By Andrew Macdonald
It’s not common knowledge around the city, but there is a real live fish plant in a basement of a Halifax building.
This work week, I took a news tour of this fish plant, operating with 70 employees in the basement of Fisherman’s Market, a retail and wholesale fish entity, founded in 1947.
Fish factories and seafood plants up until the 1960s dominated the Halifax waterfront.
But, even Halifax Mayor Mike Savage told me he was unaware of a fish plant operating in the basement of Monte Snow & Fred Greene owned Fisherman’s Market.
When I did a year-end chit chat with the mayor the other day, he told me he now plans personally to tour the fish plant.
Because Fisherman’s Market is on the Bedford HWY, and because former Halifax mayor Peter Kelly was from Bedford – and because he always had his pulse on all things Bedford, the former mayor often made visits to Fisherman’s Market.
While 70 folk work in the fish plant, the overall employee count at Fisherman’s Market tallies 110 workers.
For my fish plant tour, I caught up to Bill Langdon, who has logged 31-years at Fisherman’s Market. He is plant manager.
The retail shop at the fish and seafood emporium was renovated this year – updating to modern retail standards, and in January the store will open what is bound to be a retail sales generator, a seafood platter to go meal.
Monte Snow tells The Notebook that the sales at Fisherman’s Market are now north of $75 million.
The fish plant is the last remaining fish plant in the City of Halifax.
The buildings at Historic Properties off of Upper Water Street are now office and retail buildings, but many used to be fish plants.
The retail store renovations began in mid-summer. “It was time for us to do some updating of the store, to integrate some new products”, says Langdon.
Langdon has an interesting life story. He was originally from Newfoundland, and in 1989 – thirty-years ago, he found himself laid off from a fish plant on the Rock, as a result of the start three decades ago of the Northern Cod Fishery Collapse.
Losing his fish plant work, he then went into construction for a year, then moved to Halifax, and 31-years ago, took a job as a fish cutter at Fisherman’s Market.
And, it gets more interesting for Langdon’s life story: He met his wife, Janet in the same fish plant in Newfoundland, and now she, too, works at Fisherman’s Market, overseeing the production of in-house smoked salmon offerings, which the store sells under its own brand Seabright Smoked Salmon.
“One of our new retail product lines will be the seafood deli, which you can look of in the beginning of the new year, and it will consist of seafood platters that you can take home – a grab and go thing”, Langon tells The Notebook.
“We will carry anything seafood related in the deli, things like seafood tacos, seafood rolls, lobstger rolls, sushi, seafood chatter -as it moves along we will add more products over time”, says Langdon.
One interesting thing about the retail shop at Fisherman’s Market, during my visit to the store this week, I spotted a freezer full of Asian & Chinese seafood products.
Given there are 3,000 Asian students studying at various Halifax universities, and as I have written over time, there is an emerging Chinatown developing on Inglis & Barrington Streets, the idea of an Asian section at Fisherman’s Market underscores why Monte Snow and Fred Greene can be called innovative retailers.
“It is fairly new, that section”, says Langdon. “Sushi is a big item these days”.
Question: Is that store getting a lot of Asian students, dropping by?
Langdon tells The Notebook: “Yes, we get a lot of Asian students – a lot of Asian students”.
The Notebook: They all drive fancy cars.
Langdon: “The all have expensive fancy cars, $100,000 cars, and one person gets out of the car at a time, and four or five cars show up at a time, and they spend a lot of money – which is good”.
“They are great customers”, Langdon tells me.
The entire retail shop was overhauled. One neat thing about the retail shop – because discriminating seafood and fish consumers demand and want as fresh a fish product as possible, Fisherman’s Market can address that need at its store.
“All of our fish processing is handled on site – that is the important thing we like to stress, the processing is on site, in our fish plant in the basement – and we offer processing and right to your table the very same day”, notes Langdon.
“That is very important for fish and seafood”.
There are nine employees in the retail shop, and 70 in the basement fish plant, which processes both live shipped lobster, and fish – including modern day dominant fish species, haddock.
“Lobster processing is a 24/7 operation – that is shipped world wide, both live and cooked”.
During my visit to the fish plant, I spotted a live box of lobster being sent all the way to Brussels.
“This is a busy time of year for lobster shipments”. The plant has two gigantic lobster cookers. While some stores cook lobster via steam, Fisherman’s Market uses water, adding salt via their proprietary recipe.
The two cookers can churn out 600 pounds of cooked lobster an hour.
“We’re now in the Holiday crunch period for lobster shipments – it started about a week ago. We ship world-wide”.
He declined to tell me exactly how many pounds of lobster is processed during the Holiday, calling that proprietary information.
Question: Then, of course in January, your lobster processing is again busy for the Chinese New Year?
Langdon replies to The Notebook: “That is correct. We will be 24/7 again that period. We ship out of Halifax Stanfield. We have freight-forwarders we use to get the product to the airport, and they tend to the logistics business, and we send the orders and paper work, and it goes from there”.
Question: Is this a myth, an urban legend that store bought fresh haddock is from coastal Nova Scotia, and when you see frozen haddock at the store, that means it is from China or Russia?.
Langdon replies: “That is a myth, it’s not true. A lot of haddock is frozen in the Norway & Russia area in the Barents Sea, and of course it is too far to ship fresh, so that product is frozen at sea”.
