General Manager Ducktrap River of Maine, Belfast
57 Little River Drive, Belfast
Owner: Marine Harvest ASA
General manager: Don Cynewski
Sales 2014: $35 million projected
It's 11:30 a.m. and General Manager Don Cynewski stands at the ready for an important daily ritual at the employee cafeteria of Ducktrap River of Maine, which is one of Belfast's largest employers and is still growing.
A table gets cleared. Another worker rolls out white butcher paper to create a makeshift tablecloth. Smoked seafood, packaged that very morning, soon arrays the table: wild mackerel from Scotland, one filet that's peppered, another herbed; sockeye salmon, hot smoked with an apple, brown-sugar glaze; mussels, blanched, hand-shucked; and, of course, Ducktrap's signature product, cold-smoked Kendall Brook salmon. Toothpicks and crackers complete the table spread.
The tasting begins, with a dozen or so of Ducktrap's 130 employees joining Cynewski in a sampling of that day's products. When it's over, he huddles with another taste-tester, comparing notes on the various smoked products. The verdict? Thumbs up.
"It's a challenging business," says Cynewski, who's overseen a doubling of Ducktrap's workforce since becoming its general manager in 2004 and a corresponding growth in sales from $17 million in 2009 to a projected $35 million this year. "It's a lot different than making widgets."
Experience counts — and Cynewski says Ducktrap is fortunate to have a smoke master who's been with the company for 25 years filling that critical role as well as frontline supervisors who don't cut corners in achieving the proper balance of smoke and moisture content for each product coming out of the smokehouse.
"It started with Des," Cynewski says, referring to Ducktrap River's founder, Des Fitzgerald, who in 1978 began raising trout in Kendall Brook in Lincolnville and selling them to the local restaurants and markets. Fitzgerald started smoking his fish in 1981 and then, as sales grew beyond the local area, moved the company into a new state-of-the-art facility in Belfast in 1991. "He created a culture where we do things right. You do that for 35 years and you develop a good reputation. I think that is part of our success, especially with smoked salmon, which is a very sensitive product because it's raw, not cooked … People need to have a feeling of trust when they buy your product."
Cynewski got his start in the seafood business in the late 1980s with Atlantic Salmon of Maine, based in Machiasport, then moved down to Ducktrap River in Belfast in 1998, when a holding company merged the two operations. He worked closely with Fitzgerald for three or four years during a transition period that culminated in the sale of Ducktrap River to a precursor of present-day owner Marine Harvest, a worldwide seafood company based in Norway. In 2004, Cynewski was promoted to general manager of what had become a struggling company during the period of uncertainty about its ownership and future.
"I'm a CPA by background," he says. "I was chosen to try to stabilize and rebuild this company and stop losing money. It took a couple of years. I put in a lot of hours here. The fact that I'm from Maine helped immensely. I wasn't an 'outsider' brought in from someplace else."
Located within the Belfast Airport Business Park, Ducktrap River of Maine completed a $4.5 million, 21,000-square-foot expansion last fall that doubled its production and processing capacity and replaced its refrigeration/heating system with a unit that's more energy efficient.
Cynewski says the doubling of Ducktrap's sales since 2009 obviously helped him make the business case to the parent company for the expansion. He also believes his workers' passion for creating great-tasting smoked seafood and their attention to quality resonates with top executives at Marine Harvest, who've set the goal of becoming the leading sustainable seafood worldwide and see innovation and continuous process improvement as key ways to get there. As a subsidiary, he adds, Ducktrap benefits from Marine Harvest's extensive supply, distribution and marketing networks.
"We have the inside track on getting best quality sourcing on all the major items we sell," Cynewski says of Ducktrap's ability to trace its seafood from "egg to plate" via Marine Harvest's fish farms around the world.
Looking ahead, Cynewski says Ducktrap River will develop new products while continuing to meet growing demand for its signature smoked salmon, finfish and shellfish products. Its adherence to strict quality control from the brine room to the shipping dock gained the company Safe Quality Food Level III certification from the Food Marketing Institute in 2013, making it the only smokehouse in the U.S. to attain the highest standard for seafood processing companies.
"We sell to probably close to 100 seafood distributors throughout the U.S.," he says, noting that Hannaford, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are among the grocery chains selling Ducktrap products. "With most of our customers, they typically buy products from us at least once a week. Some buy every day. We do our best to make sure they continue as a customer — hopefully forever."
Noting that per-capita consumption of smoked seafood products in Europe is 10 to 15 times what it is in the United States, Cynewski sees opportunities to build Ducktrap's customer base even more as health-conscious American consumers turn to smoked salmon, trout and mackerel for the omega-3 fatty acids that can lower cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health. It's a growing market, he says, and Ducktrap faces lots of competition to capture its share of it. That leaves no room for complacency at the Belfast plant that uses native Maine woods to smoke its products.
"We work hard every day to produce a good product and a good value," he says. "There are a lot of people here doing a lot of good work. It's not something I do by myself."