Can a fed-up corporate executive forfeit his pole position
in the rat race, build a $500 smokehouse out in the country
. . . and rapidly begin earning more than $2,000 a month
selling home-cured fish to bars and restaurants? Yep. Buck
Taylor, a Florida man, has done just that . . . and he
insists that others (maybe you) can do it too! All it
takes, he says, to get started in this do-it-yourself
business is a large oven, a load of fresh fish, some
hickory and oak logs, and an overriding desire to . . .
I've finally come full circle.
I started out, you see, as a healthy outdoorsman . . .
but-lured by promises of "super-money", I quickly sold my
soul for admittance into The Land Of The Corporate
Executive. The Management Team. Where, I
eventually learned, the money was not nearly as good as I
had been led to believe . . . but where the hours
were long and the pressure was
As a result, I became just another frustrated pencil
pusher. My mental attitude soured. Bags appeared under my
eyes. I became chronically tired. My family life suffered.
I was rapidly becoming just another pale candidate for
ulcers or a heart attack. And then . . .
And then I got a grip on myself, hurled myself right off
that "prestige" treadmill to oblivion . . . and began to
"smoke" my way back to the freedom, independence, and
healthful outdoor life that I had originally known.
"Smoking" ..... as in Fish
The lucrative enterprise which has given me back my life is
nothing but the smoking and selling of fish to bars,
restaurants, and individuals here in Miami. And, believe it
or not, I didn't know a thing about my new profession when
I first plunged in.
All I was really sure of back then was that I desperately
wanted out of Executive Row. I had, in fact,
already made several false (and costly) starts toward the
freedom I so eagerly craved. I was, to put it another way,
something of a drowning man clutching at straws at that
point in my life . . . when some chance conversations with
seemingly successful people in the field directed my
attention to the smoking business.
Little wonder then that, although I knew nothing about
smoke-curing fish at the time, I was what you'd call "highly
motivated" to give the occupation a try. I optimistically
figured I could learn what I needed to know as I went
along. And I did! The thoughts of at last being
self-employed (which danced through my head like visions of
sugarplums) made working out the details of my new life a
I started laying the foundation for my mini-enterprise by
visiting the smokehouses owned by other people who were
already in the fish curing and marketing business. Soon,
based on the information I picked up from these trips, I
 was reasonably sure that my longed-for occupation could
support my family,  had made an informed guess that our
savings account contained barely enough cash to set me up
in the smoking business,  knew of and had checked out
sources for the raw fish I'd need, and  was finishing
construction drawings for a smokehouse of my own .
Starting a Fish Smoking Business
All well and good . . . on paper. But just as I was ready
to dash off and build that smokehouse . . . I realized that
I didn't have any place to put the structure!
What I wanted, of course, was a fair-sized piece of land on
the side of a well-traveled road with clear approaches from
both directions so that [A] large numbers of passing
motorists could [ B] see my operation early enough to [C]
give potential customers the time they'd need to [D] pull
into my parking lot and [E] buy the large quantities of
cured fish I expected to sell!
Unfortunately, the ideal, and rather expansive, piece of
property I had in mind proved to be a lot harder to find
and a great deal more expensive to rent than I had
anticipated. What I had to settle for, when I came right
down to it, was a few square feet on an out-of-the-way farm
located off a back road several miles from town.
Still, that remote rural location did have some worthwhile
features all its own. First, it was very inexpensive.
Second, the license I needed for my business was both
easier to obtain and less costly way out there in the
country than it would have been if I'd tried to set my
smokehouse up in either the city or along a main road close
to Miami. Third, it was almost a sure bet that sooner or
later some of my urban neighbors would [A] object to the
light wisps of smoke from my operation or [B] try to break
into the smokehouse and steal its contents if I built the
structure in town. And it was just as sure a bet that no
one would ever give me either kind of trouble if I set the
house up out there in the sticks.