“The local Atlantic Canada caught haddock is retailed fresh or frozen. I prefer fresh, but some people prefer it frozen, depending on the application for storage capacity.
“We sell Russian & Norwegian fish, along with our local haddock. The local haddock comes from Shelburne all the way down to Yarmouth”.
In recent years, Fisherman’s Market sold off its fleet of trawlers, but still maintains ownership over fish quota, and contracts independent fishermen to fish that quota.
“We no longer own boats, we own quotas. If you include lobster boats, we have 150 fishing vessels supplying us”, Langdon tells The Notebook.
The retail and wholesale entity has 22 trucks, and two large transfer trucks, which deliver fish across the Maritimes.
Many of their half ton trucks can be seen around Halifax, delivering fish and seafood to many leading eateries.
The basement fish plant is located on 10,000-square feet.
Besides lobster processing, live and cooking on site, there is the fillet line, de-boning fish, and portioning it for retail sales.
Question: Are you considering expanding the foot print of the fish plant?
Langdon replies: “We need more space, yes, we need more space. One option is to add a storey to the building, another option is to expand to the Northside of the property”.
“There is nothing in the immediate works, but an expansion is an idea we have talked about”, says Langdon.
If an expansion is undertaken, Fisherman’s Market would have to hire more employees.
“It is very difficult to find employees these days – no one wants to work any more – that is very sad. It is not only our company, there are a lot of companies (struggling to find workers), who we deal with, packaging companies, chemical companies, every body is behind, and they don’t have the staff to do it”, Langdon tells The Notebook.
“We have trouble to grow, because of the lack of staff – we have had to bring in a lot of foreign workers”.
Of the 70 fish plant workers, 40 of them are from Chile or the Phillipines.
“We can’t find enough Canadian workers, so we had to bring in international workers”.
Question: What are wages like?
Langdon replies: “I think we pay good wages – decent wages, livable wages in the city”.
Fisherman’s Market helps its international workers settle in Halifax. “Most of them want to live in Canada”.
Langdon does his own recruitment of foreign workers – that’s because he relies on the 40 international workers he has on staff – using that staff as a network, as they tell family and friends back home of jobs that pay good salaries.
At one point, years back, Langdon hired an international recruiter.
“Now, I have a big list of foreign workers already here, so I just use them as a resource”, Langdon tells me.
“This is labour intensive work, it is cold and damp and it is hard work at the fish plant. I don’t want to insult anyone, but today’s generation are focussed on the electronic world, not the back-breaking jobs”.
“Most of our foreign workers are very educated people, some speak several languages, both English and their native language. A lot of our workers are IT people, engineers, and professors and school teachers – but when you immigrate to Canada, you can’t just start as an engineer – there are steps and processes”, adds Langdon.
“We help them out to get their immigration papers, and to become permanent residents, and hopefully they will remain loyal to us – and most of them have been”.
There is more automation in a modern fish plant, than say thirty years ago, “but not a lot more”, notes Langdon.
Fisherman’s Market sells some cod – there is a limited winter fishery of cod off the NS South Shore.
“Haddock is our main species we retail”.
Langdon celebrates 31-years at Fisherman’s Market this coming April. “I started off here as a fish cutter, then I became a supervisor, then a manager of the fresh and frozen department, and 15-years ago I moved into being a fish plant manager”.
During the three decade old Northern cod fishery collapse, Newfoundlander John Crosbie was a Mulroney Fisheries minister.
Often great with media clips, at the time Crosbie once said of the fishery collapse: “Don’t blame me, I didn’t fish the damn cod to extinction”.
Langdon recalls another famous Crosbie line: “There was another quote I remember. He was in the House of Commons talking about the seals. And someone said, ‘They are not eating cod fish’, and Crosbie responded, ‘What do you think they are eating – they are not eating pizza’”.
Langdon works Monday to Friday, his shift runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m..
Question: Your wife Janet works as Fisherman’s Market, too – what is that like to have her as a work colleague?
Langdon replies to The Notebook: “She has worked her 20-years now in our smoked salmon line. We worked together at a fish plant in Newfoundland”.
“We try to stay separate at work. We keep things professional, she is still the employee, and I am still the boss – we are treated as that”, Langdon.
“We met in 1985 at a fish plant in Newfound – and we have been working together and married together ever since”.
He adds, “It’s quite a story”.
The Fisherman’s Market fish plant is a non-union shop.
“Unions are into fish plants – but if you treat your workers the way you should treat your workers, you don’t need a union to fight for wages, to fight for schedules, or fight for anything else – that should be done at the management level, and employees shouldn’t be forced to get someone to fight for them”.
At one time, Fisherman’s Market operated a large oyster holding tank in Shelburne – it closed last winter, because Langdon said it was not financially viable to continue to operate.
Smoked salmon and oysters are a popular Christmas & Holiday treats. “They are great appetizers for get togethers”.
One popular item at Fisherman’s Market is the smoked fish platters – “We do that here right on site on our own processing facility”.
Smoked salmon is processed daily at the shop – and that is where Langdon’s wife is the head smoked salmon producer.
“We do 400 pounds per day – we do more during the Holidays – we do 300 pounds throughout the year, and during the Holidays it jumps to 400-500 pounds of smoked salmon”, Langdon tells The Notebook.
The Fisherman’s Market brand smoked salmon is retailed under the store’s own brand, Seabright Smoked Salmon, and is retailed either fresh or frozen.