The Cannery That Won't Quit
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.