Co-owner of the Sunburst Trout Farm on N.C. 215 near Bethel, Sally and her family have operated the business since 1948, when her father Dick Jennings decided to start hatching and selling fish eggs. Cool, damp weather is ideal for raising the robust fish, whereas warm, sunny conditions tend to hamper their productivity and growth.
“We’re always finding ways to bring the water temperature down,” Sally said. “Rain always brings it down, so we loved this summer. We were jumping up and down because the weather here can be so tricky.”
Through the good, the bad, and the ugly, Sunburst Trout has persevered and evolved into a national brand for high-quality trout products, many of which finding themselves on the plates of the some of the finest restaurants in the country.
“We all work very hard to make the greatest products possible,” Sally said. “We could never walk away from this — this is where we want to be.”
A family affair
The Bethel trout farm bordering the Pigeon River and Lake Logan has its own processing facility onsite. Inside, it’s a full-on assembly line. Filled with employees and family members alike, the space is aimed squarely at finding and perpetuating the best ways possible to clean, slice, transport and smoke the highly sought after trout.
The seven-acre property is home to thousands of trout. With each weighing around two pounds, Sunburst is able to harvest around 300,000 pounds of product a year, from fillets to dips, caviar to trout cakes. For each two pounds of fish, one pound of useable meat is gathered.
Cleaning the innumerable trout that pass through his hands before they enter the fillet slicer, Sally’s son, Ben Eason, has been working at Sunburst for the last 12 years. He wears many hats in the family business.
“I do a lot of different things,” he smiled. “Leader on the floor, financial duties in the office, which makes me the CFO (chief financial officer). I’m a jack of all trades.”
Heading into the office, Sally’s other son, Wes Eason, sales manager, is busy figuring out new marketing strategies and ways to push their brand further into the national market. Like Ben, he worked on the farm as a teenager, gathering trout and burying fish guts. The brothers both went their own ways, each eventually coming back to their home in Haywood County. An employee of Sunburst since 2001, Wes knew pretty early on this was a company he wanted to be part of.
“When I was a kid, I was grunt, pulling fish and burying guts. But, working here as an adult, I quickly realized we were feeding the masses,” he said. “When people started recognizing us nationally, I started to look at it completely different. All of a sudden, I had more pride. It wasn’t just cutting fish anymore, it was providing a high-quality product for people.”
Outside, tinkering away with materials and repairing, well, whatever needs to be repaired, is Sally’s husband, Steve Eason. Working for Sunburst since he began raising eggs in 1975, he’s been a believer in the product since day one.
“It’s just a feeling of putting out an exceptional product that we have control of from the beginning right up until the consumer picks it up,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is the most good for our employees, get a nice healthy product out for the consumer and doing it in a sustainable way.”
In the beginning
Following World War II, Dick Jennings, a veteran and Pittsburgh native, was looking to find a home in the woods of Southern Appalachia that he had wandered as a child. In 1948, he started Jennings Trout Farm in Cashiers, raising and hatching eggs. By 1965, he decided to relocate and expand the business in Haywood County at the current location in Bethel. Leasing the land from the former Champion International Paper (now Evergreen Packaging), the property lent itself to nurturing the trout in a vibrant, peaceful environment.
“In the 1960s, in the South, it was a time when really the only fish eaten were fish sticks or maybe catfish,” Sally said. “So, the idea of my dad wanting to process trout and sell it commercially was way ahead of its time, but it was always in the back of his mind when he came here.”
In 1975, while living in Michigan, Sally and Steve were on hard times finding enough work during an economic recession. Sally was a pediatric nurse, while Steve had degrees in marketing and parks and recreation. Jennings had always mentioned to Steve if he ever wanted to get into the trout business, there’d always be work for him in Haywood.
“We moved here and I got into the hatching business,” Steve laughed.
Soon, the children were born. Wes, then Ben, and then Katie. In 1985, Sally herself took on the role of bookkeeper on top of helping run the office. The family was growing alongside the business.
