We talk to Michael O’Donnell about herring, mackerel and the efforts of the Killybegs-based Atlantic Treasures brand to bring seafood into the 21st century.
My father started the family business back in 1986, processing fish from the boats for export to mainland Europe, Russia, Africa and China. A few years ago we launched Atlantic Treasures, a seafood brand that caters to those looking for something that’s healthy, ready to eat and a little bit different. We wanted to bring seafood into the 21st century and we were keen to add glazes and flavours that hadn’t been done before, so we worked with St Angela’s College in Sligo to develop two smoked mackerel products, one with a honey and mustard glaze and one with a ginger, chilli and lime glaze.
We subsequently did some in-store tastings that resulted in us being listed with Superquinn, and then we won the Blas na hEireann award for innovation. The products themselves won gold and silver awards, which gave us a huge boost, and it all kind of snowballed from there with listings in Musgraves, Dunnes Stores, BWG, Tesco and smaller shops and retailers. People were coming back saying ‘I’ve never tasted anything like that before’.
There were those who still liked the old reliable plain and peppered flavours, but they wanted our quality of fish. That spurred us on to come up with plain and peppered versions that were a bit more appealing, so we developed a mixed peppercorn version instead of the plain black pepper everyone else uses and we used a maple-smoked wood to develop a maple-smoked mackerel, which was a bit different.
What makes the fish you source and supply so unique?
We’re there at every stage in the process from buying from the boat, to processing to smoking, so we do everything from start to finish, or as we call it from boat to basket. The reason why people taste the difference in our fish is that we buy directly from the boats in Killybegs, which means we can pick from the cream of the crop. Oily fish such as herring and mackerel are high in protein and omega 3 and 6, and we test the fish to make sure the right fat content is there and it’s the right quality.
We handpick the best, highest fat content you can get, so our fish would be anything from 18-22%. The higher fat content means that there’s a better taste and texture to the fish and when it’s smoked there’s more moisture in it, whereas if you smoke lower fat content fish it gets dried out and can be a bit flaky and chalky. Because it’s very high in protein and good omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, it’s really healthy and good for you.
What have been the main challenges for you?
When we launched Atlantic Treasures we didn’t realise what we were getting into, because even though it was still fish, it was completely different to what we’d done before. We were used to selling to the export market, but never into the Irish market and never into retail, so we joked that we may as well have been selling sweets before that. You want to tell a story through your brand and you have 15 different messages but how do you translate that into one logo?
Budgets aren’t the same for a small family business as they are for bigger brands, so you have to be smart about what you’re doing and adapt almost every strategy to cater to what you have available. I’ve learned more from networking than from anything else. People like to see Irish food and Irish food businesses succeed and small businesses in Ireland are still willing to help you out, so whether it’s at Taste of Dublin or Bloom, there’s always a real camaraderie to it.
You were one of the first fish companies to join Origin Green, but the sustainability aspect has always been in your DNA.
Yeah, my father always looked at the environmental side of things and even if it cost more money, his focus was always on telling the sustainability story. Our staff has a good grasp of our ethos and often come up with things that are more environmentally friendly and I think that’s key. If you’re going to have a green ethos it needs to filter through to everybody. Over the past 10-25 years we’ve done numerous things to reduce our carbon footprint, including making improvements to cold storage, using rainwater harvesting and monitoring our electricity consumption. In 2007 we commissioned our hydroelectricity plant, which generates around 65% of the factory’s electricity needs, and we have plans to build our 500kw wind turbine later this year.
What else can we look forward to seeing from Atlantic Treasures and where can people find your products?
We’re about to launch four new marinated herring products based on recipes developed by a good friend of ours, who previously worked as a chef in Finland. When she came to Ireland she worked initially with BIM, putting a modern twist on recipes handed down from her mother and grandmother and we worked with her on the production end for three years. We thought the products were a good fit for our brand ethos, so when she wanted to get out of the business we ended up buying her out, and we’re currently incorporating the products as part of our Atlantic Treasures ‘Nordic Style’ range.
Three years ago we got listed with Pan Euro foods, who bring Irish products to the UAE, and now we’re in Alosra Supermarket in Bahrain, Tchoitrms in Dubai and City Super in Singapore. You’ll find us in most supermarkets here at home too.
Words: Martina Murray
Main Image: Michael O’Donnell with his father Mick O’Donnell at the Bord Bia Food and Drink Awards