Sean Vinten - Cowfish Smokehouse

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

Hi, I am Sean Vinten, Owner, Chef & Pitmaster of Cowfish Smokehouse at Woodside Ferry Village, and I would like to share with you my journey, a journey which has resulted in establishing Cowfish Smokehouse as a successful and growing food business.

About Cowfish Smokehouse?

Cowfish started in December 2016, my first event was a six week Christmas Market at Liverpool's St Georges Hall – talk about in at the deep end, what a learning curve! I discovered that I could clearly prepare food, as that was my background, I simply didn't know how to sell the product or promote a newly formed catering company. I spent the first week watching hundreds of potential customers walk straight past my food stall to purchase from other food concessions – I was invisible and almost certainly going out of business.

So, out came the USA flags, the revamped signage, the menu changed, the equipment changed, everything changed in the second week. It worked, the sales started to flood in and I knew I was onto something by the number of repeat customers I served, familiar faces popped up time and time again, feedback was positive and by the end of the 6 weeks Cowfish had arrived on the Liverpool street food scene. I had found my niche, I had found the real Cowfish.

Being a smokehouse, I can choose from a very broad range of food items; if it can be smoked at some point, I have probably smoked it! From scallop, razor clam, salmon and Claw Island lobster to brisket, pork butt, bratwurst, ribs, and, of course, our smoked Black Aberdeen Angus burgers. Last year I introduced Cowfish recipe Southern Fried Chicken to my menu and it's been a great success, especially the Peggy Sue, which is Southern Fried Chicken and Halloumi Burger in a black poppy seeded red beetroot bun!

I occasionally prepare smoked apple pie, smoked apples with maple syrup and vanilla cream and even Cowfish smoked ice-cream – my favourite is smoked black Japanese sesame seed with Madagascan vanilla, it looks and tastes awesome. I like to add an element of fun to the food, which customers seem to appreciate. My Willy Wonka Rainbow Bagel Burger and Ghostbuster Burger may look a little 'out there' but the combination of savoury and sweet works really well.

I love to travel and have been fortunate enough to taste many cuisines on their home ground. When I was 19, I travelled independently around the USA for 4 months, mainly the Southern states. I worked in kitchens to fund travelling and visited Austin, Texas where I just fell in love with Texan 'Low 'n' Slow' BBQ. Texan BBQ is revered by BBQ connoisseurs around the world and is a very different style of cooking than traditional British BBQ. Texan BBQ involves smoking large joints of meat for many hours until tender, almost falling apart. They use different wood species to fuel the fire in 'stick burner' smokers to flavour the meat, a traditional artisan technique that I have trained in for three years and intend to stick with.

When I returned from America, I started my formal culinary training at Wirral Met College and finished with a degree in Professional Culinary Arts from the University of Derby. I worked in kitchens in America, France, Greece and the UK before deciding to start my own company.

Cowfish Smokehouse in the future?

As for the future, I haven’t got a crystal ball, but I know there will always be a place in the market for quality, no matter what your product. Deciding how to best market the product and have a clear understanding of your market and target demographic is very important. Sales data, core business statistics and analysis are critical in informing business decisions and I'm lucky to have a statistician as a Cowfish Director – my mum! As a Clinical Neuropsychologist Jacqui brings a wealth of skills into Cowfish, not just data analysis but also an informed understanding of why customers buy. The psychology of food purchase and sales is generally poorly understood or simply ignored as a sales tool by most food providers. Menu engineering shouldn't be guesswork or driven by what you want to sell, it's got to sell. The appliance of science is a bit of a motto in Cowfish! So, I do have a plan, I just hope that I can achieve it.

What makes Cowfish Smokehouse special?

I think there are a number of things that make Cowfish different from other vendors in our sector. Obviously our USP is smoking food, it's usually a long, labour intensive and difficult cooking technique to master and the equipment is expensive so most vendors wouldn't consider it. For me it's all about the quality of the product that I start with, whether its lobster from Maine, British beef or German bratwurst it has to be high quality. To accompany the meat or fish our salads, slaw, salsa etc are made fresh daily and we make our own BBQ sauces from traditional Texan recipes – I try to keep the food as authentic 'Texan' as possible.

What do feel are the main issues affecting businesses during 2019?

Even though the UK street food scene will see a turnover of around £1.5bn in 2019 and an explosion of new food halls across the country, there are a number of influential factors putting pressure on traders' profits and eventual survival; consumer spending has continued to fall since 2017, there are too many food outlets for the current demand (even established chains like Bryon's and Jamie Oliver restaurants have felt these market pressures), the cost of ingredients continues to rise and the 'foodies' driving the street food explosion are ever more 'picky' when choosing when and where to spend their hard earned pounds.

The recent poll of 'foodies' by The Grocer found that 78% want authentic cuisine and 72% expect high quality. In other words, traders are going to need to offer authentic, high quality food offerings to persuade those keen to try street food to part with their money while at the same time being social media 'savvy' to shout about what they offer and also keep a tight rein on costs. All that being said, I can't remember anyone telling me this was going to be easy!

What I do to relax away from the office?

Outside of the business I am a keen golfer, so when I'm not smoking or selling my food you will usually find me on a golf course somewhere, wishing I had just hit a better shot!

Favourite music, movie and food?

As for music and movies I am into Rap artists like Drake and Eminem, and my favourite movie is Grand Budapest Hotel – Ralph Fiennes is hilarious!! Ask me the question about what is my favourite food and I would have to say BBQ and all seafood.

What advice would you give a young person starting out on a career today?

So what would I say to someone looking to start a career or business, make sure you love what you do otherwise you may not survive the hard times. Learn to adapt quickly. Expect disappointment and hard work. But be positive.