It all started in a bathtub. Sound fishy? Well, it was.
Hand-crafted smoked salmon is Durham’s Tracklements’ specialty. The business started in Amherst, Mass. back in 1992, where Founder of Tracklements T.R. Durham cured — preserved with salt, sugar and maybe some seasoning — salmon in his basement. The bathtub, being a requisite size for salmon, served as his sink.
Since then, Tracklements has nixed the bathtub in favor of a large sink in a small shop in Kerrytown, just around the corner from the farmer’s market.
At the sink stands Margarito Dominguez, a member of the Tracklements team since 2002. He’s performing a hand-led dry cure with quick, skilled hands. Using salt, sugar and sometimes some seasoning, he’s smoothing the mixture up and down the fish, applying more to the thicker parts and less to the thinner, Durham explained.
“He’s really extremely meticulous,” Durham said.
They’ve also since expanded from what used to be a holiday-time service only to a year-round business — open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and by appointment — that produces and sells smoked salmon varieties and has further filled in its repertoire with other fishes, meats and cheeses.
Tracklements moved from Amherst to Ann Arbor in 1996 when Susan Douglas, Durham’s wife, got a job at the University. She’s currently a professor and Chair of Communication Studies.
Judith Lowe, a Tracklements customer, has been around since the Ann Arbor grand opening.
“About every two and a half or three weeks, I buy a large piece of smoked highland salmon,” Lowe said. “And I also buy his smoked puissant, his smoked mackerel, his gravlax — most anything he’s got is good.”
Florence Fabricant of the New York Times featured Tracklements in her Food Notes for their “trendier varieties” in 1994, noting the salmon was cured “Thai-style, with a ginger flavoring.”
“Actually they weren’t trendy at the time,” Durham said. “They were brand new. No one had ever done flavored varieties of smoked salmon. There was Scottish smoked salmon, Swiss smoked salmon, Irish smoked salmon, Norwegian smoked salmon, but one thing they all had in common was that they were just smoked salmon.”
Now, however, “trendy” does seems an appropriate word. In addition to its review in the Times, Tracklements has been featured by Food and Wine and the Boston Globe, among others. They have mail-order customers on the East Coast and elsewhere, regular retail buyers in Ann Arbor and wholesale buyers too, Durham said.
The flavor added to the smoked salmon, in innovative combinations, was the key that brought Tracklements the press and ensuing success. It was a marketing venture.
“For a small and rather impoverished smoker to start, it’s important to have something that’s eye-catching, that gets attention,” Durham said.
Another flavored variety with a ginger flavoring, like the one mentioned by the Times’ Food Notes, is one that’s cured in miso, a Japanese technique Durham read about in an old Japanese cookbook.
“So we whipped up a batch of miso with a marinade, with tamari, with honey, some ginger and other things, and then started curing the salmon with a marinade of those, and it’s been far and away our best-selling smoked salmon product,” Durham said. “It happened within two weeks.”
At its core, Durham’s process is one of refined trial and error. He reads cookbooks — many of which line the shelf below the cash register — he travels and he hires people with diverse food knowledge. But the crux of the process, the one that makes it all work, is the feedback he gets from his customers.
“The great thing about Ann Arbor in terms of setting up a little boutique business like this is that there are a lot of people who are very avid foodies, to use the trendier term,” Durham said. “I mean there are a number of neat things, but one very important thing is that you get immediate feedback from them about new products, so within a week or two you can tell if you’ve got a winner or a dog.”
Though it still happens occasionally, over the years the Tracklements team has evolved its process in such a way that makes “dog” varieties rare.
From this stable process, combined with the different bits of food knowledge brought to the table by his team members in hodgepodge style, unique products emerge. One such product is smoked salmon that tastes like pastrami. It’s like eating pastrami that’s healthy, Durham said.
Tracklements tried this product a long time ago — when it was requested by a deli business in New York. Since then, however, it’s become Tracklements team member Ellen Wizniewski’s “hobby horse.”
“It’s really good, the salmon really takes those spices very well,” Wizniewski said. “It’s about eight or 10 spices, predominantly paprika, and it just infuses the flavor for pastrami spice.”
Ellen Wizniewski has been with Tracklements for about seven years, taking time away only for a short hiatus in Ireland with her husband. She joined the Tracklements team originally after meeting Durham in the store’s parking lot by the dumpsters. Her parents were among Tracklements’ first clients at the beginning of the Ann Arbor phase, a time when they had few local customers.
