Smith Bros. branded whitefish caviar

The Smith family made their own fresh water whitefish caviar. The recipe for the caviar was developed by Delia Wassink Smith in her kitchen back in the 1920s. Smith Bros. produced its own caviar until the 1990s.
Comments by Daniel H. Smith the story was told to me by Aunt Evelyn Smith and Oliver H. Smith and from my on-the-job experiences in sourcing and buying raw product, processing, packing and marketing the product.

In the early 1920's (possibly earlier), my grandmother Delia, wife of Delos, was the developer of the idea of producing a Caviar from the roe (eggs) of Lake Whitefish, an item that had been discarded in the cleaning of the fish. Delia began her work on this project in their home kitchen and basement. She found a method to screen and clean the roe, then salt was added and the caviar was allowed to age, and/or is "put up" in small jars. This process was so original and valuable to the family that a USA patent was applied for in 1925 and granted in 1927.

There were high hopes for this product within our family. Whitefish caviar was well accepted, so their continued efforts found ways of coloring and canning (in tins). Our Caviar was highly profitable, (the main ingredient came at very little cost) To illustrate the high hopes and plans, we remember the large lighted sign on the Market corner of Franklin and Grand Ave. proclaiming "SMITH BROS. FISH and CAVIAR". Also, when the red brick smoke house was built in the early 1920's, it was built with a second story, for future production space for the caviar factory. That never developed. Instead, the operation was handled (early 1930's) in the restaurant kitchen and basement, teamed with the then thriving pickled fish operation.

I came into the scene in the late 1940's. The caviar business was humming. About that time packing in glass over took the pack in metal tins. Canning in tins was discontinued along with the brand SMITH BROS. The LAND O’LAKES brand had been introduced as the packed in glass Whitefish Caviar. The glass pack had much more eye appeal on the shelf and also opened a new market in "institutional" sizes 8 and 15 oz. for the restaurant and catering trade. About this time the personnel involved were Russell Behling in charge of packing and storage, Fred Schwenker in production, Roy Uebele in purchasing, sales, and inventory, Gus Mehring, Clara Meyer rounded out the regular crew with restaurant help filling in as needed. Esther Segermeister, our long time head office clerk, had a good handle on order receiving, billing, freight charges, and accounts receivable and payable.

In the late 1940's and early 1950's my brother Bert was in charge of the Caviar department. I helped him on an as needed basis. He taught me the ropes and all that went with it. Oliver was very helpful, especially in making contacts with fishermen in buying the roe. Who to contact and where they were located (Two Rivers, Door County, Minnesota north shore, Duluth, Bayfield, The U.P., Red Lake Minnesota, Milwaukee).

Between Delia’s origin and the 1940's (probably earlier), Lake Herring roe was being blended with the true Whitefish roe and later Chub roe was added to the blend .These two became the dominant ingredient, but the packed product was still marketed as WHITEFISH CAVIAR - all three fishes being of the same genre. Smith Bros survived a challenge from the United States F.D.A. on the use of the name “Whitefish Caviar” with expert testimony, we prevailed. The case was closed with the agreement that the word WHITEFISH on labels, advertising, and display had to be as large and distinctive as the word CAVIAR. Side note; by now, there were other major Caviar packers (VITA and ROMANOFF) who were affected by this ruling also.

Back to how the caviar is produced. The fish roe is separated from the fish during the dressing (cleaning) of the fish. Salt is mixed with the roe as the skeins (the fibrous material that enclosed the roe sack) are broken to give a uniform mix. From the outlying sources it is accumulated at the plant in Port Washington and refrigerated at near 32* F. Next, roe is gently hand rubbed through metal screens to separate the roe from the skein material. The back into refrigeration to age for at least 60 days.

At the time of canning the blends of roe are brought together - 500 to 600 pounds, at a batch, in a powered paddle mixer. Black Coloring and stabilizer powder (vegetable gum) are added. After thoroughly mixing, it is transferred by the bucketful to filling machine hopper. This machine had a mechanical chain belt which carried the jars under the filling spigot. Filled jars were then transferred to an accumulating table where lids were loosely laid on. Jars were then placed under the vacuum bell of the capping machine which pressed and sealed the jars at a rate of about 5 units per minute. Sealed jars were loosely placed in a retort basket.

Cooking, almost finished to preserve, is the next step. The steel retort basket was hoisted with a powered lift and lowered in cool water which was heated to proper cooking temperature by steam injection. After cooking, cooling and drying, the finished product was packed into cartons of 1 dozen each. And trucked away to various storage at room temp until purchase orders came in for shipping. Smith Bros. “big” customers were large grocery companies especially A&P, Safeway, Winn-Dixie, Kroger, Roundies, and others. Many other smaller specialty foods purchased also, some under private labels, such as REESE (a Chicago specialty food distributor).

We also packed 8 oz. and 15 oz. for the institutional trade (restaurant, caterers, etc.). These were in taller tumbler style jars each jar was labeled by hand with a “glued on” black and gold foil label.

