All of us have a big idea from time to time. Only a relative few possess the passion, drive and unwavering belief in their idea to see it through to culmination. Even fewer can parlay the development and evolution of the idea into nearly a century’s worth of success. Shuckman’s Fish Co. & Smokery can count itself among the relative few, and as the company marks 99 years and four generations of ideas and ownership in 2017, there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of tenacity, zeal or pride in this business run by a small family with big dreams.
Established in 1918, Shuckman’s began as a butcher shop and grocery at 16th and Kentucky streets in Louisville’s West End. With the Shuckman family seeing their community through those challenging years of the early 20th century, the business soon became a neighborhood fixture. When the great flood of 1937 devastated Louisville, the Shuckmans opened their doors and provided neighbors with necessary provisions, running a tab for each customer in lieu of collecting payment.
“Every single tab was repaid—isn’t that amazing?” I am standing in the chilly center of Shuckman’s smoking facility and listening to fourth-generation owner Lauren Shuckman as she shares this story of her great-grandfather with me. Her hair is piled into a net, pulled away from her face, and her eyes shine brightly as she details her family’s legacy, while her father, Lewis Shuckman, scurries about the warehouse, moving from the chiller to the packaging line to the front office, contributing tidbits to the stories as he roams, his voice large and warm.
A.J. Shuckman, Lauren’s grandfather, would be challenged with bringing the business into the second half of the 1900s. A.J. inherited his father’s spirit and generosity while bringing his own ideas to the table, taking the business model in a direction unseen in Louisville at the time.
“In the 1950s, Sunday was shopping day, and it was always incredibly busy,” says Lewis. In a time when the custom was to wait at a counter while your meat was cut to order, Lewis says his father decided to designate a section of the store to precut, prepackaged meats so customers would have the option of avoiding the meat-counter line.
“The Kentucky Grocers Association thought he was crazy,” says Lewis, chuckling. “They said there was no way people would buy precut meat.” A.J. remained convinced his daring-for-the-times concept would succeed, and indeed it did, taking off on the spot and ushering in a whole new way of shopping for meat in Louisville.
To look around Shuckman’s headquarters today, it’s difficult to believe that meat was once the bread and butter of the business. Still located in West Louisville, but now at 30th and Main, the space is permeated by a delicate air of smoke and brine, and an array of smoked fish in just-sealed vacuum packs lines a large table, ready for shipment across the country. This great shift in focus—from meat to smoked fish—can be attributed to Lewis, who was struck by his own big idea in the early 1980s. With the meat market saturated and many larger-scale operations selling lower-quality products for less, Lewis determined that introducing fish into their offerings could help diversify the business. This idea played well with the diet trends of the times, and the demand for fish began to grow. Lewis honed his smoking techniques, and his smoked Kentucky trout gained a popular following among customers.
Pushing the smoked-fish-focused business model forward, Lewis allowed himself to consider pioneering a new product of the Kentucky waterways, one that would seem ill-fitting at first blush. “You don’t think of caviar when you think of Kentucky,” says Lauren. Enter the paddlefish, a species found in droves throughout the state’s natural waterways as well as fish farms. After sampling the delicate nature and pure flavor of the paddlefish’s roe, Lewis was convinced that the business’ future lay in this gourmet delight. Now, he just had to take on the task of convincing the rest of the community he was right.
“I had so many doors shut in my face, I lost count,” Lewis says with a laugh, describing his grassroots efforts to see his dream take root. Armed with gold tins of his Kentucky caviar, he made his way to all of the white-tablecloth restaurants in the city, finding it difficult to convince many to even sample this unique offering. Undeterred, Lewis pushed on and soon found a friend in one of Louisville’s most venerable dining institutions—The Oakroom at the Seelbach Hotel. Executive Chef Jim Gerhardt was passionate about featuring local cuisine on his menus, and he presented an open mind to Lewis. Luckily for both, the caviar made a positive impression on the fine dining set, and Lewis began to hear the phones ring, requests trickling in.
Business was good, and the Shuckman family continued to transition out of the meat business and exclusively into caviar and smoked fish. Educating the public about paddlefish caviar still proved to be a challenge, but Lewis found himself making a slow but steady headway. Then The New York Times called. The newspaper was working on a story about the burgeoning trend of American caviar and wanted to visit Shuckman’s smokehouse. The reporter happened to come for a tour the same day Shuckman’s was hosting a group of aquaculture experts from Ukraine. The Ukrainians, who knew a thing or two about quality caviar, heaped nothing but praise on Shuckman’s roe, and The New York Times made sure to spread the word across the nation.
Native Kentuckian and television journalist Diane Sawyer took notice, and the Shuckman family soon watched in disbelief as their caviar was tasted alongside the finest fish eggs in the world on Good Morning America. What’s more, the experts on the show gave their approval. Lewis’ paddlefish eggs—trademarked as spoonfish caviar—were now firmly in demand and remain so to this day.
Busier than ever, Shuckman’s Fish Co. & Smokery remains a family affair, and Lauren is a fixture of the day-to-day operations, continuing the family legacy. She’s also making her own mark on the business. Four years ago, Lauren helped her family dive into the world of artisanal cheese, using their smokers to infuse mozzarella, blue cheese and cheddar, and crafting their own pimento cheese, beer cheese and Benedictine blends.
Blue ribbons and first-place placards line the office walls, all awarded for the cheeses they’ve entered into the Kentucky State Fair. Lauren has big dreams for how she can continue to develop this new end of their business—the smoked blue cheese already is one of the overall best sellers—and sees it as a perfect complement to the spoonfish caviar and smoked fish (salmon, paddlefish, trout, mackerel, whitefish and catfish) the company sells.
As the Shuckmans prepare to enter their 100th year in business, they show no signs of slowing down. After noticing pictures of her two young, smiling sons atop her desk, I ask Lauren if they’ve identified a fifth-generation owner yet. “I don’t know,” she says. “I guess, though … you know my youngest, he is just like my dad. If I don’t watch him, he’ll start trying to invent stuff in his room.”
It is this curious spirit that has served the Shuckman family so well, a spirit that has flourished decade after decade, generation after generation. And it is a spirit that is in no danger of dimming any time soon.