Fifty years of operation for any business is a huge milestone, and when it comes to the fishing industry on the West Coast, a business with that kind of longevity is becoming more and more rare. Today on Food Matters, I tagged along for the celebrations at the St. Jean’s Cannery in Nanaimo, which has been serving commercial and sport fishermen since 1961.
St. Jean’s started from humble beginnings in 1961 in the kitchen of Gerard St. Jean’s mother and father. His father practiced smoking oysters in the kitchen, ruining his mother’s plants and smearing her typewriter ink on the homemade labels which he stuck on plastic bags full of oysters he would go around and sell in the local bars. Now they employ just over 100 people in Nanaimo.
Custom smoking of seafood products is still a mainstay of the operation, with most of the sports fishing lodges up and down Vancouver Island sending the catches of their clients to St. Jean’s to be turned into lox, hot smoked salmon, cured candied salmon or smoked, canned fish. They will even take fish you buy off a commercial fishing boat and process it just the way you want it. St. Jean’s is a relatively small cannery by West Coast standards, but how many of those huge canneries are still open? The fishing industry has been in a sharp decline now for many of those 50 years St. Jean’s has been running, but Gerard St. Jean credits the size of their operation as one of the main reasons they are still successful:
“Well, it used to be that the canneries were all huge, unionized places, but now it’s the smaller, locally run places that have survived…along this road here in Nanaimo there are three small canneries now, all owner-operated. Sure, we work hard, but you run your own operation…and I get the winters off, so I can go skiing all the time, and that’s good!”
It is very much still a family business, with Gerard’s brother playing a large role in the mechanical operations of the plant and other family members pitching in as well. They ship seafood all over the world and pack and smoke for large and small fishing companies alike. And they’ve gone beyond simple canning and smoking, as well, producing clam chowder, antipastos, pates, even canned wild chanterelle mushrooms, some 80 different products in all.
For the party at the cannery, they pulled out all the stops. There were bands playing, there were tours of the cannery, many of the companies who use St. Jean’s services were showing off their products…and, there was the world’s largest salmon can. Gerard says the idea of this can came one day when the management team was all crammed into his office planning the anniversary event: “We said that we need a meeting room, a conference room, and then we got the idea that we should just build a big can right out there in the parking lot! And then we decided to make a bit of a museum of it, so in the summer people can have a little tour and learn more about the company and buy some products.”
I predict that this can is going to become a real tourist attraction…who wouldn’t want their picture taken beside a giant salmon can???