Loch Fyne is a 60-mile-long inlet of sea water on the west coast of Scotland. Started as a roadside stall at the mouth of the loch in the 1970s, Loch Fyne Oysters has since grown into the largest producer of oysters in Scotland. In the 1980s the company expanded to add a smokehouse, restaurant and shop.
It was bought by its workforce in 2003, and employees, who number 120 in peak season, can participate in the share scheme after six months with the firm. Turnover stood at £13.7m in the 18 months to 30 June 2005, with a pre-tax profit of £706,000.
Although run as a separate company, Loch Fyne Oysters is the inspiration for and principal supplier to the Loch Fyne Restaurants group. Every year a rising number of LFR employees visit the loch to see where the seafood, oysters and smoked salmon they serve to customers come from. LFR has a £10,000 annual budget for these trips, and this year 54 employees will visit the loch. To reinforce the links between the two businesses, LFR also holds events such as its staff conference and sous chefs competition at the original spacious restaurant.
Last month I joined three restaurant managers, David Harrison from Cambridge, Jonathan Mather from Bath, and Ed Pook from Egham, Surrey, on the trip.
Showing us around the smokehouse, production manager David Attwood explains that the salmon come from further up the coast at Loch Duart in Sutherland, the first fishery to be accredited by the RSPCA Freedom Food scheme. Rearing is done in three sea lochs, which are farmed in rotation. Each sea loch is fallow for one year, allowing natural cleansing and regeneration.
The salmon is hand-filleted, dry-cured for 24 hours with salt or salt and sugar, and washed in spring water before smoking.
There are three main types of smoked salmon: Loch Fyne Classic is delicately flavoured and smoked for 12 hours over old whisky barrel oak chips; Bradan Orach (golden salmon in Gaelic) is smoked for 24 hours, and Bradan Rost (roasted salmon) is an inch-thick fillet smoked for more than 30 hours. Another unique product is the Kinglas fillet, a sushi-style cut which British Airways buys in 10g packets.
While smoking, fat on the fish turns yellow. This is trimmed off before the fillets are run through a machine which sucks out the pinbones by air pressure. The smokehouse produces up to 9,000 packets of salmon a week. Each bar code contains all the details of the fish: when it was farmed, cured and smoked.
At peak season, in the run-up to Christmas, a maximum of 80 staff work in the smokehouse. Loch Fyne Restaurants generally places orders five times a week, and other customers include Nobu, Conran and Gordon Ramsay restaurants.
The next morning we travel to the east side of the loch, where an average of 22,000 oysters and 30,000 mussels are prepared for sale each week. The loch is very deep in the middle with a shallow shelf around the shore on which the oyster beds lie, while the mussel ropes hang in the deep central waters. When the tide goes out, twice a day, the oysters are exposed to the air and clam up tight. This makes them travel well, holding the liquor inside which keeps them alive. A quarter of sales go abroad, the largest export market being Hong Kong.
For newcomer Mather, who previously ran a restaurant with rooms in the Cotswolds, the trip to Loch Fyne has been a fascinating culmination of two months' training. "There's a pride factor. It's been positive and great, seeing the oyster nets and the mussel ropes, and the smokehouse. We can take visual memories back to our restaurants," he says.
For Harrison, it's been a great motivator. "I'm going to take back a lot of energy," he says. Pook says it will give him more authority when talking to customers. "This backs up the whole ethos of the business. Just to be able to talk with absolute confidence, to say I've been to the smokehouse and the oyster beds - you can look them straight in the eye."
This is exactly what the trip is meant to achieve, according to Adrian Hudson, LFR service manager. "It's difficult to measure any direct impact on profitability," he concedes. "But the employees return with a new enthusiasm and passion for the business which has an impact on how they behave within the business and how they interact with customers."