Factory Tour: Acme Smoked Fish Corporation
Creating an age-old product that’s just hitting its mainstream stride, Acme knows smoked fish. A tour of its factory sheds light on this prosperous company’s humble beginnings, its commitment to high quality, and a taste of things still to come.
Once deemed the smoked fish capital of the country, Brooklyn, N.Y., has seen a swiftly changing landscape in the past 50 years, from mid-century industrialization to modern-day gentrification. Some historic elements remain—among them, Acme Smoked Fish Corporation, which has grown to become one of the largest smoked-fish producers in the country. Its secret to success: steady evolution, a far-reaching commitment to quality, and embracing its roots and the community in which it resides.
Timeless Products for a Modern Market
Seafood consumption in the U.S. has been on a slight decline in recent years, but smoked fish is gaining, and Acme is helping to lead the charge. “The company has been growing at a rate of 8 percent over the past four years,” says Gabriel Viteri, Acme’s vice president of strategy and business development. And while the supplier has some West Coast competition in the likes of Ocean Beauty Seafood, as far as the Northeast is concerned, Acme is king.
It all began in 1954 at a 10,000-square-foot factory at 26 Gem Street, a small building in an industrial stretch of North Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. “Over the years it’s expanded to the point where we pretty much take up the entire block of Gem Street,” Viteri says. Today, the factory is a sizable 65,000 square feet and the company’s main distribution hub for its range of smoked fish, salads (such as whitefish spread), herring, and other specialties. Producing some 20,000 pounds of fish daily—100,000 pounds per week—the Brooklyn facility is the largest individual smokehouse in the U.S.
Inside the Smokehouse
The factory stands on a quiet street, with the company’s presence indicated only by a sign bearing the Acme logo on the red brick building’s exterior. Inside, however, is a steady flow of activity. The company’s corporate offices sit on the north end of the building, with some 30 staffers, while the factory employs another 110 for production, which takes place from start to finish on-site.
All new employees go through rigorous training, says Viteri—even the corporate staff, who spend a week on the factory floor learning the production process. “Part of the orientation program here is getting your hands dirty,” he says. “At the end of the day we’re a manufacturing company … so I think having a good understanding of what is it that we make is important for the business.”
Receiving, Filleting, and Curing. Shipments of raw materials (the fish) arrive at the factory two to four days a week, and the first production shift begins at 4 a.m. In preparation for the smoking process, fish are first cured, either by wet-brining or dry-salting. The wet cure is typically used for larger fillets and whole fish (as used by appetizing stores around the city), in which the fish soaks in a house-made bath of sugar, salt, and seasonings. Smaller fillets—such as those in Acme’s packaged products—are typically dry-cured, for which workers season the fish by hand. Curing times vary, from several hours to several days.
On a Tuesday morning in April, heaps of 20-pound Norwegian and Chilean salmon wait in several large bins in what’s called the Wet Room. A team of 10 works deftly to slice fish with precision, preparing 14,000 pounds each day. Spare parts don’t go to waste, says Caitlin Bajo, Acme’s marketing and sales specialist, as sushi chefs often buy the skin and heads discarded in the filleting process.
Cold-Smoking and Hot-Smoking. Two methods of smoking are in use at Acme. By law, only salmon, tuna, and sable can be cold-smoked, while all other fish—whitefish, trout, sturgeon, and others—are hot-smoked. (Acme also hot-smokes some tuna and salmon.) The company uses only alder and cherry wood chips for the smoking process.
Entering a room with six giant hot-smokers, Bajo notes that this is the very space in which the company began in 1954. Each smoker holds up to 2,000 pounds of fish at a time. The process requires, at minimum, internal temperatures to reach 145 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 30 minutes, Viteri explains.
Cold-smoking is a longer process that involves drying the fish. The cold-smoking room, at 2,585 square feet, houses 20,000 pounds of fish for a 20-hour smoking time. Temperatures average 70 degrees, Viteri notes, never exceeding 85 degrees (at which point fish would begin to cook).