“My father-in-law harkened from Pennsylvania. I’m from Michigan, and we’ve laid down deep roots here,” Steve said. “I just fell in love with it here — the pace, the beauty, the good folk.”
Soon, Jennings Trout Farm was renamed Sunburst. And as Jennings grew older, he slowly transitioned the company over to the rest of his family. But, at 89 years old, he’s still just involved and passionate as he was in 1948.
“He’s so fired up; he’s super excited about what we’re doing and where we’re going,” Sally said. “Every time he comes down to visit here, he’ll say, ‘Now, let me tell you what you need to be doing different.’”
Fire on the Mountain
But it hasn’t all been smiles and success for Sunburst. The establishment has gone through its shares of calamities. Over the course of the last decade, the company has weathered a series of droughts and floods. With too little water, the fish die. With too much water, the buildings get destroyed and fish escape. In 2004, Hurricane Frances and Ivan, some 10 days apart, descended onto Haywood County, hitting Sunburst with many physical and financial blows.
“Frances and Ivan covered this entire property with water,” Sally said. “You can only control the weather so much. We’ve gotten better at that, but droughts and floods can kill thousands of our fish.”
In 2006, the unthinkable happened — the business burned to the ground. An arsonist robbed and set fire to Sunburst, stealing thousands of dollars of valuable caviar in the process. The real loss, though, was decades of hard work, sacrifice and investment. To this day, the arsonist has yet to be apprehended. This setback didn’t deter those at Sunburst. In fact, in many ways only made them stronger.
“When I came down here the day after it burned up, I was furious. It was an evil act for someone to come here and burn my business down,” Sally said. “You will not stop us. Nothing will stop us.”
Finding a balance
And rebuilt they have. Since its inception, Sunburst has maintained a high standard of quality alongside a keen sense of sustainability. They hold tight to the notion of not destroying one’s backyard. To them, it’s about making sure preserving the landscape is just as much a priority as the trout itself. Simply put, quality of life equals a quality product.
“We compost everything and don’t waste any water,” Sally said of the more than 12,000 gallons of water per minute that flow through the facility. “It gets cleaned up and put back in the river. We take care of the land and the properties as if our lives depended on it. You’ve got to keep everything clean, and that ultimately impacts the flavor.”
Besides feeding the fish non-hormone food and making sure the oxygen levels are high enough in the water, Sunburst is constantly making strides to find new and innovative ways to make sure the trout is just as tasty as it is sustainable to the local ecology.
Plans are already in motion is be able to take all of the meat from the fish and turn it into other avenues of food products for everyone to enjoy, regardless of their economic situations. This translates into the next phase for Sunburst, one that will see them push further and farther into new technologies and facilities.
“Building it to what it is today, the fact that my grandfather took his experiment, this project, this hobby of his and made it into this is why I don’t ever want to let this come to an end,” Ben said.
The next chapter
With a much-needed addition of space for the processing facility in recent years, Sunburst began looking around for options to expand. It had planned on keeping any new enterprises within reach of the N.C. 215 location, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Between expensive properties and locations that didn’t offer enough room, the family finally found what it was looking for — a 12,000-square-foot building in the Waynesville Industrial Park.
“We still need to and will grow the fish in Bethel,” Sally said. “But, the processing will now take place in the city.”
With their new location in their crosshairs, the final piece of the puzzle came when Sunburst received word that it had gotten a $250,000 working capital grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Add that to a matching loan from Home Town Bank and the company is ready to fire on all cylinders.
“It’s amazing how people from around the community have come together to support us,” Sally said. “It’s a huge vote of confidence, and we don’t take that lightly.”
Standing in the proposed facility at the industrial park, Sally is excited to see what the future holds. Sunburst is already in talks with Haywood Community College to offer internships for students looking to major in entrepreneurship, fish/wildlife biology and an array of other fields. With processing moving to Waynesville, the Bethel building will soon return to hatching eggs.
“We’d also like to offer tours so people around here can see in one day what it takes to turn an egg into food,” she said.
