Smoke signals: building a smokehouse business in Scotland

Smoke Signals

Graham Johnston talks about the patience and graft involved in establishing Smoky Brae in Chapelton near Strathaven

Graham Johnston was originally trying to make a good barbecue sauce when he became increasingly aware that the magic ingredient – the smokiness he sought – also represented a gap in the market that he could fill. That was how Smoky Brae's first product, smoked demerara sugar, came about.

'Cold smoking is when the temperature is less than 30 degrees,' he explains, 'so you're not actually cooking anything, only adding to the flavour.' And that principle remains in place for the entirety of the company's burgeoning range that has grown in less than three years to include smoked salt, garlic, chilli, and even fennel and sesame seeds, all prepared from scratch in his back garden in Chapelton. His barbecue gift pack has even become an unexpected hit in the Christmas gift market.

Business looks like it has come easily, with various distribution deals seeing Smoky Brae products on sale at delis, garden centres and even House of Fraser stores across the country. But as is so often the case, a lot of hard work has gone into making it look so easy. 'Trade shows have been really beneficial. I still go to as many as I can, and I've made an incredible amount of contacts through them. Had I not made the effort to get to the BBC Good Food Birmingham show, I wouldn't have met the guy from House of Fraser,' he laughs.

A bursary from BBC Good Food also gave some additional momentum at a crucial stage, while a successful application to the Small Business Saturday campaign saw Graham take his products to 10 Downing Street. 'All of these things come together and help you grow,' he adds.

Quality is also key – attending trade fairs isn't enough, it has to be backed up by what's on offer, and that can take time. There aren't many cold smokers out there, but instead of rushing to market, it was over a year between Graham's lightbulb moment and his first commercial batch of smoked sugar, during which time he mastered the technique of a wood-fired smoker and refined the blend of wood he would use. Patience is a virtue. So, too, is hard graft.

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