For obvious reasons, I quickly decided to establish my
business on that backwoods farm . . . and, with the
sometime help of a few friends, I began construction of the
smokehouse the very next weekend. None of us really knew
what we were doing but the building wasn't too complicated
and five weekends and $500 in materials later, it was
substantially completed. Then, while finishing touches were
still being made on the structure, we immediately "fired
up" the oven for the first time and began curing 50 pounds
of whiting fillets.
Surprisingly enough, that initial batch of fish turned out
pretty well. A bit undercooked, perhaps, but the taste we
were after was definitely there. I got a lot of compliments
on the samples I distributed and two bars agreed, on the
spot, to buy my fish if I'd smoke the fillets a little
longer and make them somewhat saltier.
I enjoyed even more success the following weekend . . .
when I actually sold half my "samples" and began taking
orders for a third batch of fish. And that was only the
beginning: Within six weeks, I had recovered the $500 that
the materials for my smokehouse had cost and I was already
getting prepared to quit my office job and go into the
specialty food business full time!
I've been "on my own" ever since, arid I can't tell you how
good it feels. How can you compare a boss' cigar smoke to
the delicate aroma of catfish cooking over hickory and oak
You Can do it Too!
Yes, I'm convinced that you can do just as well in this
field as I have . . . maybe even better. Study the market
in your area. If there aren't scads of commercial
smokehouses already fighting for the attention of every
potential customer, your chances can be considered
Shop around. Find out where you can obtain a steady supply
of fish at a reasonable price (well below a dollar a
pound). Or, if smoked seafood is not particularly popular
where you live, look into the possibility of curing hams,
turkeys, cheese, or sausage. Even though this article
concentrates on fish, the basics that I cover can be
applied to any smoked food (as proof of that fact,
I even run off an occasional batch of other meats or cheese
in my own oven).
Once you're sure that you've lined up a steady supply of
raw materials at an acceptable price, examine your
financial situation (as I did) and decide if you want to
set your smoker up on a well-traveled and
expensive boulevard, or (as I was forced to do) out in the
sticks. My feeling is still that a good roadside location
is worth its price, if you can swing it.
Next visit your city's or county's license bureau, the
pollution control people (if necessary), and any other
officials who legally have anything to say about how you
house and operate this business in your area. Find out what
it takes to keep these people smiling . . . and do it.
And finally, after you've done the above homework, you've
built your smokehouse, and you've run off a sample batch or
two of your specialty—the only thing left for you to
do is to distribute samples to a few potential customers.
And if that last step in the establishment of this
enterprise worries you, just remember one thing: My
experience leads me to believe that smoked fish and other
such specialties will sell to restaurants and bars anywhere
. . . IF you produce a quality product.
How to Build a Smokehouse
I won't say that you have to build your smoker exactly the
way I built mine (if I learned anything from those initial
visits to other seafood-smoking establishments, it was that
there are at least 1,003 different ways to construct a
smokehouse). Just so you will have an idea of what the task
involves, however, I'll take you through the steps I
followed in constructing my smoker. (A floor plan is shown
in Fig. 1.)
 First we removed all rocks, stumps, etc., from the
ground we had chosen for our construction site and we
leveled the area. Then we built a 12' X 20' foundation form
out of 2 X 4's, crisscrossed the space within the form with
hog wire and steel rods (for reinforcement), and poured the
12' X 20' four-inch-thick slab of concrete on a sunny day.
(Figure on about 3-1/2 cubic yards of mix for a slab this
 After the foundation had cured for 48 hours, we were
ready to put up the walls for our smokehouse. To do that,
we laid four rows of block (which made a wall 32" high),
sealed the top course with concrete, and then framed the
structure on up eight feet tall in front and seven in the
back with 2 X 4's. The building was finished with window
screen all around to keep out insects and topped with the
least expensive galvanized roofing we could buy.
 The attached oven was constructed a little differently.
Its walls are block all the way to the top (nine rows, or
72"), topped with a three-inch-thick poured concrete roof.
Although the outside dimensions of our oven measure
approximately five by seven feet, I think the unit would be
a lot handier to use if we'd have made it six feet wide.
Use your own judgment.
