high end niche, and sells by mail order through the Internet at www.stjeans.com.
The canned products include smoked salmon, albacore tuna, salmon, smoked oysters, butter clams, seafood soups and chowders and patés.
“We also package mustards, antipastos, wild Vancouver Island mushrooms such as chanterelles for specialty stores and supermarkets both in Japan and the U.S.” says St. Jean.
Recently the cannery added a gift shop and puts together gift baskets containing its products.
During the fishing season, the smokehouse is constantly in use as sports fishermen bring their catches in for smoking and canning.
“We deal a lot with the lodges and fish camps and those areas where people are fishing,” says St. Jean. “Now that the allocation for spring salmon is going towards sports, we are filling many more individual orders.”
Sports anglers can take their catches to St. Jean’s where they will be custom canned, smoked, vacuum packed and filleted, says general manager Gwen Gates.
In the smokehouse, individual catches have a choice of smoke — hot (barbecue style), Indian candy, honeyglaze and lox.
“The smoking process takes about a week and canning can be done in four days,” St. Jean says.
The following recipes were developed at St. Jean’s Cannery and Smokehouse in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
Linguine with Red Clam Sauce
1 garlic clove, minced
30 mL (2 Tbsp) olive oil
¼ chopped onion
625 mL (2 ½ cups) crushed tomatoes
2 mL (1/2 tsp) oregano
1 mL (1/4 tsp) basil
30 mL (2 Tbsp) chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
1 284 mL (10 oz) can butter clams (minced)
450 g (1 lb) linguine
Brown garlic in olive oil in a heavy skillet or pot. Saute onion until transparent. Add tomatoes, oregano, basil, parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add clams and cook another 5 minutes. Cook linguine in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain. Spoon sauce on top and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Lomi Lomi Salmon Tomatoes
1 box cherry tomatoes
1 185 g (5 ½ oz) can smoked salmon
2 green onions, finely chopped
1 green pepper, finely chopped
Squeeze lemon juice
30 mL (2 Tbsp) chopped parsley
Cut off and discard tops of tomatoes and cut very thin slice off the bottoms so they will sit steadily. With tiny spoon, carefully remove pulp from insides and pat dry. Cover and refrigerate. Combine tomato pulp, well chopped with rest of ingredients, cover and chill. Fill tomatoes with the stuffing about two to three hours before serving and arrange on lettuce leaves on a serving platter.
Smoked Salmon Cheese Ball
1 225 g pkg cream cheese
125 mL (1/2 cup) cheddar cheese, grated
1 158 mL (5 ½ oz) can smoked salmon
30 mL (2 Tbsp) chopped green onion
Mix all ingredients well. Form two balls and roll in flaked almonds. Serve with crackers or crudités.
- In British Columbia, allocations for spring salmon catches are directed to sports fishing, rather than commercial, because of declining stocks.
- Oyster farming is becoming more common and one of the species being produced is an all-purpose bivalve mollusk which goes by the name of crassostrea gigas.
- Manila clams are a wild species and can be cooked in the shell fresh, while the butter clam is ideal for chowders. The littleneck is a steamer clam.
By Goody Niosi
Harbour City Star – April 1997
Tossed in amongst the paperwork that litters his desk, is a card that says “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…from the gang at Chase River.”
The Chase River Community Organization is only one of many groups that owes thanks to Gerard St. Jean. But if you ask him what he’s done to deserve those thank-yous, he grins and shrugs. “I helped them out,” he says.
St. Jean helped them out by donating $3,000 as seed money to help them get started on their neighborhood plan. St. Jean cares about the community. He has been deeply involved in Plan Nanaimo since its inception and now he wants to see the plan come to life.
But if you ask him about himself and the contributions he makes, he’ll talk about his wife, his children, his mother and especially about his father–a remarkable man who was a very strong influence in his life.
“We’re from the Yukon,” says St. Jean. “We came to the Island in the early fifties. My father worked as a saw filer in the mill. In the sixties he started playing around with smoking oysters in the house. He started a little cannery in the back of the garage.”
From smoked oysters, St. Jean’s father turned to clam chowder. He found a building on Franklyn Street, cleaned it up and got to work. Within seven months, he was broke. He went back to a full-time job at Hub City Paving. But Armand St. Jean refused to go bankrupt; he was determined to pay all his bills.
