People - March 2007

Fishy fire cannot keep Sunburst from shining
By Chris Richter

Last August, fire destroyed Sunburst Trout Co.’s fish-processing plant. When the smoke cleared, owner Sally Eason found about 75% of the Canton company’s trout caviar, nearly 700 pounds, had been stolen. The business would have to be rebuilt, but it wouldn’t be the first time.

Sunburst lost all its trout in 1986 when severe drought and heat pushed water temperature at the farm above 73 degrees, too hot for the fish to survive. In 2004, heavy rains caused by the remnants of Hurricanes Frances and Ivan nearly destroyed the operation.

Eason’s father, Dick Jennings, started the company in 1948 in Cashiers. A Pittsburgh native, he had grown up visiting North Carolina’s mountains, where his grandfather owned land. Jennings raised mink and trout until 1973. Twelve years later, he moved the company to Canton, near Lake Logan.

Eason, 54, didn’t start out in the family business. She studied nursing at Western Carolina University but left when she got pregnant with her second child. She was a stay-at-home mom when she began doing Sunburst’s payroll part time in 1985. “That morphed into invoicing,” she says. “That morphed into receivables. Before I knew it, I was running all the financials of the company.” She joined full time in 1990 and became president in 1996. Her father remains active with the company and is developing a machine that can remove pin-size bones from fish.

Sunburst sells fish to grocery stores, including Harris Teeter, Ingles Markets and Bi-Lo. The company began producing caviar from trout roe in the late ’80s, selling it in bulk — $25 a pound — to Caviarteria, a New York caviar restaurant and store. In the early ’90s, Sunburst began producing it under its own label. A 2-ounce jar of trout caviar, which is orange and has a buttery taste, runs $28. About 10% of the company’s $1.3 million in sales last year came from caviar.

About 10 years ago, Sunburst opened a kitchen to produce trout jerky, sausage, chowder and other products. The company processes about 7,000 to 8,000 pounds of trout per week and has 18 employees. Three days after the fire, processing resumed, moving to the kitchen.

The company was back to 100% capacity after about two months, and a 4,000-square-foot processing plant — about 300 square feet larger than the one it replaced — opened in late January. Sunburst also added customers, some of whom learned about it because of the fire. “A lot of good has come of such a disaster.”