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28 July 2018

Smoked Salmon

Tag(s): Politics & Economics, Business, Sport, People
My wife and I recently visited H. Forman & Son, home of the world famous London Cure smoked Scottish salmon, a true gourmet food with protected status. The Forman family has been curing and smoking fish in the East End of London since 1905. Today the smokehouse produces H. Forman & Son specialities for leading food retailers and their chefs create top quality restaurant dishes – fish, meat and vegetarian, for hotels and fine-dining establishments across the world.

We toured part of the smokehouse and saw a live demonstration of slicing fresh smoked salmon by the holder of the Guinness Book of Records for this skill. Forman’s are passionate about their London Cured smoked salmon which they have been producing for four generations, so it was a proud day for them when their ‘London Cure’ smoked salmon was recognised as a delicacy worthy of PGI certification[i] – a protected food name status similar to Champagne, Roquefort, Parma ham, Melton Mowbray pork pies and Wensleydale cheese to name just a few.

The present owner Lance Forman gave a fascinating talk about his family history- his great grandfather came to England to escape the Russian pogroms and set up a business curing salmon as many of his fellow immigrants did in the East End. At first they continued to use Norwegian salmon which took several days to arrive by boat. Then they discovered the marvellous Scottish salmon which could be brought to London by train in less than a day.

Lance was educated at Cambridge University, where he became President of the Union, and before joining the family business qualified as an accountant with PwC, advised the Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP when he was in the Cabinet, and developed some property interests when opportunities in Eastern Europe opened up. All of this was useful experience as the fortunes of the business were mixed. He nearly lost his factory to flood and then did lose it to fire. He rebuilt it to a higher standard but then he lost that to the might of the London Olympics.

This is not really a blog about smoked salmon but about how, far from the London Olympics being a force for regeneration, it was the exact opposite. It slowed down regeneration that was already taking place in the area and put hundreds of businesses out of business. That H. Forman & Sons survived is tribute to the remarkable fighting qualities and resilience of Lance, his family and his staff.

On 6th July 2005, the world held a collective breath as IOC president Jacques Rogge declared: ‘The games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the city of ….London.’ For many British this was cause for jubilation and literally dancing in the streets. For Forman’s and its neighbouring businesses on the designated site it was a potential death sentence.

The area around Stratford was already a scene of thriving regeneration. The Stratford City project was going well. The high speed rail links to Stratford International were in place. The industrial park that had been chosen as the principal site for the development of new stadia for a two-week sporting celebration was already the home of 350 local businesses employing 12,000 people. When the Games took place much was made of the 11,000 jobs created. But most of these were temporary volunteer jobs, while most of the 12,000 full-time jobs were destroyed forever.

In his remarkable book Forman’s Games[ii] Lance Forman pulls no punches in an unexpurgated account about how he and his colleagues tried to deal with bullying and obfuscation, delaying tactics and sinister undercover dealings by the combined forces of the establishment, concerned with just the single object of putting on a show. In that they succeeded but in the creation of a legacy that justified the enormous cost to the tax payer and to individual businessmen they almost totally failed.

The smoked salmon business is, of course, dealing with a perishable commodity. It literally receives many of its orders overnight from restaurant chefs who leave a message on an answerphone. When his factory burnt down Lance’s main concern was to get hold of the answering machine so that he could still fulfil the overnight orders. The firemen barred his entrance but he insisted and together with a brave member of staff they retrieved the machine and saved at least the day’s orders.

Forman’s reputation with its customers is such that they might survive a day or two’s missed production but not more. So when the London Development Authority unfairly acquired Compulsory Purchase Order powers to build the stadia Lance’s main concern was the lead time he would get to find a new convenient site and to build a new factory.

Compulsory Purchase Powers are not available to the government and its agencies just to build new entertainment facilities. They must be used for some higher purpose such as regeneration. And this is what the LDA used as its argument. But the regeneration was already going well. Lance surmises in the book that the LDA did not really want the London bid to succeed but were hoping that the Paris bid would win as indeed most commentators and the bookies all thought would happen. They underestimated the sales qualities of Tony Blair, Princess Anne, Sebastian Coe and David Beckham. They also underestimated the blundering of President Jacques Chirac who said the only food worse than the British was the Finnish. The Finns held one of the key casting votes as previously undecided and promptly sided with London.

Once the Games were awarded to London the LDA had no choice but to swing into action and file a series of CPOs against 350 thriving businesses in the area. Lance tells how they did everything possible to delay and obfuscate, sometimes telling blatant untruths about the availability of alternative sites. Lance was effectively doing two jobs now: his normal job of trying to run a successful food business and the unwelcome but unavoidable one of dealing with a bunch of bureaucrats in his efforts to keep the business alive.

He needed a minimum of two years’ notice to locate and build his new factory. Eventually after gargantuan efforts he succeeded in finding a location right next to the site of the new stadium across the river. His old factory was the last to be destroyed and the authorities insisted on sticking to a quite unreasonable deadline in Forman’s vacating the premises. Having stuck to the deadline Lance was then mortified to see that no new action took place on his site for many weeks. As he developed his new site he saw many opportunities to use it to expand his business and create a hospitality venue and tourist destination. As the run up to the Games developed there were many who thought he was now sitting on a gold mine for potential extra business over the period of the Games.
But again the authorities frustrated every attempt to do this. He found that whatever he planned the Olympic Games ‘police’ would thwart him. Some of the Games volunteers, the so-called Games Makers, were enlisted to tear down all his promotional material. Indeed this was the experience across London. The centre of London became a ghost town as restaurants closed their doors. Everyone had been put off by the warnings of the IOC about traffic and so on.

A very senior civil servant once told me that the initial costings of the Games had been hastily written ‘back-of-the-envelope' estimates.  Noone really thought that London would win. When Arup was commissioned to do an analysis of these costings they made it clear that they were inadequate and would need serious revision but no such action took place.

One of my jobs involves regular visits to the Olympic site, now called Here East. There are a few operations there involving some inward investment but judging by the relatively few courtesy buses that I use to go from Stratford International to the office there are nothing like the number of workers there that were in the original plans used by Sebastian Coe and others to justify the investment and the so-called legacy.

Similarly, while it is not the thrust of Lance Forman’s book, there has been no sporting legacy. No provision was made to prepare for the interest that British medal success in cycling and rowing might generate so the facilities and the coaching were not there when excited youngsters turned up. They soon lost interest and went back to their video games rather than the real thing.

And my visit also taught me that there is a genuine difference in high quality smoked salmon like Forman’s as opposed to the banal offering by most of the supermarkets. Over decades their demands for lower prices have debased the product. In an attempt to restore some of its flavour or to overcome the problems created most suppliers now add Demerara sugar. Look it up on the label. There should be no added sugar in smoked salmon. It might cost you a bit more for the real thing but it’s well worth it. And I can recommend a visit. Boris Johnson described it as the smoked salmon theme park.

[i] Protected Geographical Indication
[ii] Forman’s Games Lance Forman Biteback Publishing Limited London 2016

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