Whatever you do, though, don't forget to leave the
16"square opening on the floor of the oven's outside or
"back" wall (so you'll have a way to slide the firebox in
and out). Nor should you forget to allow for a
large—say 4' X 5' main door (through which you'll
load and unload fish) between the oven and the smokehouse .
. . or to leave an 18"-square hole right in the center of
the oven's roof (for a chimney).
The firebox door can be framed in with 2 X 4's and closed
with a close-fitting cover (a 2 X 4 frame faced on the
outside with 3/8" or 1/2" plywood, packed with insulation,
and faced on the inside to protect it from the flame's
heat, with ungalvanized metal) that is hinged along its top.
The main loading door (also a 2 X 4 frame faced on the
outside with 3/8" or 1/2" plywood, packed with insulation,
and faced on the inside with ungalvanized metal) should be
hinged on its left edge so that it'll swing flat against
the smokehouse wall as shown in the drawing with this
article. And the chimney is made of three solid rows of a
concrete block and a half each, topped by four spaced
blocks, covered with a sheet of metal (to keep the rain
out), and topped again by four spaced blocks (to hold the
piece of metal in place).
If you lay a sheet of plastic over the form for the oven's
roof, by the way, the finished ceiling will be plenty
smooth enough to use with no further work. (Do remember,
however, to peel away the plastic before you cure your
first batch of fish!) The inside of the oven's walls should
be painted with a coat or two of water mixed with cement to
seal the pores in the blocks.
 The firebox that sits on the oven's floor is simply a
3/16" sheet steel container that measures one foot high,
one foot across, and five feet long. Mount a handle on one
end of the box and make a stick (a broom handle with a hook
screwed into one end will do) that you can use to grab the
handle and pull the box out with when it's hot.
 A flat sheet of steel must be suspended over the
firebox to spread its blaze and keep the flames from
burning the fish that will be loaded into the oven. We cut
our spreader plate from 1/4" steel so that when the sheet
of metal was supported at each corner on upturned concrete
blocks, there was a six-inch gap on all four sides between
the edges of the steel plate and the walls of the oven.
 The wooden stand which holds our fish as they're being
smoked was made to fit quite snugly inside the finished
oven. The rack contains five shelves spaced 10" apart
vertically . . . although this vertical spacing is not
terribly important. What is important is the
frame's legs: if they're made of wood, keep them as far as
possible from the oven's firebox (so that even the most
violent "back-draft" down the smoker's chimney can't force
flames over against the legs and ignite them). An even
better bet, of course, is to use angle iron for your rack's
main structural members.
 The trays (ten of them) which rest on the wooden stand
each measure 2' X 3' and they fit two to a rack. We made
ours from scrap 1 X 2's with 1 "-by 2"-grid wire stapled
(stapling is easier than nailing) across their tops. NOTE:
Use only plain, uncoated wire on these trays. The
galvanized mesh of hardware cloth will give off toxic fumes
 We built the cleaning and work tables in our smokehouse
very quickly and easily by mounting half sheets of plywood
on 2 X 4 frames. And we were sure to give that plywood
several coats of good varnish. (The tables
do get drenched with brine and fish juice and,
left unprotected, the wood wouldn't last long.) The
cleaning table was slanted slightly toward a hole cut into
its out-of-the-way end. And there was a particular reason
The preparation of smoked fish produces two types of waste.
The first, an accumulation of heads, backbones, and
entrails, must be packaged, hauled away, and dumped. There's
no getting around it. The second kind of waste, though - the
hundreds of tiny bits 'and slivers that appear as you slice
the fish for the oven (especially after they've soaked
overnight in brine) - can be disposed of somewhat easier. You
can either [A] push them to the back of your cleaning
table, scrape them off into a trap mounted under that hole
mentioned in the last paragraph, and then dump them into a
garbage pail, or [B] flush the particles through that same
hole into a drainpipe connected to a 12-foot-deep dry well
dug just outside the smokehouse . . . and simply let the
little bits of fish, brine, and cleaning water all
percolate away into the soil. (That's what I did, and I've
found that this method of doing away with such waste won't
taint a nearby water well, as long as it's ten or more feet
away from the percolation hole.)