The company is also looking to host tastings, tours, workshops, classes and build a laboratory kitchen on the new site where Sunburst Chef Charles Hudson can continue to experiment and improve the product line.
“It’s such a great feeling to get an order from a chef in New York City and say, ‘OK, they’re swimming now, and we’ll have them to you and on your plate by tomorrow,’” Wes said. “Even cooler is to say to a chef in Asheville, ‘They’re swimming now, and we’ll have it to you in five hours and on your plate tonight.’”
Open for business
Adding to these endeavors is the recent opening of the Sunburst Market on Main Street in downtown Waynesville. Though it started two years ago on Montgomery Street in the city, the new location opens itself up to more foot traffic, curious customers and loyal consumers. Behind the counter at the market is Sally’s daughter, Katie Hughes — the final family addition to the business.
“All of the stars kind of aligned at the right time for me,” she said. “I think that what I bring to the party didn’t fit until now. Everyone in our family brings something different to the table. I love where the store is going and think it has much potential moving up.”
Manager of the market since its opening, Katie, like her older brothers, worked for Sunburst as a teenager. She went her own way, eventually finding herself alongside her family helping the business survive and thrive with each new challenge.
So, what is it about her family and its lifelong passion for Sunburst?
“It’s good old-fashioned stubbornness. I don’t know, it’s in our bloodline,” she said. “Quitting never really seemed like an option. It wasn’t closing the doors on your job; it would be closing the doors on all we’ve grown up knowing.”
Those sentiments are something echoed by Wes. Sunburst is more than a business — it’s part of who the family is. And, like any good family, you stick together through thick and thin.
“Our stubbornness is passed down from generation to generation. It’s resilience. You’re looking at a group of people that refuses to fail. Most of it is hard work, and the product sells itself,” he said. “We’ve seen it all, from theft to fire, droughts to floods, struggling sales and needing more customers. Now, the only problem is having enough inventory and meeting demand, and that’s a pretty great problem to have.”
By the numbers
• The company was founded as Jennings Trout Farm in 1948.
• Sunburst moved to its current location in 1965.
• Average trout weighs around two pounds, with about one pound of useable meat on the body for fillets.
• Total revenue for 2013 is up 44% compared to 2012.
• Value-added sales — everything besides fresh trout — are 35% of total sales.
• $480,000 worth of fingerlings were purchased from trout farmers around Western North Carolina in the last year.
• It takes a total of 55 minutes to take the trout from the water, through processing and into the cooler ready for delivery.
Source: Sunburst Trout Farm
Want to know more?
The Sunburst Market is located at 142 N. Main St. in Waynesville. Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 1 to 7 p.m. Sunday. Besides their own products, the market also carries a wide variety of other local, organic foods and beverages, with feedback and suggestions always welcome.
828.452.3848 or www.sunbursttrout.com.
From the pond to the cooler
The time from pond to cooler for trout fillets is 55 minutes. Below is the exact process, as explained by Sunburst Trout Farm:
8 a.m. — Capture trout from water. Small numbers are netted by hand (never more than 1,000 pounds) put into ice slurry to start the cooling process, and taken to the processing plant only steps away.
8:20 a.m. — Trout quietly cool until they are still, and then transported into the splitting pan where they are prepared by a machine designed and built by Sunburst. They are now ready for the Swiss built filleter.
8:30 a.m. — Once the trout pass through the filleter, the meticulous work of trimming is done by hand.
8:40 a.m. — Following a thorough wash, the fillets are moved to the sorting, grading station. It is here that the fillets are selected by size, color and uniformity and the few fillets that are deemed to be inferior are culled. If the fillet is to have the pin bones removed, they then are moved to the station, where this task is done by a U.S. built machine. Each fillet is then examined, and any pin bones missed are removed by hand.
8:55 a.m. — On to the weighing station where the fillets are bagged for each customer and immediately put into the 10 degree cooling room. The secret is to finish what the ice has started and get the trout to 36 degrees as fast as possible.