‘We lost 97% of our business in six weeks’: The Pished Fish on its D2C reinvention

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image source: The Pished Fish
Image source: The Pished Fish

Related tags Fish Salmon D2C

The ups and downs suffered by The Pished Fish, a UK brand that makes Scandinavian-inspired alcohol- and botanical- infused smoked salmon, illustrate the shift in consumer behaviour towards online shopping and the new food categories created by the pandemic.

The company was launched in 2017 by James Eagle with a vision to showcase salmon’s 'more audacious, booze-infused ambitions' and step away from the fish’s historical ‘mild-mannered’ reputation.

The range -- which includes smoked salmon infused with Bombay Sapphire gin, grapefruit, lime zest and juniper, or glazed with maple syrup and whisky, all made from sustainably-sourced, sushi grade fish in Eagle’s small Sussex smokehouse – quickly went on to supply Ocado, Waitrose and a host of other farm shops, delis and fine food stores. 

Sink or swim: the rise of the ‘lockdown-preneur’

But then came the 2020 annus horribilis. “We lost about 97% of our core business in the space of about six weeks,” ​Eagle revealed to FoodNavigator. "I had my head in my hands for a few days. As a little food brand, we'd got into Fortnum and Mason and Selfridges. Now they were closed, and we lost Ocado and Waitrose. I thought, where else can we sell this premium smoked fish product?"

The blow of the pandemic incentivized thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs to start their own food collection and delivery businesses, according to a new report from the Accountancy Partnership​.

Over 600 new food businesses were created by Britons on furlough, while the number of registrations by those made redundant increased by a third (33%) from last year to create 1,450 new companies, signalling a wave of a new phenomenon of the enforced ‘lockdown-preneur’. Fourteen percent of new food collection and delivery registrations – around 1,270 enterprises – were the result of a need for an extra source of income.

Eagle’s was obviously an existing business. But this fertile, adapt or die atmosphere led him to seek to reinvent the business as a ‘D2C hero’. While one side of the business vanished, the online side quickly accelerated, he told us. “We were selling 900 packs a week to retailers. Now we're doing around 1,700 packs all online and we can't keep up with demand. I can’t make enough of it.”

james Eagle
'Consumers are looking to find inspiration through leaner, nutritious ‘healthier options’ that don’t short-change in terms of flavour': The Pished Fish founder, James Eagle

Eating in is the new eating out

The shift in consumer behaviour has further inspired the company to invent new flavours and formats. Lockdown created a new food category, explained Eagle, namely the trend of shoppers seeking permissive indulgence and restaurant-quality products at home. To tap this opportunity, The Pished Fish recently unveiled its ‘Gilltong’ product -- a snacking treat that’s halfway between jerky and biltong, but made with smoked salmon.

“Consumers are looking to find inspiration through leaner, nutritious ‘healthier options’ that don’t short-change in terms of flavour,”​ Eagle said. “Gilltong is made by taking prime fillets of smoked salmon, hand slicing them thickly before marinading them in teriyaki, honey, Tabasco sauce and black pepper. After marinading has taken place, each slice is diligently air-dried until chewy, succulent and tender. The taste is deliciously distinct, sweet, salty, a little bit spicy and very addictive.”

Rapid adaptability and agility… the key to innovation

Being free from the big retailer listings allows the company the nimbleness to explore and innovate, Eagle added.

“Before I would have to go through various buying committees and tasting panels then have to get it approved at various levels. Now I just say, ‘let's have a go at doing this’."

He added: “Realising that having one very big customer puts you in a very precarious position and you are essentially at their mercy, we decided to focus our energy online and grow the business that way having hundreds of individual customers each week, rather than just a few big ones. In some ways it takes us back to our market stall routes of selling direct to customers which is what puts a smile on our faces.”

Cutting out the middleman

Innovation is also aided by the greater knowledge Eagle now has about his consumers. "Through things like Facebook I can see the vast majority of our customers are female, mostly over 60, and cooking at home. Now I can tailor my emails and marketing correspondence to this group. When I was selling to Ocado I didn’t have this information. Ultimately, they were Ocado customers, not mine.”​ 

He added: "I was forced into learning how D2C works and managing the website and how to interact with customers. When I once saw us as a manufacturer with a web shop, I now see us as a retailer who manufacturers our own goods.

"I’m now in full control. I don't know for certain what direction the world is going in, but I think that people will keep shopping online. There's been a big helping hand from COVID, but this is a trend that's here to stay."

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