 An old five-foot-long porcelain bathtub, as long as it's
not cracked or chipped, makes an ideal brine tank. Mount it
on a simple frame that both holds it steady and tilts it
slightly toward a drainpipe connected to the same dry well
that drains the cleaning table.
 And finally, you must find a way to get water to your
smokehouse . . . even if you have to bring it in through a
hose. Electricity is not absolutely essential, since the
sun can provide natural lighting if you work only during
the day and, more likely than not, you'll want to keep your
storage refrigerator at home. But you will use water at the
smokehouse in large quantities and frequently.
Odds and Ends
Once you have your smokehouse up and finished, you'll need
only a few other pieces of equipment to put you in the
fish-curing business. Probably the most expensive is a
really big refrigerator (remember, you'll be able
to process 500 pounds of meat at a time in the smoker I've
just described). I bought my commercial-sized reefer
secondhand at a restaurant supply house, and I recommend
that you check out the same source (or sources) in your
And while you're there, look around for a heavy-duty oven
thermometer with a temperature range of at least 50° F
to 225° F (0° to 300° F is even better). An
adequate thermometer can be purchased for about $35, but
don't hesitate to spend more for one of exceptional
quality. That thermometer, mounted in the center of your
oven's main door, with its probe sticking several inches
into the curing chamber, is probably the single piece of
equipment most critical to the success of your whole
The last major item you'll need is a trailer of some sort
in which to haul 750 to 1,000 pounds of fresh fish at a
time in from the docks. (Remember, once you're rolling,
you'll make your money by keeping that oven full.
) Of course this doesn't mean that your trailer has to be
anything fancy. A homemade rig with a 4' X 8' plywood
floor, 3' sides, and a plywood lid to keep the sun off does
the job for me. On the other hand, if you have to bring
your fish in from a long distance away, you'd be well
advised to carry the iced seafood in a watertight trailer
that's insulated with 3/4" styrofoam and painted silver on
the outside . . . and such a rig will, naturally, cost you
more than mine cost me.
The remaining supplies you'll need for your new business
can all be bought or scrounged fairly inexpensively. They
 A good quality cleaning knife, 10" blade or longer.
Keep this baby sharp.
 A hose and nozzle for washing down fish, brine tank,
floor, and oven.
 A paintbrush - four inches wide - for coating fish trays
 A wire brush with which to clean the smoker trays after
a batch of fish has been processed.
 A wooden tablespoon, for measuring and stirring.
 A clock, for timing the high- and low-temperature
phases of the cure.
 Bleach, which is used to swab the floor daily (to
eliminate bug traffic).
 Cooking oil, non-iodized salt, spices, and
About that very last item: I use Australian pine as well as
oak in my oven. Hickory is almost impossible to get here in
southern Florida and commands a ridiculous price when you
can find it. No matter what kind of firewood
you decide to use, and as you can see from the
accompanying table, there are many varieties to choose
from, don't pick one that's heavy with sap. For example,
common yellow pine can ruin your smoked fish by imparting
the less-than-delicate flavor of turpentine to the fillets!
Keep your firewood covered and dry when not in use. This
will ensure that the fuel burns uniformly and will make
your fires a lot easier to start.
EDITOR S NOTE: This has been the first half of a two-part
article. In Part Two, Mr. Taylor will describe how he
cleans and smokes the fish that he sells.
Smoking for Dollars: Profit
All right. You've chatted with fish dealers, checked out
locations, given it some careful thought, and decided you
just may want to try your hand at selling smoked
fish. Great! Now you're probably wondering - and rightly
so—what kind of money a person can really, truly make
in this business.
Well, one man knows the answer to that as well as anyone,
and that one man is Buck Taylor of Miami, Florida. Buck, who
began his operation with no special knowledge or
experience, has been "smoking" for a living, full time,
since April of 1975 . . . and he now regularly earns $600
per week (and more). "It's a super nice do-it-yourself
enterprise," says Buck, "if you don't mind getting your
hands dirty a couple of days a week."
