Siblings Saskia and Patrick Mudde own the De Zalm smokehouse in Krimpen aan den IJssel, a town close to Rotterdam. At the beginning of this year they took over the business from their father, who founded the company 20 years ago.
“My father, Jan Mudde, started working for the Van Wijnen smokehouse when he was fourteen years old, in this very building. He worked there for a long time, became a smoke master and eventually, when the company moved to a bigger location, he became one of the directors of the company,” says Saskia Mudde.
At age 49 her father decided to start his own business. “Van Wijnen had moved on to producing smoked salmon for supermarkets in an industrial manner. My father wanted to go back to his roots, as an artisanal smoker.”
The whole family supported Jan Mudde in this challenging decision. “My mother, my brother, my sister-in-law and myself all started working for the new smokehouse. In the next five years we built it up from scratch.”
Saskia, 18 years old at the time, had just finished high school. “I did not really know what I wanted, so I started to work for my father and I really enjoyed it. I am a hands-on worker, this suited me. So smoking salmon became my life.”
The small new smoke houses started out in a rented building, not far from the current location, which was at the time occupied by a bakery. When the baker closed his business, Jan Mudde took over the lease. At the beginning of this year, his son and daughter took over, although Jan Mudde still works at the company almost every day.
“It’s his life,” explains Saskia. “He loves it and wants to stay part of it as long as he can.”
Smokehouse De Zalm aquires its salmon fillets from Norway and Scotland, through suppliers Visscher Seafood from Urk and Adri & Zoon from Yerseke. The fresh salmon sides arrive every weekday.
“We start by cleaning the fish, to get rid of scales,” Saskia explains. “Then the sides are salted, with a mixture of three sizes of sea salt, and put on racks for 24 hours, to leach out the fluid. After that, the racks go into the cooling chamber for drying. Depending on the size of the fish, this process takes four to eight hours.”
Smoking is done the old-fashioned way, with a small heap of smoldering oak and beechwood chips in the corner of the smoke oven.
After the smoking process, the salmon will be chilled and transferred to the trimming table for the finishing touch: the removal of small bones, hard pieces and scales, before slicing and packaging.
“This work is done by an experienced employee, my father and myself. We have the speed and the critical eye for this part of the process,” says Saskia Mudde. “I am a perfectionist: I want all my salmon to look alike in the package. I want to make a beautiful product.”
De Zalm delivers to Dutch wholesalers, like Hanos, Driessen Food, Fix Fish and W&A Fish. This quality smoked salmon is mostly purchased by restaurants, Saskia explains. De Zalm employs eight people: four full-time and four part-time. “Recently, we also started delivering to restaurants ourselves, with our new brand, House of Laks.”
De Zalm only produces salmon sides, whole and sliced.
“We don’t do small packages, because it takes too much time. With the current size of our company, this is what we can handle, and still maintain the quality we want to deliver,” explains Saskia.
“We are a straightforward company,” adds her brother Patrick Mudde, responsible for sales and administration. “That’s our strength. What comes in today, will be sold on Friday at the latest. No stocks, a fast circulation. It means working very hard when there are a lot of orders coming in, but you can’t get it any fresher!”
Business is flourishing, although they have never advertised their products.
“All our customers came to us by themselves. Sometimes they left for a short while, to get a lower price somewhere else. We are not the cheapest smokehouse. But usually they come back, because their salmon sales have dropped,” says Saskia Mudde.
On top of the prices
Since he and his sister took over the business, Patrick Mudde has started a new financial regime, with a lot more control. “I am on top of the prices now. When the salmon prices increase, I immediately take action. Before we would just let it go. Only when the margins became really tiny did we raise our prices. Now I set weekly prices, to be able to achieve the margin we want. And it works.”
“We sell a lot of salmon,” he adds, “but we have to work very hard to do that, and we also want to earn something, too! That’s the reward of our work: our customers are willing to pay 1 to 1.5 euro more for our quality.”
Saskia Mudde is, as far as she knows, the only female smoker and owner of a smokehouse in the Netherlands. “I don’t feel any different from the men who work here. I just do the work. I have never been treated differently either, except maybe in the very beginning, when people had to get used to me.”
It is physically hard work, explains Patrick, getting up early and working long hours. “I think that’s why so few women do this kind of work. But Saskia has the speed! Two men doing the same job couldn’t keep up with her.”
Saskia adds, smiling: “I have very strong drive, I don’t like it when things aren’t finished. Patrick sometimes knows how to slow me down a bit. That’s good for me, especially now I have a three year old daughter….”
The siblings are very proud of their company. “We’re very grateful that our father has given us this chance. He built up the company for us,” Saskia says. “The quality and the way we work is how we want to keep it.”
For the future they are considering a new building. “We would like our work space to be more efficient and better equipped for the requirements of today,” says Patrick. “But we really like this location, next to the dyke, close to the highway. And we both live nearby, which is wonderful, because we often have to come here at odd hours to take care of the salmon.”
“If we want to stay at this location, it would mean we have to demolish this building and build a complete new one… That’s not an easy decision, but we are considering it,” Saskia adds.