“The American people came up here to take their machine back,” says St. Jean. “So they went to the house. Dad wasn’t there, so they went to the plant. There he is, he comes out of the plant, covered in dirt. They took one look at him and said, ‘If you’ve got enough invested to do this, you can keep the machine.’”
Armand St. Jean was not the kind of man you could keep down. The American canners suggested he can salmon. It seemed like a fine idea. Armand fixed up an old boathouse and started canning sport salmon.
Things started to work out. But then Armand St. Jean had his first stroke. Gerard took a leave of absence from his job as an engineer in the Vancouver to help out.
But instead of helping his father wrap up the business, Gerard ended up constructing a new building in downtown Nanaimo. In 1985, the business went broke again. The early eighties were tough on businesses everywhere.
But St. Jean’s Cannery managed to hang in there; 1986, the year of Expo, marked the beginning of the boom years. And that was the year that St. Jean’s moved to its present location on Southside Road. Gerard St. Jean has made the business a highly successful and respected cannery. But he gives the credit to his father.
“Dad was a pioneer,” says Gerard. “He was a very interesting man. He was a professional wrestler. That’s how he came from Quebec to here. He learned how to speak English out of the Sears catalogue.”
Armand died in 1990. One legacy he left behind was his capacity for hard work. “He always worked long hours,” says Gerard. “We got to know him better in our teens and early twenties. We’d go to the bar, have fun and leave at about ten and say ‘Let’s go down and see dad.’ He was a really good friend at that point. And we’d all go down and sit around the back table and he’d bring out a big pot of shrimp he’d just cooked. He’d be salting fish and he’d have the TV going. He was still smoking and salting at 11 at night.”
Everyone loved Armand St. Jean, Gerard recalls. The mutual love of Armand for people and they for him is another legacy the father passed on to the son.
St. Jean’s Cannery is a business with long-term employees and loyal workers. And it’s because of the boss. Gerard insists that work has to be fun. “If it’s not fun, I won’t do it,” he says. But beyond fun, Gerard really cares about his people.
“I tell my people, ‘This is what our job is, this is how much we can afford to pay’” says Gerard. “If you want to go to school and learn more things, if you have a chance to better yourself, go for it. I’ve had kids who’ve worked for me and they’re teachers now and it’s great. I’ll always back them up. I’ve got one worker now who’s taking college courses. If she has a chance to get a job that pays more, that’s her right. That’s her developing and going on. I don’t like to lose those people but if they’re going to go, I say ‘Hey — go for it!’”
Gwen Bontje is Gerard’s bookkeeper; Gwen Gates is the plant manager. They’ve worked at the cannery for 12 and 17 years respectively. How do they describe Gerard St. Jean?
“He’s a pain in the neck,” laughs Bontje. “Actually he’s a great boss. He’s probably one of the best employers in Nanaimo. He treats each of us as individuals. Once he feels that you’re responsible, he leaves you entirely alone; he never interferes. I don’t think he knows anything about my work and yet I’m in complete charge of all his finances–he trusts me.”
“He works hard,” says Gates. “He’s out on the floor and he’ll be out digging ditches with the next guy. That’s why he’s successful–he doesn’t run his business from the office–he’s right out there with the people.”
“And he spreads himself so thin,” says Bontje. “He’s with the city planning council, the Chase River Community, the baseball club, the football club–you name it, he’s involved. He’s very much behind the kids–he takes them everywhere. He involves himself.”
“He gives all of himself,” says Gates. “Whether it’s here or in the community.”
“He gives,” says Bontje. “Everyone that comes who asks, every organization, Gerard gives–a gift box for a raffle–whatever. He supports everyone. He has never turned down anyone.”
After 40 years, St. Jean’s in Nanaimo is a study in diversity, processing its own products and canning for sports fishermen around the world
by Carla Wilson
It is a special moment for sports fishermen and it happens thousands of times every summer off British Columbia’s coast–a hungry Chinook makes a fatal mistake.
The big silver salmon snaps at a lure and is hauled on board by a thrilled sports fisherman.
These salmon–called tyee if they reach 30 or more pounds–are valued by fishermen who love the taste and the bragging rights they deliver.
When it is time to take their catch home, whether to Japan, Los Angeles or Toronto, many sports fishermen turn to St. Jean’s Cannery and Smokehouse in Nanaimo. Workers process the fish to order and that includes canning, hot and cold smoking, smoked canned salmon, candied salmon and fillets.