With regard to the business of running a
smokehouse, Buck Taylor has this advice to offer MOTHER's
"First of all, in establishing your price structure,
consider the audience you're selling to. Will they buy at
$3.00 a pound? If so, fine . . . but in any case, you
should charge a minimum of $2.00 a pound for your
product (more, if you decide to add a few spices and label
it gourmet food). An ovenload of fish - approximately 500
pounds - at that price should bring in over $1,000.
"When you calculate your expenses, don't forget that at
least 30% of the weight of an uncleaned fish eventually
ends up as waste. The average is more like 40% and
you'll lose over 50% when you clean some species, such as
amberjack. In addition, still more weight loss occurs in
the oven. It does help to leave the skins on
fillets . . . but even so, a good 20% of an ovenload will
drip onto the fire-shield or simply 'go up in smoke'.
"Let's consider a typical situation. Suppose you bought
1,000 pounds of kingfish at 50¢ per. This half ton of
uncleaned fish will actually 'fillet out' at around 600
oven-ready pounds. Another 180 pounds (30%) will disappear
in cooking, leaving you with 420 pounds of cured fish for
which, in its raw form, you paid $500. Taking into account
wood, spices, gas for the truck, etc., your expenses thus
far total, say, $510.
"Now, if you sell those 420 pounds of cured fish for $2.00
per pound, then your gross income will be $840 . . . and
the net profit comes to $840 minus $510, or a nifty $330.
Not bad for a day and a half of work! This is assuming that
you sell all of what you cook. Note, however, that if you
had paid 75¢ a pound for the raw fish, you would only
have come out ahead $80 for the whole ovenload. In this
instance, the thing to do would be to raise the selling
price to $2.25 or $2.50."
Are big game fish where the big money is in the fish smoking
"Interestingly enough, my best-selling items are little
two-ounce packages of hard-cooked strips. Bars, and
corner groceries that sell beer, buy these by the hundreds
and resell for a modest profit, knowing full well that the
salt in them makes customers crave beer! Naturally, there's
a good bit more labor in cutting out the small strips than
in preparing large fillets for the oven. However, the
little packs bring me 35¢ each, or $2.80 a pound, and
man, do they sell!
"Another lucrative area is custom smoking for fishermen.
Once you're established, outdoorsmen will occasionally
bring all or part of their catch to you for curing. The
advantages to this are that you get paid in advance and
bear no real added costs if you were going to smoke an
"I charge a fee of 45¢ per pound for whole fish, while
headless fish go into the oven for 55¢ a pound, and
fillets 65¢. It's a good idea to set some sort of size
limit for raw fish: say, nothing under ten pounds. This way
you save yourself a lot of unnecessary labor . . . and a
fisherman isn't likely to be disappointed when he sees how
tiny his catch is as it emerges from the oven. Those
smaller fish really shrink during cooking!
"At holiday time, you can pick up a sizable sales bonus by
smoking turkeys. The big birds must stay in the oven longer
than most fish do, but they take a delicious cure and sell
Taylor is quick to point out that there's more to making it
with your own fish-smoking enterprise than merely having
the requisite desire, a place to work, and a boundless
supply of fish and hickory.
"Don't get caught without the proper pieces of paper. If
you're located outside city limits as I am, chances are all
you'll need is a $5.00 vendor's license. However, city
governments differ widely in their requirements, so about
all I can say is be sure you satisfy all local
"Saltwater fish are usually the easiest to come by in
quantity, so make certain you know which species, if any, are
illegal to sell in your area. Also, a Fish & Game
permit is often needed before you can handle freshwater
fish products. This costs five bucks but is generally well
worth the money since some freshwater species-channel
catfish in particular just can't be beat after they've been
smoked for hours over a slow-burning fire!
"About location: I can't emphasize too strongly that a
boulevard location with plenty of road and foot traffic is
a real plus. Of course, you can always go out and hustle
bars and restaurants for a steady income . . . but, with
walk-in business, that won't even be necessary. A good
location on the highway will set you back more for
rent than a rural operation, and may present more problems
with zoning laws, but is, nonetheless, something that you
should consider carefully."