When the waiters in a quaint little restaurant in Cordova, Spain served Ahmad Al Jasmi a salt-baked fish, they didn’t just feed him a scrumptious meal for the day. They gave him a business idea of a lifetime.
Two years and 8000 miles down the road in Sharjah, 28-year-old Ahmad recounts the eureka moment that led to the creation of Salmonica, a home-based food service that delivers salt baked salmon to your doorstep.
“I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but as the waiters started knocking open the fish’s salt shell with a hammer, I knew in that moment I had to do it in the UAE. That’s when the idea for a business hit me.”
To follow a dream
Starved of passion in his job as a field surveyor and hungry for a sense of purpose, Ahmad resigned from his job and turned for answers to the road often taken by millennials – travel. In a fortunate turn of events, his holiday across southern Europe acquired him stunning Instagram posts and a lucrative food business model that today has the patronage of consumers from across the UAE.
“I quit my job because I wanted to start a business but I wasn’t sure what,” he explains. The distinctiveness of the salt baking method cemented his resolve to pursue it as a business but not before delving into some solid market research.
Once back from his European sojourn, Ahmad set out to investigate if there were restaurants exclusively serving salt-baked fish existed in the UAE and tested out his competition by dining at the venues. “The UAE does have restaurants that serve salt baked fish and the dish is as good as what they serve abroad but these restaurants are high-end, fancy places. They’re also overpriced for the portions they were serving.”
And that’s the gap he decided to exploit – affordability.
Big proportions for small prices, small spaces for big dreams
The large salmon whose belly Ahmad deftly slits through with a knife is the length of a toddler. The pink fish looms even larger against the backdrop of the small repurposed shipping container docked in a corner of his family home’s courtyard that does double duty as Salmonica’s kitchen and stockroom.
“I don’t do small portions, only big portions,” Ahmad reiterates as he upends a giant bag of rock salt into a tub and moistens it with water and egg whites.
My family loved the idea and have supported me from the beginning. They were on board even before it was a success. Fish is something I’ve grown up eating – my ancestors come from an island; we’re fishermen by ancestry.... The average Emirati family is made up of 5-9 people, so that’s the consumer I’m targeting and that’s what makes my take on this concept [salt-baked salmon] innovative. I also ensure it’s a meal by serving rice with the fish as we [Emiratis] eat rice with everything – it’s a dish that gathers people together and represents family gatherings and feasts.
“The average Emirati family is made up of 5-9 people, so that’s the consumer I’m targeting and that’s what makes my take on this concept innovative. I also ensure it’s a meal by serving rice with the fish as we [Emiratis] eat rice with everything – it’s a dish that gathers people together and represents family gatherings and feasts.”
As his salt-crusted salmon gathers families around the dinner tables in distant corners of the UAE, it also rallied his extended family to pitch in and help him run the business. On the day of Food by gulfnews.com’s visit, two of the 7-member unit that handles the running of Salmonica have squeezed themselves into the tiny kitchen space and show support by scuttling around as Ahmad’s sous-chefs du jour.
Brother Ibrahim is an avid photographer who envisions and executes Salmonica’s social media campaigns. Aunt Fatma holds the fort and single-handedly runs the show when Ahmad is off at his day job as an earth observation researcher in the UAE University Al Ain’s planetary sciences department. She’s been involved in the project from the ground floor up and has believed in the concept wholeheartedly since day 1. Hers is the voice customers are used to hearing on the phone when they ring up to place orders. It’s why Ahmad happily calls her the co-founder.
“My family loved the idea and have supported me from the beginning. They were on board even before it was a success,” he explains, as he’s opening up the incision he’s made on the salmon’s belly and lining it with lemon leaves.
There were operational and logistical hurdles of figuring out a location and setting up a kitchen, the financial hiccups of getting a brand-new business up-and-running and then the conundrum of marketing a fresh concept.
Mastering the technique needs patience
Then there was the task of mastering a cooking technique perfected by chefs in fully equipped professional kitchens. At the start, disasters came in thick and fast: The salt-crust would char and the fish would remain-undercooked, or the salt would crack open while cooking, and before the industrial ovens were rolled in, the baking took place in the gas ovens of the Al Jasmi household’s kitchen.
“None of us have professional cooking backgrounds, so it took a lot of testing, and trial and error but we eventually figured out the perfect quantity of salt and the exact amount of baking time,” Ahmad said.
The internet was a massive resource – Ahmad learnt about the specifics and minutiae of salt baking through a lot of reading and YouTube videos. It taught him to leave the fish-head uncovered by salt so he could look it in the eye and gauge if it’s cooked.
His cooking journey, however, began years before by cooking beans in the university dorm.
In fact, Ahmad backs up in time some more to his childhood spent in his grandmother’s kitchen watching her cook Qubab (fried Tuna with local spices). It’s where cooking hooked him line and sinker. “She’s my inspiration, and we used to eat that fish weekly, so it’s what motivates me to continue that tradition but in a new method,’ he reminisces, as he lays the salmon on a snowy bed of salt placed on an aluminium tray. This marks the beginning of the ‘bedding’ process of the preparation. In the midst of conversation, he contours heaps of coarse salt into a smooth mound, mirroring the fish’s shape. Similar to a sand artist or a baker, Ahmad uses a kitchen chisel to shape the salt encasing.
So why salmon then. Why not his grandmother’s tuna or a local variety of fish?