“The hand-packing is our niche,” said company owner Gerard St. Jean, 56. “We have more processes than anyone else.”
B.C.’s sport fishing season is well underway and will be even busier soon.
This week, sport fishermen can walk in with fish and be served right away. “In the next week or two, they will be lined up right out the gate,” St. Jean said. In August, “It gets really crazy.”
Despite the volume, St. Jean’s meticulous attention to detail in tracking and processing individual orders is what lures everyone from guests and high-end lodges in the Queen Charlottes to a fisherman walking through the door with one fish.
Sports fishing is St. Jean’s staple during the summer. Last year, it processed fish for 17,000 sports fishermen.
And the company handles more than salmon. One lodge order this week was filled with salmon, halibut and ling cod.
Boxes of frozen fish come in from lodges, and 10 drop-off depots on Vancouver Island, including Island Outfitters in Victoria. St. Jean’s also has three drop-off sites on the Lower Mainland.
The 40-year-old operation is a study in efficiency as workers handle different types of fish and processes it in various ways, all the time tracking orders for individual customers.
Hand-packers move fluidly filling cans with pinkish albacore tuna, which turns white when cooked and sterilized in one of three circular steel steamers.
St. Jean’s focuses on quality control. Larger operations pack using machinery. Although hand packing is slower it is worth it to St. Jean. “When you are hand-packing, you are checking every piece before you are putting it in a can.”
Each worker packs about 1,000 cans daily. “We do a large volume,” he said. Turn over a can to see a numbered code stamped by ink jet on the bottom to track it. Individual orders are checked repeatedly. “Everybody’s fish is kept separate,” said St. Jean.
Of the 100 workers at the plant, about 30 are involved in following anglers’ fish during every stage of its processing, he said. That could be 300 individual orders in one day.
A master card, protected by plastic, follows each order through the processing to the end. Colour-coded cards are used as are hand-written lists. One side of a tracking book has 17 rows of figures to identify particular orders.
Water-resistant paper, more colour-coded cards, and computers scanning and following the program of each order are all links in the system.
“A lot of the processing is bragging rights,” St. Jean said. At Christmas time, for example, anglers present cans to their friends.
Once processed, each order is sent via Federal Express to the sports fisherman’s home. Sports fishing accounts for about 30 per cent of the business.
About 25 per cent of the business is processing, cans and labelling for customers who buy their own fish to sell under their own line.
One U.S. company has ordered 500,000 half-pound tins of tuna this year.
St. Jean’s also sells its own line of products sold via the Internet, mail order, in its Nanaimo store and also cans products for other wholesalers. Wild chanterelle mushrooms, pate, soups, jellies, and mustards are among non-seafood items processed and packed in its plant. “We are probably the only people in North America canning chanterelles,” St. Jean said.
Recipes used at the plant today were developed by the company’s found Armand St. Jean, Gerard’s father, who has since died. Every smokehouse has its own flavour and St. Jean’s customers like the smokier taste it creates.
Candied salmon is sweetened with fireweed honey taken from local hives. “It is our biggest growth item,” St. Jean said.
The company has no minimum order. Beaming youngsters bring in their catch to have it processed at a cost ranging from $1 to $3 per pound.
John McCulloch, vice-president of operations for Langara Fishing Adventures, with salt-water lodges in the Charlottes and a fresh-water lodge in the Chilcotin Plateau, said guests have been dealing with St. Jean’s for 20 years.
St. Jean is a “hard-working fellow who is very hands on,” he said. “It is all attention to details. He is constantly improving it and making it better.”
Every time a fish caught through Langara is processed at St. Jean’s that adds more value to the product, McCulloch said from Vancouver. When the angler pulls the fish from his own home freezer, “it enhances our guest’s experience.”
Sports fishing does not take a lot of fish from the sea yet it creates significant value in B.C., St. Jean said.
Eric Kristianson, Sports Fishing Institute of B.C. spokesman, said fishermen may spend up to $1,200 per day for the chance to catch wild B.C. salmon. Standing in the plant, he said, “This is the logical extension of adding value onto an already valuable product.”
St. Jean’s manner is reserved until speaking about his business and the machines he has designed himself, including a “can elevator” that takes cans on a winding ride as it checks seals. Another device sprays that fireweed honey on salmon fillets, replacing a slower machine.
