Foot on The Ladder: how COVID-19 inspired The Pished Fish

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

How COVID-19 inspired salmon start-up to change tack

Related tags Meat & Seafood

Building back the brand online after COVID-19 challenges and taking an alternate route to market were highlights in this exclusive interview with The Pished Fish founder James Eagle.

A manufacturer of salmon products smoked with alcoholic beverages and botanicals, the Sussex-based firm used to supply online retailer Ocado and Waitrose deli counters before the pandemic.

According to Eagle, sales were strong through Ocado and there were plans for the Waitrose deli counters to be revamped and for several new products to be added as part of that project. However, plans changed once the pandemic hit.

“At the start of 2020 we wanted to grow the business online when COVID came​,” said Eagle. “We were at panic stations like every little business was and we didn’t really know how it would unfold – we still don’t know how it will eventually – when suddenly our online business skyrocketed.

“We decided to focus a bit more of our time and energy there. Ocado had other ideas – they were joining forces with Marks & Spencer and they told us they wanted to keep one of our products on but not the others. This didn’t work for us, so we decided to walk away.”

‘Not so popular’

“As you can imagine, all of the customer-facing deli counters in Waitrose weren’t quite so popular so that whole project was canned as well. Near enough overnight we lost our two biggest customers and all our restaurant and café​ [customers] were closed.”

Despite these setbacks, Eagle decided to press on with Pished Fish’s online strategy and to keep with it for as long as he could make a business from it.

“It didn’t look particularly clear-cut at the time, but over the course of the year we have had that helping hand from people being at home. So we’ve refined what we can offer and the whole experience of buying from us and turned it into something that’s head and shoulders above what we were offering in February/March last year.​  

“Now we’re doing more online than we ever did with Ocado and Waitrose combined. It still feels strange that we’re not focusing on retail and I’m half expecting something else will happen where COVID is out the way and suddenly noone wants to buy anything online.”

The Pished Fish has dramatically scaled back ties with its retail customers. It still supplies Fortnum & Mason and various farm shops, but less than they were doing before.

Focus online

“I don’t know if that’s because I’ve turned the business to focus online,”​ Eagle added. “I’d rather spread my risk across hundreds and thousands of individual customers than have it all in the hands of two big customers.”

Looking back on the journey his business has made since 2017, Eagle’s outlook on what makes a successful food and drink business has changed.

It used to be that a successful business would slowly climb the ladder in supplying increasingly larger retailers. This meant starting with small listings with businesses such as Fortnum & Mason, building up to farm shops and delis and eventually supplying larger online players and retail chains.

“I knew online existed, but I didn’t believe there was a proper business just online,”​ Eagle mused. “Now I would question any small brand trying to launch as to what was important to them.”

Path to success

Eagle lamented that in his pursuit of conventional success, he had become stuck in a rut, running a little fish factory churning out smoked salmon, slicing as quickly as possible to serve big retailers.

“The fun was gone,”​ he explained. “There’s a certain amount of stress in dealing with bigger companies where you have to abide by their rules and do what they ask you to do.”

His advice for up and coming food firms would be to focus on their brand and make it something people would enjoy trying online.

“I don’t know if we would have been so successful online if all we were doing was just bog standard, one flavour smoked salmon, because people want to try something a bit different,”​ he concluded.

“You’ve got the whole of the internet to scour and to choose from, so you might as well do something a bit different, otherwise you’re the same as everyone else. So, do something different and try it online, rather than assuming the only route to get your products to people is by going through the big supermarkets and wholesalers.”

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