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Trout: the secret of their success

From humble basement beginnings, Tom and Lucy Hickey’s Sun Valley Smoked Trout has grown into a locally prized and nationally recognized brand. Michael Ames takes a behind-the-scenes look at their success story. Photos by Chris Pilaro.

The Idaho state flag does not sport any fish. There is a miner wielding a pickaxe and shovel and, in the background, tending to his fields under some snowcapped mountains, is a farmer. Fish, trout in particular, are nowhere to be seen. A future governor would be well-served to update the state banner to include some of Idaho’s scalier inhabitants.

Never mind the unending row over Idaho’s diminishing salmon populations; Idaho has fish aplenty. They just live, like chickens and pigs, on farms.

Idaho fish farms are a major source of revenue and, like the potato, an increasing source of fame. Roughly three-quarters of the nation’s farmed rainbow trout are raised in Idaho and 80 percent of those can be found in farms in the Snake River Canyon, south of the Wood River Valley. The "Idaho Trout" label appears regularly on restaurant menus and fish counters across the nation.

Tom Hickey’s hot-smoking process begins with fresh farmed Idaho trout from Filer.

And while a supermarket shopper in St. Louis may hold dear to visions of clear running mountain streams teeming with wild trout, the Idaho Trout aura has developed in a tamer scenario.

More than any other single factor, it is a preponderance of proximal fish farms that has buoyed the Hailey-based business Sun Valley Smoked Trout. From humble beginnings smoking fillets in their basement, Tom and Lucy Hickey capitalized on this local food source to create a nationally recognized product.

After moving to Idaho from San Francisco in 1969, Tom Hickey worked a number of wholesale wine and food jobs, sampling the business. Still, he never foresaw a smoked-fish future. "I’m not a seer. I just took things as they went," he said. His come-what-may attitude was an easy fit in the valley, so, after visiting a friend here in 1968, Hickey fled his corporate career and decamped to Ketchum. Looking back, he says he "dropped out," but Hickey’s is the classic Ketchum story of success achieved by alternative methods.

In the late 1980s, he launched Hickey’s Wood Roast restaurant in Ketchum, his first solo venture. When the restaurant didn’t work out, he was left with a smoker and a knack for fish. He stashed the smoker—a refrigerator sized box with vaguely robotic features—in his basement and continued to produce locally raised smoked trout. Atkinsons’ Market became a consistent buyer and after a few years, Hickey’s subterranean operation couldn’t keep up with the orders.

A believer in local foods, or a "localvore" as current lingo has it, Hickey was well ahead of his time. "Trout is indigenous to Idaho, so it became a natural thing—the raw material was close," he said. Instead of shipping in ribs from Arkansas, as he had been for his restaurant, Hickey was suddenly free to concentrate on a local product. Today, he buys Idaho farmed rainbow trout from SeaPac of Idaho in Filer.

In addition to the eponymous trout, Hickey also smokes salmon and steelhead trout (the rainbow’s ocean-going brethren), which he buys from farms in Canada and Washington State, respectively. "We try to source as environmentally friendly as we can," he said. In the debate over farmed versus wild fish, he is a pro-farm realist. "I don’t buy wild steelhead; I don’t want to contribute to the demise of an unsustainable resource." He does however, buy wild and farmed salmon depending on market conditions.

The Sun Valley Smoked Trout factory, where Hickey and his staff of three cure, smoke and package hundreds of pounds of fillets each week, is in an incongruously quaint cluster of green-shuttered, white clapboard buildings on Hailey’s Main Street, once home to the U.S. Forest Service.

Hickey is happy with this historical habitat. "It’s a business campus and not a strip mall. It’s a real comfortable place to be." He leases a quarter of his space to the Hailey Coffee Company, which roasts its beans on the property. "I trade trout for coffee beans," he says with a smile.

The smoked fillets are packaged and shipped to locales as varied as San Francisco and New York.

In the one-room factory, the smoking process starts with an overnight brining. Hickey guards the proportions of his salty solution as a trade secret, but doesn’t hide the stacks of kosher salt and unrefined cane sugar, or "turbinado," that cure the raw fillets.

Once brined and rinsed, the fish is arranged on tall racks that, when full, look a bit like a trout high rise. Racked and stacked, in batches of 250 pounds, the fish is rolled into the futuristically named Vortron smokehouse. A small nearby furnace burns applewood chips while the smokehouse, now roaring with the whirring sounds of fans and heating elements, is fired up. The Vortron, as the name suggests, is no simple backyard pine box. Roughly the size of a freight elevator, it is outfitted with a variety of dials and gauges that apply and record temperature and humidity changes.

Sun Valley Smoked Trout fillets are hot-smoked, a fine, but significant detail. Unlike the translucent, cold-smoked salmon familiar to Scots and delicatessen-goers, this Northwest-style is slow-cooked, a process that gives the fish a meatier, more toothsome flesh. The consistency is poached, but the taste is smoked.

Hickey sells six varieties: rainbow trout done three ways (plain, cracked pepper, Cajun), salmon (plain and with cracked pepper) and steelhead. All are delectable, but the steelhead is the most distinctive, combining the depth and heft of salmon with the flakier aspects of trout.

For his efforts, including his eye-catching packaging, Hickey has done well. His fish is available nationwide in high-end grocery stores such as Whole Foods Markets and regional favorites including Andronico’s in the Bay Area and Dean & DeLuca in Manhattan. A quarter of his sales stay here in the valley, much of it winding up in menu staples at local establishments such as the Pioneer Saloon and the Sun Valley Wine Company in Ketchum and CK’s Real Food in Hailey.

Hickey is modest to the end: just a guy who found a niche.