St. Jean’s runs seven days a week, with workers starting about 4 a.m. and St. Jean locking up at 8 p.m.
Total investment in land, buildings, equipment and inventory is $6 million-plus, St. Jean said. The business has expanded over the years to now take up 35,000 square feet in two buildings at 242 Southside Dr.
It’s the variety of products and processes that keeps St. Jean’s alive. “That is how to survive,” he said. Next on his agenda is to expand the company’s own line of products.
Decades dealing with the ups and downs of B.C.’s fishing industry are reflected in his approach to business. “You always have to grow and expand because you are going to lose something.”
The Essential St. Jean’s
Company founder: Armand St. Jean, born in Quebec. A professional wrestler, he travelled the country in the 1930s and married wife Betty in the Yukon. He also worked as a carpenter and in a sawmill. They raised four sons.
How it all began: Armand St. Jean and his family were living in Nanaimo when he started smoking oysters in his garage. His children put on labels and St. Jean sold what was then called “Smudgies” oysters in local bars. Business grew and the new company moved into a boathouse and served the sports fishing industry.
What Gerard was doing: Worked in Nanaimo and later Vancouver for an engineering consulting company. Work-related travels included setting up logging equipment in Iran next to the Caspian Sea and several trips to Europe.
Homeward bound: Gerard returned to Nanaimo in the late 1970s to work with his father and took over the company in the early 1980s, when it had five employees.
Oops: “I bought it and ran it into the ground…In January, 1986, I had nothing.” Expo 86 saved him with an order for 5,000 cans of smoked salmon, allowing the company to stay alive.
When moved to the current location in southwest Nanaimo: In 1989, St. Jean bought the property and devoted himself to the company, after nearly losing it. “You don’t forget that.”
What St. Jean does during the winter: “I don’t do extreme skiing but I get up near there…I aggressively ski.”
He’s active: St. Jean has climbed Mount Fuji, travelled extensively and loves a tough hike. He and a group of friends will be dropped off by plane in a remote, wilderness area and they’ll hike out.
He almost didn’t make it when: A canoe flipped in rapids on a river that was too advanced for him and his friends. Two canoes were lost in that expedition in the 1980s. He managed to get into a back eddy and make it to shore.
How many lives does this cat have? A couple of years ago, St. Jean was skiing through trees in Utah, following tracks of other skiers. “We were just givin’ her.” He followed the tracks went around a tree and “went straight off a cliff. I looked down between my skis and saw rocks.” He thought, “I’m dead.” But his skis hit a large rock with snow on it and he was bounced back on to snow. He was fine. Turns out previous skiers had gone to the edge of the cliff and looked down the 20 feet to rocks below.
How can you top that? “I’m going to ride my bike across Canada.”
That sounds a little tame: He shoots back: “You try it.” St. Jean wants to see Canada.
Nanaimo Daily News
Salvation Army envoy Dawne Anderson helps Gerard St. Jean of St. Jean’s Cannery unload 2,880 cans of salmon, worth $7,200, at the Army’s Hamperville location in Nanaimo on Tuesday morning. The donation of salmon is a Christmas tradition started by Gerard’s father back in the late 1960s.
Sport-caught fish has the potential to be the highest quality fish taken from the sea. Because fish are caught one at a time (or two or three at a time when the fishing is hot!), attention can be given to each fish to ensure that it’s properly cared for. By following these simple procedures, you can ensure your fish is of the highest quality:
1. Bonk your fish as soon as you land it. One clean hit between the eyes should be enough. Keeping the fish supported in the net is one way to keep a fish under control. A fish flipping around can easily be bruised, and meat on the shoulder of the fish can be easily bruised by a stray blow from the club.
2. Bleed your fish. As soon as you have bonked the fish, use your bait knife to cut through the gill rakers on one side of the fish. By only cutting one side of the fish, blood pressure will stay high, thereby allowing all of the blood to pump out of the fish. This is an absolutely crucial step often missed by sport fishers.
Why should you do this step? Blood is acidic, and if left in the fish, it will begin to degrade the meat.
3. Once all the blood is out of the fish, it is a good idea to gut the fish. This is particularly true of Coho (silver) salmon as the stomach acid will leach out of the stomach and begin to affect the meat.
4. Keep your catch on ice (or ice and salt water slurry) to maintain optimal freshness.
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