Tracklements team member Pete Arno brings bacon and other pork-related products to the table. He’s an “Ann Arbor guy” who’s worked with Tracklements for about three or four years now.
One of the many sticky notes on the wall reads, “Pete’s bacon — the best bacon I’ve ever had.”
Since 1992, Durham too has been bringing unique bits and pieces of information to the Tracklements table. Wizniewski said since college or before, Durham has been a cook and a traveller interested in everything food and culture.
“He’s continuously questing for new ideas, and seeing how things come together, and channeling people’s interests into creativity with his product,” Wizniewski said. “He’s really brilliant.”
The name “Durham’s Tracklements” itself manifests the way bits of information converge to produce the Tracklements products. It was coined by English culinary writer Dorothy Hartley to mean “a savory condiment to be served with meat.”
While Durham’s Tracklements has only occasionally used tracklements like chutneys, relishes and mustards throughout the years, the word still reflects Tracklements’ process of producing such widely renowned salmon for the following reason: Hartley evolved her word “tracklements” from the word “tranklement,” which means “bits of things.”
Durham could loosely be called the Steve Jobs of the salmon food industry, pooling “bits of things” — information and people — in a way that maximizes creative output.
He turned a hobby he picked up from Dunken Stewart — the manager of a cottage he rented in Scotland who was smoking fish that his friends had poached from some nearby sport fishing estates — into a flourishing local business in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
However, Durham receives one common question: Why doesn’t a local business like Tracklements get their fish locally, from the Great Lakes?
“Basically, it’s not as good for what we do, and it’s not available year around,” Durham said. “And a lot of people don’t want it.”
Great Lakes salmon is a freshwater fish, but as it doesn’t have the same salt content as ocean-bred salmon — it doesn’t hold up as well. More than that, mail order customers on the East Coast especially have expressed their concern about pollution in the Great Lakes and contaminated salmon products.
Bigger fish like salmon, being high up on the lake’s food chain, accumulate more contaminants than would smaller fish in the same waters.
So because Tracklements deals primarily with large fish like salmon, they count on farmed, Atlantic salmon.
“Atlantic salmon has for a long time been at least widely perceived — and I think there’s some real basis of fact in this — as the best for cold smoking,” Durham said.
As for the often controversial issue of farmed fish, in his cookbook The Smoked Seafood Cookbook: Easy, Innovative Recipes from America’s Best Fish Smokery, Durham mentions that he has a rant prepared, one he calls “The bogus war against farm salmon.”
While he acknowledges that many complaints against farmed salmon do warrant attention, like “contaminated feed, coloring agents with possible health implications … and adverse effects on the local marine ecology,” the industry has generally given all of these concerns the attention they need.
Exemplifying their attention to detail, Tracklements gets the fish for their cold smoked varieties from the Faroe Islands, an archipelago cluster between Norway and Iceland on the Arctic Circle. Their hot smoked varieties they get from the Bay of Fundy, at the edge of the Gulf of Maine, between Canadian provinces New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
In addition to their mail order and retail customers, Tracklements also has a large wholesale market, in the Ann Arbor area especially.
Except for whitefish — one of the fish varieties Tracklements does not sell — they’ve provided neighboring Zingerman’s restaurant with all other fish varieties since 2008. Likewise, they’ve supplied Cafe Zola for around 12 years.
But professional business connections with buyers of their products are not their only community relationships. The Kerrytown local business community is “like a very small, incestuous family,” Tracklements team member David Wells said.
Wells’ wife Mary Campbell is the owner of Everyday Wines, a nearby Kerrytown shop.
“David’s in and out of there, and we’re in and out of there, they’re in and out of here. So like David said, it is sort of incestuous, around food and wine,” Durham said.
Wells is aware that Durham and Campbell share “a philosophical stance.”
“Small business forever,” Durham said.
Beyond Durham, Wizniewski, Dominguez, Arno and Wells, Tracklements also has a few other part-timers, like Lucus Cole, the son of Kate Tremel, a woman whose ceramics brochures sit on the makeshift counter above the “Taking Holiday Orders” chalkboard sign.
Tracklements generally has at least one team member in high school working; they often start in eighth or ninth grade and work up through university, Durham said. Cole, however, doesn’t work all that often due to Saturday soccer commitments.
In any case, Tracklements is holding up pretty well.
“They have the best smoked salmon anywhere around, and they have a lot of other really good smoked products too, and they’re really nice people,” Lowe said. “They do things like going out of their way to really help you out with what you want and calling you when they’ve got what you need. They’re just terrific.”