A few days before the Russian invasion, a Ukrainian distributor contacted Abel Álvarez –artificial, with Luisa Cajigal, of the restaurant Güeyu Mar, in Playa de Vega, Asturias– to start selling their cans of sardines in this country. It would be one more point of sale, which would be added to the countries in which it is present, such as Australia, Dubai, Sweden, United States, Germany, Taiwan, Canada, Italy, France, Mexico, Bartholomew Island, United Kingdom, Ireland and Belgium. 50% of the production of Conservas Braseadas Güeyu Mar comes from Spain, although the forecast for this year is to increase exports to 60%, the demand for which is increasing at a rate that frightens the promoter of the idea. The project began in 2016 in a test phase to ensure job stability for restaurant staff during the autumn and winter months, a period of low clientele, closer to the sunny seasons.
“It also stems from an obsession I had for a long time, like putting a canned braised sardine on the restaurant menu,” recalls Álvarez, who immediately realized that could do something else. She didn’t have a factory or machinery to suppress starvation, she had to reinvent the world of canning and change the perception of canned food. A year later, he started canning on the restaurant grills.
“Growth has been big, both to see it as a problem, because we’re growing so much that we don’t have time to train people, stop and think. You can die of success”, he explains, a little overwhelmed by the reception his braised sardines had at first, and now a catalog of around twenty seafood products, hand made. In 2018 the facilities were expanded, as the restaurant is too small for the demand it is beginning to have. It installs a cannery, replicating the grill model of the restaurant, in the Center of Entrepreneurs of Eastern Asturias, in the industrial area of Guadamía, in Ribadesella.
You know you created “a monster, which has more power than the restaurant”. So much so that investors soon start knocking on the door. However, it only gave access to one partner: Juan Carlos Álvarez, owner and director of Vega Sicily, which entered the capital via the Inalmez company with 30%, a percentage which was increased to 38%. The rest belongs to Álvarez.
Out of nowhere, he says, he invented a new business model for the restaurant, which employs 15 people. After braised sardines, new products have arrived, all grilled, such as mussels, octopus, cockles, razor clams, eels… Each year, it puts around 120,000 preserves on the market and, although the business plan , at this time, i.e. in the resting phase, the idea is to bring it to 150,000 units. “Despite the fact that what is growing the most is the international market, I would like to strengthen Spain. We valued the reservedespite the fact that they told us that it had a high price, ”explains the businessman, who works on the development of new fish pates, the design of canned products that do not exist in the market, such as cocochas, eggs of oricios or espardeñas.
Regarding the scarcity of seafood, he claims to be governed by the seasonal genre. “Seasonality is very important, and our products are running out because we can’t always have them.” He also warns that the problem that there was in 2019 and 2020 with the lack of sardines in the Bay of Biscay, today it no longer exists. “There aren’t all the sardines I would like, but there are enough. The same does not happen with eel, that there is a limitation”. As for turnover, he specifies that it has gone from 50,000 euros in the first year to 1.1 million euros in 2021, and the forecast for this year should reach 1.5 million.
He believes that the success of the preserves is also due, in addition to the quality of the product and the technique used, to the visual aspect, to the packaging of the boxes, a kind of sheet of paper. “It’s completely different from what was there. It tells the story of a restaurant that makes preserves. The packaging design, inspired by the comics, is done by the creative agencies Entretanto and Beautiful Buenos Aires, which brag that canned It can be consumed at any time: they develop four stories in which an enthusiastic sardine lives several adventures, until it ends up on the coals. What they hadn’t expected was that he would go around the world.