“I was walking along the street in San Francisco and I said to my wife, Fiona, ‘cheese got us to San Francisco. How did that happen?’”.
It was a rare moment of reflection for Callum MacInnes, one half of the partnership behind the Stromness based Island Smokery.
Since establishing the business 12 years ago, opportunities to stop and take stock have been few and far between for Callum and Fiona, such has been the runaway success of their speciality food venture.
With a global customer base that includes the USA – scene of Callum’s cheese epiphany – the United Arab Emirates, Far East and several European countries, the award-winning Island Smokery is an example of a small Orcadian business punching well above its weight.
And demand for the Island Smokery’s range of flavoured and smoked Orkney cheeses, butter and garlic shows no signs of slowing either, with the company’s recent move into a much bigger factory in Stromness enabling it to take full advantage of new market opportunities.
“We’ve tripled our space, so it’s making a huge difference for us,” says Callum. “We’re already up by ten-per-cent, month on month, since our move into the new factory earlier this year.
“We already supply to Tesco and the Co-op and have just been listed by Morrison’s, which has 60 stores throughout Scotland. We’re also in talks with the REWE supermarket chain in Austria, which has 1,500 stores, and are looking at new opportunities in Singapore. Major orders are all about volume, so we’re now able to meet that demand fully.”
The American market is also continuing to grow. Last year saw the firm supply 600kg of its Orkney Smoked Red Cheddar to key US importer and distributor, Atalanta. The order followed a Scottish Development International (SDI) trade mission to the US earlier in 2016 to launch the new Scottish dairy brand.
“The US market could be huge for us,” says Fiona MacInnes. “We’ve gone on to supply three mixed pallets of our cheeses, but I think that’s going to increase as we’re now speaking to several companies in the US and they’re all showing interest.”
Meanwhile, the Smokery’s hand-wrapped Orkney artisanal butter is reaching heady new heights in Dubai, being chosen by top chef Christopher Graham for use in the exclusive At.mosphere restaurant, in the Burj Khalifa, the word’s tallest building.
So far, 60kg of butter has been supplied to At.mosphere, with more set to head to there in the coming months. The Smokery is also supplying its butter to the exclusive Gleneagles Hotel, in Perthshire.
“Our success in the international and prestige markets is down to our ability to consistently supply premium quality products, but the Orkney name also plays a huge part,” explains Fiona. “Orkney is well respected and well-known internationally as a speciality food and drink area and that reputation has been earned through the collective efforts of all our local producers.”
Some of the delicious flavoured cheese products on offer at The Island Smokery Callum, who is also chairman of member organisation, Orkney Food and Drink, adds: “We’re continually looking for opportunities to diversify in terms of our products and markets and, hopefully, our approach is proof of just how much Orcadian companies can achieve with a bit of effort and passion. The more Orkney products we can get out there onto the market, nationally and internationally, the better it is for everyone.”
That desire to regularly diversify has seen the Smokery’s product range grow over the years to include nine flavoured cheeses and three smoked cheeses, in addition to smoked and flavoured butters and smoked garlic. The Smokery has scooped several top food and drink awards along the way too, with its most recent accolade a Gold Great Taste Award, for its cracked black pepper butter.
With the exception of the garlic, the Smokery’s entire raw product is supplied under licence from Orkney Cheese.
The factory runs five smokers, which all use ash wood supplied by Orkney bodhran maker, Ian Leonard, and local carpenter, Leo Kerr. The smokers run for four, eight and 12 hours, depending on the variety of cheese being produced.
“We tried every wood out there when we were starting out with the smoking process,” Callum, who employs a six-strong team in Stromness. “Ultimately, we settled on ash as it works well with the Orkney cheese and butter and gives us the best flavour profile.”
Callum’s cheese smoking skills originally developed in response to a gap in the market, while running the Orkney Hamper Company in Stromness, over a decade ago. His business at that time involved bringing together many of Orkney’s best loved food and drink brands, in hampers, with smoked local cheese one of the most popular products.
When Orkney Cheese stopped smoking its own cheese, Callum stepped in to ensure customers could continue to enjoy this island favourite.
“It just took off from there,” says Callum. “We began to experiment a bit more with different smoking periods and then explored what we could do with new flavours. We’ve never looked back.”
But despite the cheese financed business trips to the USA, the major supermarket orders, the prestige restaurant orders, and all the awards, Callum and Fiona never lose sight of where they’ve come from.
“Our local market remains our bread and butter,” says Callum. “Local wholesalers continue to take a lot of product from us, so we’ll always make sure everybody in Orkney gets everything they need, regardless of how much interest we’re getting from further afield. That’s extremely important to us.”
Fiona adds: “We’re an Orkney business and proud to be based in Stromness. The local community has played a huge part in our success and, wherever we go in the world, we take that with us.”