Three generations of fish – and other fine foods
Plett Tourism feature writer René Connelly shares the rich history of Plettenberg Bay’s oldest and possibly most constant businesses – Robberg Fine Foods.
The history of seafood in Plett
Plett is no stranger to the fishing industry, whether organised or informal. In fact, it was a fishing village long before the tourist market was established. The first cargo of whale oil left her shores in 1834 and ultimately it was Cornelius Watson and Percy Toplis, who managed to obtain the first lease to use Beacon Island as a whaling station. One of the original iron pots used to boil the whale blubber can still be seen on the grounds of the hotel, along with a couple of harpoons. Fish has always been an important commodity in Plett. In the 1960s, Commander Cobbold and Jock Hunter ran fishing boats in Plett and sold their wares to the ‘Irvine and Johnson Depot’, located in the old post office building (now Hola Café). This depot was called ‘Robberg Visserye’, and the Ollemans family eventually took over the business and moved it to the Noel Centre, ‘the red brick Georgian style building’, on Plett’s Main Street.
It was inevitable that a full retail business would soon be on the cards, focused on the fishing industry of Plett. According to the SABS, in 1991, Robberg Seafoods became the first company in South Africa to export fresh hake to the more lucrative European market, thereby initiating what has now become a major export industry. From the sea to the markets of Europe our Plett hake took four days, a remarkable feat of organizational skills indeed. Who doesn’t remember fondly the moored boats on Central Beach? In 2015, Robberg sold their longline vessel, the last in the fleet and outsourced the fishing of their Hake Longline Quota. Today, even though there are no boats moored at Central Beach, there is still a steady supply of good quality Hake and line fish which is sourced from other fishing companies along the south coast. Robberg Fine Foods employs a substantial complement of staff and as such contributes greatly to the local economy, making it a very important local treasure.
The ‘big fish’…
Every success story starts with a vision and in the case of Robberg Fine Foods, the man behind the vision is Malcolm Craig. Unassuming, always smiling and the first to enjoy a good joke, Malcolm is about as local as they come. But don’t be fooled by his relaxed demeanour. Inside beats the heart of a true captain of industry and a man of serious mettle. In the early 1970s Malcolm moved from Cape Town, where he left behind his career in banking, to the then small village of Plett and worked together with good friend Louis Ollemans. Days were filled with ‘hard graft’ and steep learning curves and in 1979 Malcolm bought the original Robberg Fisheries from Louis. He partnered with Peter Dodds in 1980, who then in turn opened the Islander Restaurant and sold his shares to Blaine Dodds, his son. “We are still partners today, a lot longer than many marriages have lasted!” remarks Malcolm with a chuckle. The opportunity, the quality of life and the business possibilities made the founding years worthwhile. Starting a company from zero, being pioneers in the squid industry and pioneering the hake longline and export industry, was truly a challenge but having the opportunity to bring up children in a wonderful town such as Plett, has made it all worthwhile.
The early years were fun, fun, fun! Unfortunately, once permits, quotas and BBBEE all came into the mix, and larger companies’ attempts at keeping Robberg out of the market place, the pressure was on. In spite of all the challenges, the company managed to pioneer the squid industry, building facilities to pack and freeze for export. In 1990 they added to their recipe of success by pioneering the hake industry and the export of fresh fish to Europe, and it was all happening, right here, in beautiful Plett. In 1999, the company expanded their retail side by opening Robberg Seafood Safari, a very welcome addition at that. A facelift of the already popular shop in 2018, brings us to the Robberg Fine Foods Store. The perfect vehicle to showcase the brand and all the amazing products on offer, the store is an exciting shopping experience, ticking all the fishy and non-fishy boxes. I asked Malcolm if he had any words of wisdom for young Plett entrepreneurs. “Work hard, work hard, work hard and definitely have fun while doing it, and most of all, enjoy the beautiful space we are privileged to live in. Part of our success is building a strong loyal, innovative team. I have always believed that your staff is your business, if you look after your staff they will look after your business. Always be flexible enough to adapt to constantly changing circumstances. Albert Einstein definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Would he change anything if he could? “Hindsight is a wonderful science, but I can honestly say that I would not change much at all. Maybe charge a bit more for my fish”, says jokester Malcolm.
The ‘other big fish’…
Swapping his sailor’s cap for a skipper’s hat, Blaine Dodds joined the company, fresh from the navy, in 1982. Putting his seasoned sea legs to the task, Blaine operated a trawler out of Knysna for a couple of years and then progressed to ski boats and deck boats in the squid and hake fisheries. Moving from the boat to the boardroom, he started managing the logistics of the growing fishing fleet in the 90s. In 1995, they made it official, as he bought out his father’s shares in the company, became Malcolm Craig’s partner and the rest, as they say, is history. When asked for a few of his business highlights, Blaine remarked that he’s particularly proud of being a part of pioneering the squid and hake long-line industry and developing the export of products. With the ever-growing wholesale division, it was imperative to build a new cold store.
The task of overseeing the design and building of the new 700-ton cold storage facility, for mainly chilled and frozen goods, was added to Blaine’s to-do list. More recently, the renovations and upgrade of the Retail Store, which he did in collaboration with his daughter Roxanne, creating the new image for the shop, incorporating her latest branding, packaging and feel for the company. All work and no play, as the saying goes…but Blaine is no dull boy. Robberg Fine Foods is the anchor (pun absolutely intended) sponsor of ‘The Robberg Fine Foods Classic Beach Regatta’, one of Blaine’s passions. “I have a vested interest in the regatta, as I have competed since the 80s and I’ve won it on numerous occasions. Together with a trusted team, we handle all the aspects of the event. We have gone back to basics with a full-on, fun regatta, incorporating sea starts and for spectator appeal, decided to finish on the beach. We are yet to reach the full participation as in the 80’s but we are gradually building up the event to its former glory”, says Blaine.
