Founded ninety years ago, this family business has relied on know-how and raw materials to relaunch the fish cannery.
You have to see them in the factory, those little hands, agile and expert, slicing with synchronized scissors the neck and tail of silver sardines. Then placing them head to tail in the cans. Caught the day before, off the coast of Quiberon, the fish was first immersed in a bath of brine, “to firm up its flesh”, then manually gutted, rinsed, dried and fried at 125°C. Sardines with lemon, crumbled tuna with prunes and spices, fillets of mackerel with mustard: all La Belle-Îloise products are made here, in this 11,000 square meter cannery, located in an artisanal area in Quiberon. Two hundred to 350 people take turns there depending on the season.
We have invested millions of euros in state-of-the-art machines
Delicate tasks are still done by hand, although some of the nine-step manufacturing has been mechanized. “We have invested millions of euros in state-of-the-art machines”, specifies its CEO, Caroline Hilliet Le Branchu. Like the gleaming seamers that hermetically seal the cans, the huge cocottes that sterilize them at 120°C or the robot equipped with eight cameras that has recorded the gestures of the eleven workers who once carried out the “visiting”, the control before packaging.
For the CEO, third generation at the head of the 100% family business, founded by his grandfather in 1932, more than “made in France”, what matters is “the quality inscribed in [son] DNA, at the heart of everything, from know-how to the choice of raw materials”. It is moreover in the name of this quality that Georges Hilliet slammed the door in the face of mass distribution which, in the 1960s, absorbed everything in its path. Sacrifice it to manufacture products in quantity and at low cost? Out of the question ! “If necessary, I’ll go sell my sardines on the beach!” he had decreed. It was no joke: in 1967, he opened his first direct sales store, near the port. “As a visionary, he freed himself from traditional sales channels and intermediaries,” she underlines. Innovation will remain the hobbyhorse of his sons, Bernard and Georges, who will take over the business in 1972, developing mail-order sales ten years later. “They have accelerated the opening of new stores, professionalized the distribution business, while expanding the product ranges with vintage and colorful packaging”, recognizes Caroline Hilliet Le Branchu.
95% of sales are made directly through a network of 96 stores
In the 2000s, the boss’s daughter, a business school graduate and business engineer at IBM, told her father that she would dream of being part of the adventure. ” Why not ? Bernard replies, without blinking. “He was delighted that the business remained in the family fold,” she says. In the run-in for five years, she held various positions, in information systems, management control, HR and store development, before obtaining the keys in 2011, at the age of 36. “When my father retired, La Belle-Îloise had 50 stores, and today there are 96. Its cruising speed: three new openings per year. Result: 95% of sales are made directly, including 20% remotely via the Internet. The remaining 5% takes place in “B to B” via a network of delicatessens, in Belgium “where we have opened two stores”, in Germany and in Switzerland. “Our preserves are also present in Japan, Hong Kong, Australia” and the turnover amounts to 64 million euros.
La Belle-Îloise favors fresh fish
Each year, it enriches its catalog with six or seven new products, concocting new recipes, such as this seaweed tartare, these Indie Veggie jars made from vegetables with coconut-curry, these 100% vegetable cold soups. For the rest, the company processes 2,500 tonnes of fish per year – sardines, tuna, 96% mackerel –, caught mainly off the coast of Quiberon, the coasts of southern Finistère and La Turballe, which does not don’t prevent us from sourcing from Scotland or Ireland. “What matters is the way the fish is caught, depending on the seasons, the methods of capture, its size. When the competition, starting with the “sharks” Saupiquet and Petit Navire, works with pre-frozen products, La Belle-Îloise favors fresh fish. Always quality, rather than quantity.
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