Shindle runs hot-smoke empire

Steve Shindle has been curing his own salmon and cheese for 48 years and, during the last two years, has turned his hobby into a hot-smoked empire.

When Shindle was 19 he was an avid fisherman, catching so many so often that he decided to build a cedar smokehouse and cure the fish himself. It became a lifelong hobby that grew to include cheese. When he retired from his safety management position at Boeing 10 years ago, he began smoking salmon and cheese in even greater volumes.

“It just started growing larger and larger until it made sense to turn it into a business,” he said.

Today, based on word of mouth alone, Steve’s “Hot” Smoked Cheese and Salmon products are sold in 72 businesses, and Shindle has fulfilled individual orders coming from around the world. He has four contractors smoking and selling product, and he has concrete plans to expand his number of contractual sellers agreements to 10.

Shindle and his contractors are all fully licensed and inspected by the state Department of Agriculture. Together, they shipped more than 11,000 pounds of salmon and more than 5,000 pounds of cheese last year.

“It’s not a backyard operation,” he said. “I mean, we do operate in our backyards, but it’s not a ‘backyard’ operation.”

Shindle started the business in the midst of the 2008 recession and gained customers exclusively by word-of-mouth. He didn’t want to publish details of his business’ finances, but he said he was “well into the black.”

The process is simple: Shindle and his contractors pick up fresh-killed salmon and Wisconsin soft cheddar cheese. The fish are gutted and cleaned, the cheese is cut into quarter-pound bricks, and both are placed in their respective smokehouses with a propane burner, where they stay for several hours until they’re ready to be vacuum-sealed for shipping and storage.

It’s the hot smoking process that gives his product its quality, Shindle said. Many competing products, he said, are made in smokehouses where the burner is far away from the meat or cheese, ensuring that the smoke is cold by the time it’s in the smokehouse. Shindle places the burner closer so that his products receive hot smoke throughout the process.

Current contractors working with Shindle under a seller’s agreement are in Buckley, South Prairie, Olympia and Yakima.

Shindle holds potential contractors to a high standard of scrutiny before he allows them to represent his brand. Before he even considers the quality of product that the person will produce, he pays close attention to their lifestyle and character during interviews.

“First of all, I look at their stability,” he said. “They don’t have to be in the area. I basically want a good Christian person who’s going to be trustful.”

The quality training is also rigorous. After helping contractors set up their smokehouses, Shindle has them repeat the smoking process again and again until he can’t distinguish their product from his own. It isn’t until the contractors meet Shindle’s high personal standard of quality that they are allowed to release their product to the market.

Beyond his home-scale contractors, Shindle is taking meetings with Galaxy Nutritional Foods in California and another grocer in Oregon. Galaxy alone ships 11,000 pounds a week of Tillamook cheese.

“That’s mind-boggling to us,” Shindle said.

But Shindle still takes personal orders of Steve’s “Hot” Smoked Cheese and Salmon. He can be reached for orders at 360-829-2244.

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