In the Press: Business First
Change in focus has worked out swimmingly for local family business
John R. Karman III, Business First Staff Writer
From the October 26, 2001 print edition
For more than 60 years, the traditional focus of the Shuckman family business was the marketing of meat products.
The operation started in 1919 at 16th and Kentucky streets as Shuckman's Meat Market and Grocery, according to Lewis Shuckman, a third-generation owner and president of the company.
His father, A.J. Shuckman, converted the business into a wholesale meat supplier in the mid-1950s. In 1969, he moved it to its current location at 3001 W. Main St.
The company developed a solid reputation in the wholesale food trade, Lewis Shuckman said, but in the early- to mid-1980s, business began to waver.
People were becoming more health conscious at that time, he explained. Exercise was in vogue, and many were changing their diets, replacing heavy meats with fish and seafood as they tried to get in shape.
Instead of throwing up his hands in frustration as fewer people demanded his meat products, Shuckman, who was working for his father at the time, "saw an opportunity."
He convinced his father to gradually begin marketing and distributing more fish products. He also began experimenting with on-site smoking of Kentucky rainbow trout -- a move that proved popular with his regular customers.
Over the course of the next several years, Shuckman eased into the fish business. He and his father still distributed meats and frozen foods, but they found a growing interest in the smoked fish products as they aggressively promoted them.
By the early to mid-1990s, much of the dynamic of Shuckman's business had changed. He began smoking other species of fish native to Kentucky, including spoonfish, a relative of the better-known catfish.
Spoonfish, also called paddlefish, is indigenous to Kentucky lakes and streams.
Shuckman developed a distinctive flavor for the fish by using another traditional Kentucky product, bourbon whiskey. Shuckman's fish fillets are bourbon-cured, using 15-year-old whiskey from the Rip Van Winkle distillery in Lawrenceburg.
The company also started distributing caviar, made from the eggs of the spoonfish, and its name was changed to Shuckman's Fish Company & Smokery.
Move was phased in over several years
Changing with the times has proved to be a good move for Shuckman's, according to the owner, but it was not a decision made lightly.
"We didn't jump in it with both feet," he said. "We just kind of stepped into it. It would have been disastrous had we gone for the whole ball of wax" right away.
Today, about 75 percent of the company's business is smoked fish specialties, and that percentage continues to grow, Shuckman said. The remaining 25 percent is still meats and other frozen food products.
To make the switch to being a fish distributor after decades as a meat marketer, Shuckman said he first had to "create the market for the product."
Toward that end, Shuckman got some assistance from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, which provided a grant for him to upgrade his equipment.
Agriculture Commissioner Billy Ray Smith praised Shuckman for building his business using Kentucky products and for helping to promote the state's budding aquacultural endeavors.
Smith predicted that aquaculture will continue to mature as more farmers seek alternatives to growing tobacco.
"As we grow into this thing, I think (Shuckman's) business will expand," he said. "That (smoked fish) product seems to be catching on very well. There's a lot of interest in it."
For Shuckman, creating a market has meant meeting with hotel and restaurant personnel and supermarket owners, getting them to sample the product and convincing them to include the varieties of smoked fish and caviar on their menus or in their freezers.
The process had its successes and failures, Shuckman said. But today, some of Louisville's finer dining establishments, including such upscale eateries as Shariat's Restaurant, Brasserie Deitrich, Zephyr Cove and The Oakroom at The Seelbach Hilton Hotel, have recipes that use Shuckman's fish products. Doll's Market, 3620 Brownsboro Road, also stocks the delicacies.
Jim Gerhardt, executive chef for the Seelbach's Oakroom, said his menu includes smoked Kentucky trout and paddlefish, caviar and various spreads. The restaurant has served Shuckman products for about five years.
"Our whole menu revolves around regional ingredients in a fine-dining setting," Gerhardt said, adding that dishes containing Shuckman items "get a very good response" from customers.
Business seen as 'unique, ... needed'
As Shuckman worked to create the market for his fish products, he met Dr. Steven D. Mims, an associate professor in the aquaculture program at Kentucky State University in Frankfort.
Mims, a biologist and aquaculturalist, has been experimenting with paddlefish since the mid-1980s. He and other Kentucky State researchers have been working to develop a network of farm producers across the state to bolster supplies and boost sales of the Kentucky fish.
Traditionally, Kentucky fishermen have caught paddlefish to harvest its eggs for caviar and discarded the rest of the body, Mims said. He was pleased when Shuckman showed an interest in smoking the fish and marketing it.
"He's the only one I know who's doing it," Mims said, adding that Shuckman's business is "very unique and very needed."
"He's a small-business (owner), so it's not like he's selling volumes of this stuff," he said. "What he is doing is selling it and, I think, making good money."
Staying small is long-range plan
Much of Shuckman's supply comes from Lake Cumberland, the business owner said. He buys from individual fishermen and from Kentucky fish farmers.
Shuckman said most of his competitors are located either on the East or West coasts or in Europe. He estimates that he distributes "a couple thousand pounds" of product each week by air and truck. His carriers include United Parcel Service Inc., Federal Express Corp., various trucking companies and others.
Shuckman's has about 300 regular customers, he said. About 75 percent of those customers are local; the rest are scattered across the country. Shuckman's plans to expand to the international market in the near future and recently applied for an export permit.
Still, Shuckman said the company wants to stay small, affordable and able to adapt to customer wants and needs. He likened his smoked fish products to "small-batch, single-barrel-quality bourbon."
"We don't want to be a cookie-cutter smoker," he said. "We don't want to be a smoker that is mass producing thousands and thousands of pounds of product."
Shuckman's has grown largely through word of mouth but also through attention generated by a number of national publications, the owner said. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today all have carried stories about the company, and it has been featured in a program on the Public Broadcasting Service.
In 1995, Shuckman's won several awards during a smoked seafood conference in Seattle.
Two years ago, Shuckman's launched its Web site, http://www.kysmokedfish.com, which allows customers to order products online. Shuckman considers the Internet "a real tool" for introducing his company to new customers.
Shuckman's has six employees, including the owners. In addition to Lewis Shuckman, the ownership group consists of his mother, Beverly Shuckman; his wife, Vicki Shuckman; and his daughter, Lauren Belanger. Shuckman's father died in March.
When Shuckman looks back at the transformation his company has experienced in the last 15 or so years, he admits that the change "was a gamble," but it's one that's paying off.
"You've got to be aggressive," Shuckman explained. "You've got to go after it. Go with your instincts. But test (your strategy) first."
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