'I knew nothing about fish,' admits John Kenny, harking back to the days when he first joined Atlantis Seafoods back in 1997, when it was a three-men-and-a-van operation. 'If you want to learn something, you learn quick. I could write a book about fish now.'
These days, John can distinguish between ling and haddock at a glance, offer off-the-cuff insights into the anatomy of lemon sole, or speak with authority on the virtues of woodchip in the smoking of salmon. These days, the Atlantis order book spans 22 counties, while the workforce is closing fast on the 50 mark. Where the rest of the economy is haunted by recession, the talk in Atlantis is of beating the downturn with plans for expansion.
Sixteen years ago, Atlantis was already two years old but the enterprise was faltering. It comprised one modest fish shop in Wexford's Redmond Square, which was obliged to close in order to allow the re-development of the area. It appeared that Atlantis might become as mythical as the lost land that inspired the name. But then John O'Connor, who was already involved, discovered that John Kenny was interested in venturing out on his own. A change of management, a change of direction and a change of location were instigated.
'I had nothing to do with the old Atlantis,' recalls John, a Gorey man who not only knew zip about fish but also confesses he has never so much as owned a rod and has never set foot on a trawler for fear of being horribly seasick. He comes from earth-bound farming stock and his qualification was bestowed by the agriculture department in UCD, far from the ocean wave.
Back in 1997, he was in his early thirties and working as a branch manager with Wexford Farmers' Co-op at stores in Monamolin and Wexford. With a young family to look after, it was not the most obvious time for him to give up a steady job and do his own thing – but he had the entrepreneurial itch.
'I took a massive risk. People told me I was crazy,' he recalls with a wry smile. Atlantis certainly started small, renting a unit at the back of the Strandfield business park beside the Rosslare Road in Wexford from Tom O'Brien. Soon they were back looking to Tom for another unit, then another and another before they finally acquired the old Fine Wool factory next door and converted the building from textiles to meet the highest of food processing standards: 'We spent a lot of money on it,' as John Kenny says proudly.
It became clear that Atlantis had found a niche in the market, buying fish being landed in Wexford in large quantity and supplying the catering trade. The Talbot Hotel and local restaurants were their first customers. The firm revived the retail arm at Redmond Square for a while but the main growth was in dealing with chefs rather than with the general public.
It was in 2001 that Mark O'Connor, with his degree in business, replaced his father John at Strandfield, just as Atlantis was poised to take a leap forward on the back of the Celtic Tiger. John Kenny and Mark now serve as joint managing directors, with the older man concentrating on production while the newer recruit plots the marketing. It has proven to be a very effective combination.
Expansion has been almost entirely on the wholesale side, gradually fanning out from the home base in Wexford to embrace broad swathes of the island. The company has a fleet of 15 vans on the road, with a couple of runs daily to Dublin alone. The distribution network does not extend to Donegal or Sligo but most of the remainder of the Republic is now covered.
The majority of what they deliver is landed in Co. Wexford, though the salmon is imported and the comparatively small quantities of trout they handle were farmed in the waters of the Nore at not so far away Goatsbridge in Co. Kilkenny. The volume of fish, from scallops to sole, mussels to mackerel, had increased a couple of years ago to the level where the stage where production was put on a round-the-clock footing, with Sunday now the only day off.
The factory uses ice by the tonne and temperatures are cool all year round with white wellies and blue rubber aprons uniform attire. Attention to quality control is constant because the raw material is so perishable. A beef steak may benefit from ageing but the same logic does no apply to a freshly caught cod. The imperative is to ensure that it remains fresh.
Speed of turnover is assisted by specialist machines capable of removing bones or of dividing a fillet into precise, laser controlled portions of exactly correct weight. Nevertheless, staff still need to practise traditional skills with knife in hand. Atlantis provides its own training in how to turn out neat product that does not look as though it has been hacked to bits.
John Kenny recalls that, during the heady days of the boom, one of the biggest threats to the well-being of the business was the lack of skilled manpower. Adverts were placed in newspapers seeking to recruit factory workers, which elicited no response whatsoever. The solution was to recruit Lithuanian and Latvian personnel, who still make up half of the work-force on the factory floor, though local workers are now back on the books, post-economic collapse.
Fashion in fish has changed, of course. The monkfish, with its big grinning mouth, seldom made it back to port 10 years ago, discarded as practically un-saleable. Now monk tails feature at high price on many of the most exclusive menus. Everyone still wants cod, lemon sole and haddock, which tends to push up the price, but there are still some economy species. Ling, for instance, almost all used to go for export but is now finding a place in Irish frying pans at a nice price.
'We want to grow as big as possible,' says Atlantis Seafood joint managing director John Kenny as he contemplates the changing state of the market. The restaurant sector, for more than a decade the principal target, has stalled since the expense accounts of the Tiger were cancelled.
On the other hand, the taste for fish has grown in line with Continental taste buds. Atlantis Seafoods has a track record of supplying some local supermarkets but the quantity involved in the 'retail' side of its activity is relatively small.
The joint managing director's logic is that the company must now follow the money and reach out to more households with products which are geared for easy cooking at home. At the moment, 90 per cent of their output goes into the restaurant/wholesale trade, with 10 per cent going for re-sale in shops. Their mission is to make the balance 50-50, with ambitions to add some exporting into the mix.
The Wexford outfit's plans fit in neatly with the approach of Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia, which see most of the Irish seafood catch going for export more or less as it came to shore. The local economies around Kilmore, Killybegs and the rest would benefit from more value being added to the raw material. So they have backed Atlantis in the quest to perfect a recipe for a fish banger.
'We cannot take on Birds Eye but we have opened a lot of eyes with our seafood sausage,' John says proudly. The concept is simple enough but research and development conducted with chef Brendan Byrne and John Fagan from the National Food Centre took at least a year to complete, with the assistance of helpful grant aid. The trick is to hit on a combination which will not burst open easily during cooking.
The new sausage, containing a gluten-free blend of haddock and salmon, drew queues of curious customers to their stand at last year's Bloom festival in the Phoenix Park. Dunnes Stores now stocks this ground-breaking product in 40 shops and Tesco has begun to place orders too. Meanwhile, salesman Michael Reid continues to spread the fish sausage gospel with a born showman's enthusiasm wherever any member of the public can be induced to try a taste.
Other attempts to capture the imagination are in the pipeline. Smoked haddock goujon, anyone? Or how about surf'n'turf, Atlantis style? The turf is supplied by black pudding, while the surf is a scallop. It is a lovely combination as a starter for a nice meal but it has yet to capture the imagination of the general public in Ireland.
Stand by too for the salmon quarter pounder, which is at prototype stage. All these new products are made in-house at Strandfield business estate. John Kenny believes four extra hands hired so far could be in at the beginning of something that could grow to be very important: 'The jobs potential is huge.'
Meanwhile, he is also keeping watch on the UK, where close to 70 million people may possibly be tempted to enjoy the delights of a Wexford seafood sausage along with the rest of the Atlantis catalogue. Surely, discerning buyers can be found cross-Channel for the range of fish coming out of the smoke-house in Wexford.
'The potential in the UK is brilliant,' he muses. 'We only need a miniscule piece of that market and we would be happy. We are now trying to get sales over the line.' Towards that end, they are evolving the Kilmore Quay brand. The name Atlantis may reek appropriately of the sea but Kilmore is a specific place and, according to marketing lore, the consumer loves a story such as a real location provides.
Wexford's principal trawler port, home to the O'Flaherty fleet, gives off the right vibe.