Shetland fish company secures Whole Foods trial

Thule Ventus, an artisan air dried salted cod producer on Shetland, has secured a deal that will see its product hit the shelves of a high-end supermarket chain this month (November).

The initial order for taster packs from Whole Foods has been placed to gauge the product’s popularity within its seven UK stores, with Thule Ventus owner, David Polson, hoping the interest will lead to a larger order of 250g packs of salted cod, also known as bacalhau or bacalao, early next year.

David, who runs the business part-time while also working for Johnson Marine, set up his enterprise last year after Business Gateway Shetland provided advice and connected him to the Maritime Fisheries Fund and Highlands & Islands Enterprise.

Through the fund he secured 50% funding (£37k) to design a website, source packaging, and brand his product before taking his salted cod to market in June. Already, the product is stocked by 19 retailers across the UK, including award winning Walter Purkis & Sons in London.

David, who currently operates out of a custom-built unit at Scarpas, Cuningsburgh, will now use the remaining finance to buy machinery that will allow him to extend his range to include fish cakes, croquettes and brandade de morue pate. Although the new products won’t be ready for sale until the New Year, Whole Foods will use David’s traditional recipe to make his pate whose main ingredient is salt cod to promote Thule Ventus in its stores.

He said: “The deal provides me with a foot in the door of a well-known, well respected retailer and it offers real potential for growth. It also validates the high quality of our salt cod, gives me greater confidence and a good boost to cash flow. Although I’d dipped my toe into the market 10 years ago the internet wasn’t what it is now and the market wasn’t ready. Now, with the explosion of the foodie phenomenon, and the fact people are more willing to try different foods, particularly ones with provenance, I decided to really give it a go late last year.

“I went to Business Gateway reasonably early on, as it seemed the logical thing to do. Their general advice and connections linked me to the fisheries fund which provided the additional finance I needed to produce packaging and tell my story in a way that would appeal to my target market. Once that was all in placed I took to Twitter and secured many of my stockists and caught the attention of Whole Foods through my persistence on social media.”

Iain Muir, Business Gateway Shetland, said: “David has set about developing his business in an exemplary manner with an excellent business plan, clear objectives and a product that pulls at the cultural heartstrings of millions across maritime nations everywhere. With an excellent product presented in superb packaging he’s now getting the recognition and distribution he deserves, highlighting the important role the Internet can play in helping artisan businesses based on Shetland to spread the word about their products. We are delighted that our advice and connections have helped him set up a business that has huge potential.”

Having grown up salting fish with his father, who would take him out to sea in a traditional 17-foot wooden vessel rowed with just four oars, David worked the hand lines and set lines for pollock, skate, mackerel, haddock and cod. They would then set some fresh fish aside for tea, salting the remainder. He then carried on the tradition while working for the Island Ferries for 20 years, salting fish on board for meals.

Using his lifelong understanding of traditional salting techniques, David now skins, fillets and portions sustainably fished cod landed by boat at Lerwick and Scalloway fish markets. The process takes up to two months and the resulting Thule Ventus salted cod packs provide the names and MMSI numbers of the vessels that caught the fish in each box.

David said: “Our fish should be viewed as the finest single malt whisky of the salt cod world, and the Holy Grail for my company is to crack the Portuguese, Spanish, Brazilian and American markets where lots of salt cod is consumed. If I could capture just a 10th of one per cent of the Portuguese market I’d be laughing. That will take time so for now I’m concentrating on spreading the word throughout the UK, and I hope to be at the stage whereby I abandon the three containers and build my own manufacturing unit, which would allow me to create jobs, within the next three years.”

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