Casting the net for business


15 Oct 2003

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Geraldine Bass (pictured) is in the enviable position of doing a job she enjoys in a beautiful part of the country for people who appreciate her product. Bass’ company – The Old Millbank Smokehouse in Buttevant, Co Cork – sells smoked salmon to customers as far afield as Germany, France and America as well as throughout Ireland and the UK.

Established in 1990, the Smokehouse originally began by selling to local restaurants and shops but today the majority of the sales are done through the website, www.theirishsmokehouse.com, that Bass designed and developed herself. A feat made possible thanks to North Cork Enterprise Board who approached Bass four years ago with the opportunity to do a web design course.

“The idea appealed to me; not only could I design my own company’s website during the course but it meant that I could have total control over the way the company was represented online,” says Bass.

Having this much direction over the way the website looked was critical to her.

“I had approached web design companies about developing a website for the company before I did the web design course and I just felt that they were going to overcomplicate what the site would look like. I believe that the person nearest the business has the best idea about what needs to go on a website.”

Through her online presence, Bass has increased her sales by 20pc through access to new geographical markets. The website has also helped to augment her offline sales.

“I sell the smoked salmon at Cork Airport, Blackwater farmers market and at various delis around Cork and the packaging always includes my website and email, so quite often people will buy at these outlets and then place a repeat order through the website.”

Bass has also teamed up with other websites to sell her products, such as a German site selling Irish products and closer to home, Bord Bia. Bass’ smoked salmon is also particularly popular as a corporate gift and this accounts for 40pc of the orders that the Smokehouse receives.

“Christmas starts from October for us,” says Bass. “We found that a lot of our business was done at this time of the year and the website was a way to expand our sales channels to become less dependent on the seasonal highs and lows.”

Although the economic climate has been tough for most small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) this year, the Smokehouse has gone in the face of such a downturn with a 10pc increase in sales over the last year.

“People are still keen to buy quality products,” explains Bass. “And they know what they like.”

For suppliers, Bass uses the Irish Seafood Producers Group. Based in Connemara, she says that the group has been key to the success of her business.

“They give good credit terms and they stick to dates and times. Both factors are critical to a small company like mine,” she adds.

The method of smoking the salmon is still quite labour-intensive; Bass uses a traditional kiln where the salmon is smoked for up to 12 hours using either oak or beech wood. The fish is then vacuum-sealed and packed in a thermal box, ready to be sent to worldwide destinations.

Although the smoking process is time consuming and sticks to traditional methods – no artificial flavours or enhancers are used – Bass believes that it is worth the effort because “customers really want a quality product”.

Another key element to the service that the Smokehouse provides is Bass herself. “I believe you are selling yourself as much as the product, therefore ultimately I am responsible for what goes out the door.”

She has kept the business small, employing just one other person and personally responds to emails for orders that come in through the website. Feedback is also a vital ingredient to the development of both the product and the mechanism to sell it – the website. “People love to talk about food so it’s easy to get feedback,” says Bass.

Currently Bass is running weekly tasting sessions at Cork Airport, which she says have helped sales. “Once people taste the product they are usually convinced of the quality,” she says. But giving such a personal service is time consuming. “Time is the biggest challenge for me; that and having the discipline to sit down and go through all the emails each morning.”

Bass says that she hopes to use the quiet time in the new year to update the website. “I’d like to change the photos on the site and give people more information about the process of smoking fish, for example, we don’t mention beech or applewood smoking on the website.”

By Gillian Cope