“I chose salmon because it tastes different from the local fish Emiratis are used to consuming and it’s healthy and the huge portion sizes give me an edge over my competition. Moreover, it’s available here all year long,” he says, referring to the UAE’s thriving salmon farms.
I chose salmon because it tastes different from the local fish Emiratis are used to consuming and it’s healthy and the huge portion sizes give me an edge over my competition. Moreover, it’s available here all year long [UAE salmon farms]
This perennial availability of salmon has helped craft Salmonica’s identity as a single-dish specialty, which has been a major contributor to its success.
“Fish is something I’ve grown up eating – my ancestors come from an island; we’re fishermen by ancestry,” he explains with emotion, transferring the tray of fish into one of the two industrial ovens housed in the shipping-container-turned-kitchen.
“[Fish] is in our blood.”
From around the world to the UAE
Ahmad’s chosen cooking technique to honour his family’s links to fishing and the ocean is one that has been around for centuries and crops up across the world. The oldest recorded salt-baking recipe to exist is of Salt-Baked Chicken from Dong Jing in Guangdong during China’s Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Out by the Mediterranean coast, Southern Italy, France and Spain all have their own interations of the cooking method.
For years, this cooking method has been treasured for the salt crust’s ability to seal in moisture and allowing the seasoning to infuse into the meat. The kiln-like effect of the salt enclosure also traps and distributes heat evenly, cooking the fish in its own juices.
Fast forward to the present-day Spain, and the cooking practice lives on in the salt flat-rich provinces of Murcia and Andalusia, where the fish of choice are seabass and seabream – fish that are served by Ahmad’s competitors in the UAE.
It is also the predominant fare of Breamnation, Ahmed’s second food-based venture that he runs out of the Salmonica kitchen in Sharjah as well.
Single kitchen, double the business ideas
Paralleling both the salt-baked method and Ahmad’s journeys around the world, Breamnation’s recipes are themed after countries and the fish are cooked in ingredients synonymous with a particular cuisine and come in smaller portions. So, a Korean-style fish is baked in Korean Gochujang sauce and Mexican-style fish is slathered in avocado paste reminiscent of guacamole.
While they differ in recipes and portion sizes, Salmonica and Breamnation are united by the salt baking method and the lavish meal combo packaging.
A Salmonica meal box is a self-contained feast – Dh399 gets you a bucket of aromatic Turkish rice, a humongous salt-crusted salmon, fresh juice with chia seeds, three sauces (pesto, tahini and Ahmad’s secret sauce) and a salad of rocket leaves and tomatoes that come from the Al Jasmi family farm. Even the lemon leaves lining the salmon’s belly come from the lemon tree in the courtyard.
Keeping it fresh
Home-grown is a label Ahmad takes seriously: “When our farm’s growing season is over, we continue sourcing it from other vertical farms and support UAE producers.”
He’s also a stickler for freshness and refuses to buy frozen fish. What that means is a member of the Al Jasmi family handpicks fish from the docks each morning, often travelling to a neighbhouring emirate’s seafood market.
Ahmad also has his own troop of drivers and vans who deliver to Ajman, Dubai, Sharjah and even Ras Al Khaimah and doesn’t rely on food aggregators. “Also, the boxes are too big to fit into a motorcycle container. We also don’t want to break the salt crush or have to cut up the fish, although it’d be convenient because the drama of cracking open the salt crust and the drama of it is our USP,” he explains. “Generally in the UAE, fish is mainly fried or grilled or [cooked] in a stew. So this method is a new experience to people here.”
Customer satisfaction has always trumped convenience for Ahmad – word-of-mouth is what has buoyed him through the Covid-19 slump for food businesses. For a fledgling enterprise like Ahmad’s it could have spelt shutters down especially with a 70-80 per cent drop in orders in April 2020 when curfew was enforced and people were scared to order food from outside. But instead, Salmonica bounced back stronger.
Home run for home-run businesses
“But at no point during the pandemic did I consider closing the business because it’s a home-run business and we hardly have any overhead costs. The expenses are minimum. I only had to pay staff.”
It’s one of the many reasons he believes home-run food businesses is the way to go for aspiring entrepreneurs. Scaling down is the smart way to start a business. “The financial burden is minimal and opening a new restaurant or shop is just very hard right now – it’s why I’ve put my own plans on expanding into a restaurant on hold.”
His other core advice to budding home-run businesses are: “You need to have patience to wait for success.”
• Always plan ahead and have a day job when you start your business. You will need to invest financially in the beginning for the business to survive and bring in profits.
• Always know your consumers and your competition – be aware of your advantages and disadvantages and play to them.
• Attend seminars for small businesses conducted by government economic departments. They prep you with the basic foundation of how to build a business from scratch.
Our patience has paid off and the baked salmon that Ahmad retrieves from the oven is a salty success.
He smashes the crust open with a gavel (a complimentary accessory in every Salmonica meal box). As he gently prises off the salt shell, the salmon skin peels away too, revealing a perfectly baked fillet that flakes apart at the touch of a fork. For a dish smothered in salt, the fish is surprisingly just the right side of briny. With a delicate hint of citrus…
“From the lemon leaves in the belly,” Ahmad reminded, smiling. “The fish skin creates a natural barrier between the flesh and the salt crust,” he adds.
Ahmad’s success is a giant step for small business owners and sets an encouraging precedent. “I wanted to make a high-end dish easily available to anyone looking for it.” For about Dh57 (per head) combined with a doorstep delivery, it’s safe to say Ahmad’s made his dream come true.
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