Caviar, diamonds, chinchilla are age-old terms that bring forth images of extreme wealth and delicacy. A block off North Cobb Parkway, Gary Shuel operates Atlanta Smokehouse Products, where there is sparse English, but an olfactory overload of specialty smoked fish products that have become so dear to Jewish gastronomy.
A native of Riga, Latvia, Shuel lines the front of his facility with Russian products ranging from Ukrainian rye bread, blintzes, pear caramel cake, pickles, Siberian dumplings, whole frozen cherries, and ohhhh the fish: smoked steelhead trout, salmon belly, traditional lox and nova, white fish chums, and red and black caviar.
Shuel grew up with a family that understood smoking fish. After his very modest bar mitzvah, he majored in economics in Riga, but felt that he had no future there. He came to Stone Mountain in 2001 where he worked in golf course maintenance. After studying English and figuring out immigration laws with a stint in Canada, he moved to Jacksonville, where he learned the fish business. “I got in the crosshairs of 9/11 and had to work to get the right papers.”
Now partnering with Uzbekistani Jew Seva Sagalchik, they operate the smokehouse, where the brining, shipping, sales and production take place. They have five employees, many walking around in plastic knee boots to sludge through the saltwater behind the scenes. Atlanta was chosen because of its access to central shipping and ports.
About 40 percent of the business is retail. You can go to the counter and buy items. Interestingly, the business is located adjacent to Goldbergs bagel company headquarters. Berta Mebel, another Riga native who knew his family and Shuel as a child, said, “We love Gary’s herring and caviar, especially on Wednesday, when it goes on sale, … a whole herring for under $3. My husband Lev gets busy at home trimming the herring. We add onions and a bit of oil; and it’s far better than what you get in a jar.” The other 60 percent of the business is wholesale, conducted with notable accounts such as The Fresh Market, Inland Seafood, New England Marine, Roswell Provisions, and upscale restaurant Le Bilboquet in the Shops Buckhead. Atlanta Smokehouse also ships pallets of seafood to San Francisco and Brooklyn. “Our customers really load up on caviar and white fish to make salads on the Jewish holidays,” Shuel said.
At the back of the warehouse, they have both hot and cold smoking. The cold room for nova and lox is set at 70 to 80 degrees. The hot smoker runs at 145 degrees for about 30 minutes. Shuel explained. “Typically in the smoker at one time, we would have 150 paddlefish wrapped in strings for holding, weighing 10 pounds each. The more we smoke, the deeper the flavor. Paddlefish is a cousin to sturgeon. Fish is tested routinely at a lab in Norcross to maintain the highest of health standards.”
Shuel’s caviar is imported from nearby rivers and lakes such as the Mississippi. He explained that the average fish around 3 to 5 years old is cut up to yield 4.5 pounds of roe. The eggs have to be washed and salted before they are packaged. Black caviar sells for from $200-$600 a pound. Red caviar from salmon goes for $40-$60 per pound. Atlanta Smokehouse is not kosher. Shuel relates that the black roe yielding hackleback and sterlet fish are not kosher, but the red salmon could be (if under supervision). Buying from fishermen is regulated by the state, and Shuel eschews working with bootleggers.
Aquaculture, the production of delicacies such as cured fish, is also big business in Canada, China, Iran, Italy and Saudi Arabia. A kibbutz on the Dan River in Israel is in the mix. The word “caviar” is from Persian meaning “egg bearing.” Caviar has multi vitamins, including omega 3 and B12. Perhaps the most famous, beluga caviar, is from the Siberian region.
Shuel is married and the father of two. He tries to visit his parents Raya and Efim in Latvia annually.
Atlanta Smokehouse Products is open to the public most days at 10 a.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is located at 1700 Enterprise Way, Suite 107, Marietta.