By the 1980's our cost of the raw roe increased suddenly. The Japanese had “discovered” lake whitefish and Chub roe. It was ideal for their sushi and they would pay any price to get the product. We were forced to increase our prices dramatically causing retail sales to slow and as a result a loss of “shelf” space.

To get an additional market channel I developed a new brand and label. It was “Sea Gold”. The marketing track was especially for the specialty food ”wagon jobbers” - wholesalers that would have multiple lines and could create a new niche with grocers who no longer wanted to warehouse slow turn-over items such as caviar.

In the late 1980's caviar sales were slowing and our packed inventory was growing. We found ourselves with excess glassware, caps, and packed inventory.

Throughout the era of our caviar business there were problems with government food regulations and inspections, about label declarations, additives (coloring), and roe supplier dependability. However, in all those years we had no complaints from customers or consumers.

As the sale of the Smith Bros. restaurant and Fish Market developed we managed to include in the sale, the complete inventory, (at our cost) of the unfinished caviar product (that is, the roe, glassware, caps, labels, etc.) and all of the finished unsold caviar.

This was great to recover our costs at 100%! I believe the caviar and supply inventories represented more than 10% of the net selling price. The 1989 buyer was Mr. De Rosa, et al.

Over the full term of the Caviar era, it was a very profitable “sideline” to Smith Bros. business.

I have written it as I remember it. Bert Smith, I am sure had more of a hand in it than I covered, he was in charge of designing the cannery in the new part of the building (the Port Washington restaurant basement) on the rebuild after the November 1953 fire. Other incidents come to mind but they are (sometimes humorous) side stories which would be an essay of their own.
An interesting story from Lincoln D. Smith
You had mentioned the info about caviar and Jack Lord of "Hawaii 5-0" TV series. Here is the "rest of the story": As office manager, I was particularly bothered one day with a lot of unimportant and "crank calls". Another call came in and was answered by our office receptionist who buzzed me and said that a Jack Lord was on the phone and wished to talk with our president (which was me). I said to her to verify the caller again, and she replied that the caller really did sound like Lord, so I took the call who again said he was Jack Lord, calling from Honolulu. He wanted to order 1-2 cases of our best caviar, explaining that he had tasted it before and liked it very much, but, could not find to buy it in Hawaii. He needed it to serve at a party he was planning.

We thereafter shipped the caviar to the address he gave me. Then, we waited to see what the results were, I about 2 weeks, we received his personal check for the payment along with several souvenirs of his "5-0" show and appreciation for our cooperation! Now, for the rest of the story.

About a year later, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association promoted a group of we members to go to Hawaii for a get-to-gether with the Hawaii Resturant group in Honolulu for about a week. I was ready for a vacation like this and, along with my wife (Maxine Smith), we went there, with, along with our luggage, two more cases of caviar, with the idea of giving them to Jack Lord (for good PR, etc.). We were unable to see him in person, because he was "on location" at the studio, up in the hills. We ended up giving the caviar to the gate watchman, with request that he see that Lord gets it. As I never heard further from Mr. Lord, I don't know if he got the caviar, or, did the gate man?!
Comments by Brian R. Smith
While I was working in the Smith Bros. Fish Market around 1979 I was asked to help out with the canning of a batch of whitefish caviar. The vacuum sealing machine was a unit that was attached to a stainless steel work bench. It would lower a steel cylinder, do its vacuum sealing business by removing the air and closing the cap, and then open again (one cycle). My Uncle Dan Smith showed me how to do this with a swift motion to remove the recently sealed jar with your right hand and place the next one underneath the steel cylinder right before the next downward cycle with the left hand - all in one swift motion of hands, glass and steel. This motion seemed all too impossibly fast for me.

Anyway, after my Uncle Dan left me alone to my task in the basement of the Smith Bros. Restaurant I quickly reverted back to the much "safer" (for me!) process of removing the sealed jar in the first cycle of the machine and placing the next one with my left hand on the second cycle. Of course, this would complete the job in twice the time... but I really wanted to keep my fingers and was honestly a little bit afraid of the machine. I did not know nor did I want to find out what would happen to my fingers if they were underneath the steel cylinder as it came forcefully down.
Here are three of the labels that were used.
Smith Bros. branded whitefish caviar; Delia brand Fresh-Pack Whitefish Caviar
The first is the "Delia brand Fresh-Pack Whitefish Caviar" (above).

Smith Bros. branded whitefish caviar; Land O' Lakes Whitefish Caviar
"Land O' Lakes Whitefish Caviar" (above)

Smith Bros. branded whitefish caviar; Sea Gold Whitefish Caviar
"Sea Gold Whitefish Caviar" (above)

Smith Bros. branded whitefish caviar brass labeling template
(above) Smith Bros. branded whitefish caviar brass labeling template. This would be used to label an entire crate of product.