Slicing and Packaging. While high-end buyers can get orders hand-sliced, Acme uses slicing machines for its commercial products. The company recently upgraded its slicing machines to high-tech models that can process about 200 fillets per hour per slicer. These slicers aren’t just fast; scanners and measuring devices make them truly smart tools. “Many of the slicers adjust automatically to the shape and size of the fillet to optimize [slicing] and efficiency,” Viteri explains. Packaging is the final step, prior to which the smoked fish is cooled to 38 degrees or below to preserve freshness.
The continual challenges of maintaining freshness and maximizing shelf-life have pushed Acme to test new methods. “One of the challenges is keeping products fresh when exposed to the elements of a supermarket,” Viteri says. To adapt to growing concerns about nitrites in recent years—which came into play after vacuum-packing technology came along in the late 1970s—the company began substituting green tea in the Acme line as a natural antioxidant.
The Acme Family
Look no further for all your smoked seafood needs, as loyal customers across New York City’s retail and foodservice landscape will attest. More than 300 SKUs span five categories: smoked salmon, specialty smoked fish, herring, salads, and other specialties (such as the salmon-crepe collaborations with fellow Brooklyn producer Crepini). Some 85 to 90 percent of product is Atlantic salmon, sourced from Chile and Norway, says Gabriel Viteri, vice president of strategy and business development; all wild species, such as coho and sockeye, come from Alaska. Smoked salmon breaks down further into cold-smoked and hot-smoked. “Cold-smoked salmon happens to be growing at a faster rate than most other categories of fish that we smoke,” Viteri notes.
Four brands make up the Acme line: the namesake Acme, which Viteri calls “the most diverse”; all-natural and preservative-free Blue Hill Bay; innovation– and millennial-focused Ruby Bay; and Great American, a foodservice line exclusive to Florida, where the company has a separate production facility in Pompano Beach. Traditional packaged smoked salmon is the clear top seller, across all sizes, from 3 to 16 ounces.
In its first major rebranding effort, completed two years ago, Acme reinforced its Brooklyn roots and its authority as a leader of smoked fish. The initiative resulted in new packaging for every product and a redesigned website with a distinct emphasis on education and accessibility, featuring recipes, videos, and a seemingly endless resource for all things smoked fish. “We’re starting to see the effects and results of those changes,” Viteri says.
Regulations and Certifications
All Acme production facilities are BRC certified, but Acme’s adherence to safety, quality, and sustainability standards extends beyond on-site production. The company requires its suppliers to have Marine Stewardship Council or Best Aquaculture Practices certification, and representatives regularly visit fisheries as part of its quality management program.
Those visits not only ensure high-quality materials, but they also help build long-lasting relationships. One of the company’s biggest suppliers in Chile has been working with Acme for more than 20 years. “We’ve built these very long and loyal relationships to the point where, today, many of their sites have been designed to specifically produce for Acme so that their product complies with our standards and guidelines,” Viteri says. “There’s a lot of involvement.”
In an industry where a large percentage of customers are Jewish communities, kosher certification is essential. Virtually all of the company’s smoked fish products—excluding sturgeon, marlin, and keta salmon candy—are kosher certified. A rabbi oversees production at the facility, and materials that don’t meet kosher standards (such as sturgeon) are kept separate from all other products. Every year, in the weeks leading up to Passover, Acme makes modifications to production to adhere to kosher pareve rules, such as the substituting certain oils used in its salads, Bajo explains. It’s one of the company’s busiest times of year, with production and sales climbing by 15 to 20 percent, Viteri notes.
Opening Doors to the Community
While Jewish communities are still among the biggest consumers of smoked fish, the demographics are evolving as younger and experimental shoppers get hooked on the product. In fact, Acme’s launch of the Ruby Bay line in 2006 had foodies and millennials specifically in mind. “The ones that are willing to try new things, new flavors,” Viteri says. The line includes recently introduced salmon jerky, which Viteri calls “incredibly popular.”
