Only when you share a dram with Magnus Houston and experience first-hand his undeniable charisma and quiet confidence, can you begin to understand how a former professional Superbikes rider who didn’t like the taste of fish could become the award winning director of two award winning Highland fish supply businesses.
But while there is little that is conventional about the career path of this thirty-something entrepreneur from the remote Strathrusdale in Ross-shire, the values upon which he has built his businesses are as old as the hills he loves. His motivation is simple: to supply great quality fresh fish to his customers in a way that is best for both them and the producer.
As a 12 year old scooting around on the family croft on failed-MOT mopeds, Magnus developed a passion for motorbikes and a talent for racing, which took him to world championship level. Disaster struck when his pelvis was smashed in a crash which cost him not just intense pain, but his contract with Suzuki. Broken and aimless he limped home to the Highlands.
While on holiday on the west coast he was taken out in a lobster boat, and was instantly hooked. With youthful exuberance and little thought for the necessary skills required – ‘you can learn to tie knots from YouTube’, he laughs - he bought a boat and 125 lobster pots, and launched from Cromarty harbour.
Magnus was soon selling an impressive weekly catch to a distributor in Lairg, but delight turned to dismay when he realised everything was being exported to Europe. Wouldn’t this top quality seafood he was catching be better gracing local, Scottish plates?
With no local distributor, Magnus became his own solution to the export problem. From five initial customers in 2012 Coast & Glen now supplies over 300 hotels and restaurants across the Highlands and Islands, plus big name chefs Gordon Ramsay and Albert Roux.
From the start of Coast & Glen he and his wife Fiona found themselves ‘dining like kings’ on surplus stock; they ate lobster and scallops, razor clams and salmon, fresh crab and mackerel, and the tastes were a revelation.
‘I had thought I didn’t like fish,’ he explained, a massive and easy grin breaking across his face. ‘But I hadn’t realised the difference that eating really fresh produce can make. My mum only ever had access to supermarket fish, and what Fiona and I were eating, fresh from the sea, was a million miles from the tastes I remembered. The trick, we discovered, was to do as little as possible to it during cooking. It’s a bit like whisky, or any top quality product. Don’t do anything fussy. Why would you hide the flavours of something this good?’
Those meals – eating up the leftovers from supply to the restaurant trade, were the start of a new venture in seafood.
As Magnus explains, ‘Fiona and I would eat our fill of this wonderful fresh fish and shellfish and wonder how we could fix things so that everyone in the UK could access it.’
From thoughts of a simple online store, they settled on the idea of Fishbox, a subscription based model, a bit like a veg-box scheme, but with customers indicating their preferences. Each delivery varies according to ‘daily catch’, and keeps customers interested to see what each box brings in terms of old favourites and new ideas – will it be seatrout or hake, mussels or langoustines?
As we share a dram of Benromach, Magnus spins more tales from the sea – of his fellow fishermen, of long working hours, of the dedication of his 24-strong staff, of his desire for a zero-waste business.
‘Our business is taking Scots back to their culinary roots, and we are simply reclaiming the best of our fish before it’s exported abroad’ he says thoughtfully.
‘Scots have eaten good, fresh fish for generations – just as we have drunk whisky. We’re giving that back to our customers – allowing them to experience the best that there is. We have a lot to be proud of with the food and drink we produce here in Scotland’.
And at that he raises his glass to his lips again, and nods a silent toast.
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