Innovating in the food industry might require some money but at the heart of it is creativity, and creativity takes a lot of effort. You have to put in everything you have.
Jamie Martínez de Ubago, founder of Conservas Ubago, was an example of this industrial creativity. This name might not sound familiar because, as his children Elisa and Javier explain, “he was always more devoted to the work than promoting it”. However, the names 'concha fina', and 'langostillo' might ring a bell, and older generations in Malaga will remember brands like 'El Cangrejo Pepe' or 'Malagueña Salerosa'.
Born in Madrid in 1916, Jaime Martínez de Ubago came to Malaga in 1952, on an expedition of Galician canning companies, in search of the sardines that were plentiful along this coast at the time. After obtaining a Law degree and marrying Elisa, the daughter of Eugenio Escuredo, owner of a prosperous canning company in Galicia, Jaime had joined his father-in-law's canning business. By the time he started out on his own, he had already worked on innovations like anchovy paste or the first tuna freezers, and had investigated vegetable dehydration and self-heating cans; then his curiosity led him to start an unusual business.
Elisa, despite her wealthy background, had been taught home economics, which did not just make her the perfect person to raise 12 children, but it also meant that she would also end up contributing to the family business, given that, as her daughter Elisa remembers, “education opens doors”. “When our brother Manolo said to my father that he was a 'sardine lawyer', he responded that university had taught him to think.”
With the help of his father-in-law, Martínez de Ubago created the first canning factory in El Perchel, in the area where the Centro Comercial Larios is situated today. Easy access to raw materials contributed to the start of this business. The company owner had the invaluable help of two women. His wife Elisa, sorted out matters from feeding the workers to optimising the production line. Carmen, 'la Gallega', a Mary Poppins-type figure, kept everything in order in a house filled with children.
On top of sardines, Ubago introduced another novel product - canned stuffed squid in oil. However, after ten years, the raw materials started to run out and they had to get serious. The couple were passionate about the study of food and were interested in how canned fish could be an accessible source of protein for low-income households. From this, the idea of canned mackerel and marlin was born.
Returning from an unpromising trip to find the company's new leading product, he found a 'corruco', a large clam without commercial interest that was fished because it fed on other small clams (almejas and coquinas) that were eaten. He paid 15 pesetas for one sackful and he brought it home.
“My mother and father carried out tests, some of which smelled awful. We thought that they had gone mad,” laughs Elisa. They eventually found the right broth to cook the new shellfish in and named their product the 'langostillo'. They went around the whole of Spain giving out sample cans.
“They returned very discouraged, because no one wanted their product, but two months later they started to receive telegrams from bars that wanted it. They even asked for the liquid from the cans to use as stock for paella. The recipe for this liquid is top secret like the formula for Coca Cola,” says Elisa.
The 'langostillo' became the star product of Ubago, but the inventing continued: self-heating cans, which ended up feeding the Spanish army; the 'concha fina', a commercial name which Martínez de Ubago coined to replace the unappetising name 'concha cebollera' used among fishermen; the 'cangrejo Pepe', the unusual predecessor of crab sticks; anchovy-stuffed olives; low-calorie canned products and easy-open cans. He went on to open in Malaga the first Spanish smoked salmon factory. Jaime Martínez de Ubago introduced chemical peeling, used until then for tomatoes and peaches, to fish processing. The idea, while initially criticised, is still used today in the industry.
Yet what enabled the company to expand until it became an enterprise which today employs over 4,000 people, was the founder's ability to pass on his concerns and attitudes to his numerous offspring, to make teams and take advantage of the potential of each member, to realise that making mistakes is a vital part of learning, and to invest in research. The firm signed groundbreaking agreements with the Oceanography Institute to study the biology of the 'corruco'.
“Every opinion interested him; he took advantage of the abilities of everyone and broke ground with this way of listening and letting in anyone who had initiative,” Javier adds.