Nowhere is the growing interest in smoked fish more evident than at Acme’s Fish Fridays, a day when the factory opens its doors to the local community to buy its fresh and packaged products at sharply reduced prices. Every Friday, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., the packaging area turns into a minimarket, offering up fresh smoked salmon fillets, packaged smoked fish, salads, jerky, herring, and more across the Acme, Blue Hill Bay, and Ruby Bay lines.
Shoppers are primarily neighborhood locals, but people have been known to come from all over the city and as far as Westchester County. Area news coverage—from the New York Times to smaller community papers—have brought in plenty of new customers. From young Brooklyn hipsters and parents with kids in tow, to Polish and Japanese locals, the line is a diverse cross-section of the city itself.
And what a line it is. Early morning wait times typically can be as short as 15 minutes, while peak times can bring the line out the door and down the block. “People wait in line 30, 40 minutes—an hour,” Viteri says in amazement. “They bring a book and read in line and wait.”
Fish Fridays have been a beloved local attraction for over a decade. Many see it as a hidden gem, Viteri says, which adds to its appeal—a secret only a select few have discovered. For the company, the benefit is a supportive and loyal community, and an opportunity to give back. “That’s one of the things that we try to keep alive, that engagement with community,” he says. “That we’re not just here producing product.”
Foodservice and Retail
Acme works just as feverishly to win the hearts of food industry leaders, which make up about half of the company’s customer base. The company supplies restaurants, caterers, delis, and appetizing stores around the city, as well as the occasional celebrity chef (Food Network host Aaron Sanchez has been known to drop in). Costco and Whole Foods Market are among those selling Acme smoked fish products; Barney Greengrass and David Burke restaurants, among others, serve them up.
In a particularly unique relationship, specialty retailer Zabar’s doesn’t just buy Acme products; until recently, the eldest Zabar, Saul, an octogenarian, still hand-picked his selections. (An assistant has taken over those duties.) “He [would come] every Wednesday and spend a couple of hours looking at every fish that his store is going to buy,” Viteri says.
The company doesn’t stop at products for industry buyers. Educational offerings are available for business customers. “They get special access to get additional resources,” Viteri notes. These include seminars, instructional videos, and guides covering topics as broad as production and as particular as slicing and deboning.
With smoked fish a flourishing category, Acme is on track to continue its growth. A new production facility is in the works in North Carolina, with plans to make it a state-of-the-art smokehouse. With an opening scheduled for the end of 2014, it’s been a company-wide effort years in the making. “Every year we’ve had times where we actually have sat with engineers and architects [planning] this dream factory,” Viteri says.
Aside from increasing overall production, the new factory will allow the Gem Street space to hand off some processes. With the extra space, the company is considering turning the Fish Friday concept into a full retail storefront, though concrete plans are still a few years out. One thing is certain: Acme’s future is looking bright. “A good majority of our growth is coming from just pure demand,” Viteri says. “People are just buying more.”
Four Generations and a Century of History
1905: Harry Brownstein, a Russian immigrant, begins selling smoked fish to appetizing stores around New York City from a horse-drawn wagon.
1937: Brownstein launches a smoked fish company in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with partner Mike Seltzerman.
1954: Brownstein opens his own smoked fish plant with his two sons; Acme Smoked Fish is incorporated and opens at 26 Gem Street in Greenpoint.
1968: Acme gains its first major supermarket clients; other local markets soon follow.
1969: Brownstein dies; his children take over the business.
1970–1972: Grandsons Robert and Eric Caslow join Acme, bringing in the third generation.
1978: The introduction of commercial vacuum-pack technology leads to the launch of Acme’s first line of smoked salmon packs.
1995: David Caslow, Eric’s son, joins the company as the start of the fourth generation.
2000: Acme debuts the Blue Hill Bay brand; the company establishes a West Coast office.
2005: Acme Smoked Fish of Florida, LLC, launches as a distribution center.
2006–2007: Ruby Bay brand debuts; Acme acquires Great American Smoked Fish Company.
2012: Acme undergoes a rebranding to unify all products and brands and grow education.
2014: A state-of-the-art production facility in North Carolina is slated to open by year’s end.
Acme Smoked Fish Corporation
30 Gem St., Brooklyn, NY 11222
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