The ’little fish’…
It is the natural order of thing for the next generation to eventually move to the forefront and take over the running of a family business. Wayne Craig and Peter-Blaine Dodds have been testing the company waters, as it were, for a while now and both are thrilled about it. It’s always a proud moment when a dad speaks of a son as a successor, and when I asked Malcolm about Wayne, he said, “Wayne, who has garnered experience in an export company, travelling the world on business, running his own restaurant, then a little stint in politics, has already joined us in the company and is well on his way to taking over from the ‘old man’.” The lessons of life and the appreciation for the outdoors is something that Wayne will cherish forever. Growing up in his dad’s business was fun. He remembers fondly, occasions when he would skip school and join Malcolm on an adventure.
In 1986 Malcolm and Blaine bought their first boat, Stentor, from Port Alfred. Wayne and his good friend, Ryan Hunter, joined them on the road trip to bring the boat to Plett. The trip back via the sea was terribly exciting and Wayne remembers with great joy, arriving on Plett shores. The beach was packed with locals as it was the first fishing boat of its size in the village. The NSRI had to collect them and bring them to shore because they didn’t have a rubber duck yet. Amazing memories to treasures. Since joining Robberg Fine Foods in 2017, it has been his top priority to garner new business for the company. Having Malcolm and Blaine as mentors has been an amazing privilege. They have allowed and encouraged the newbies to express themselves freely. Wayne and Peter-Blaine have a close relationship and together they are sure to make a dynamic team. Blaine had this to say of son Peter-Blaine, “He has taken over my portfolio of procuring and trading fish, as well as handling the processing and packaging of same.
He has also proven to be a true entrepreneur and more than capable of forging new business relationships in a professional manner.” It’s a good thing too, seeing as dad is looking forward to competing in local and international Hobie Regattas, with emphasizes first on having fun, then on obtaining a podium position. Peter-Blaine’s experience of growing up in the Robberg family, is one of great joy. His favourite memory is heading down to Central Beach to watch the boats offload and launch the Jolly Fisher to collect squid from the fishing boats at sea. A memory that sticks, is nearly sinking the boat whilst with his late Grandpa, Peter Dodds, when the spine of a red roman punctured the rubber duck’s pontoon. Those were the days. In 2014, he started out as a driver’s assistant and helped in the factory.
Young Dodds appreciates having had the chance to work in the different departments and this has helped him to get to know all the staff and to have a realistic view of how much work goes into getting the job done. His strengths are buying and selling and being able to read the Market and to look out for the potholes ahead. Peter-Blaine’s long-term goal is to take over the running of the company. He loves that Robberg is a family business and considers himself blessed to be able to follow in his grandfather and father’s footsteps. He considers the great team of staff, many of whom watched him grow up, have also become family, to be indispensable and without them his success would not be possible.
The ‘the school’ of fish…
Matuschka Sinclair is part of the furniture at Robberg Fine Foods. She joined the company in 1999, hit the ground running and twenty years later, she’s still going strong. Matuschka was the very first sales rep, calling on clients in Plett, Knysna, George and occasionally Mossel Bay. Over the years her area and client base grew exponentially and today she oversees a formidable sales team of twelve. She remembers, not so fondly perhaps, offloading HUGE trucks filled with chicken and chips, by hand, alongside Clive Harrison, the company’s buyer. Then, relief. After buying a forklift, a decision that wasn’t taken lightly, there was no going back. Loading trucks till late at night, so that they could leave on time in the morning, was just par for the course back then. But it wasn’t all work and no play for Matuschka. Thanks to Robberg, she met her husband, yes, he was a client, and wedding bells and a new family soon followed. “As Malcolm often says, he does not have a ‘highly qualified’ management team, but we are all thoroughly educated in the school of life.
I liken working at Robberg to that of receiving a life sentence, which is not a bad thing, but when you join, you very rarely leave”, says Matuschka. The combined experience of the management team at Robberg, amounts to roughly 111 years and speaking not just for herself, Robberg is woven into the fabric of who they are – like seawater running in their collective veins. All very proud of being part of the dynamic company, the team look forward to many more years of growth and prosperity. Max Sinxo is one of Robberg’s superstars. He started with Malcolm in 1982 and is one of those people who goes the extra mile and beyond. Max always has a smile on his face and every day when the Processing Facility is unlocked, Max is there. At closing time, he’s the last one to leave. No matter how menial the task, his loyalty to Robberg is such that he just gets stuck in and gets the job done. “We are very proud of Max. He is father to a son who is blind, who he has managed to put through university. He is a very proud dad and member of the Robberg Family”, says Matuschka.
From big fish to small fish and everyone in between, the Robberg Seafoods of yesterday and the Robberg Fine Foods of today, holds fast to family values, innovation and producing quality foods to not only the fortunate locals, who enjoy delicious, fresh fish, seafood and other treats, but to the world. What a proud legacy for the next generation. “Reliable service and delivery of quality products at a fair price.” A rarity in today’s world of shortcuts, Robberg Fine Foods’ motto holds true and it is this attitude that has served the community of Plett for many years.