It was a mid-life career crisis.
After earning degrees in physics, space and computer science and after nine years of teaching high-level computer and business courses at Wright State University, Martin Davis was ready for something different — really different.
Today, the 55-year-old Davis and his son are smoking salmon, selling it from a storefront in an east Dayton neighborhood and at downtown’s Second Street Market.
Davis’ career path took its abrupt turn in March 2013 when his son, Martin Davis III, remarked to his father that no one had ever turned down his smoked salmon.
“That was the ‘aha moment,’” Davis said. “I had been doing it as a hobby for 20 years, smoking for our own family, get-togethers, holidays, for friends. And the salmon never lasted. It always disappeared.”
So Martin decided to take his salmon and his recipe — which had taken 18 years to perfect — from a back-porch operation to a business called Oaked & Smoked. And he asked his son to come along for the ride.
On this day, Davis is preparing three brilliant red slabs of wild sockeye salmon and laying them gingerly into the smoker. He closes the lid and a wisp columns up into the air, filling the room with an oaky, smoky perfume.
Davis’ smoked salmon features a salt-and-brown-sugar brine that took years to proportion correctly. Then he had to find the right kind of wood for the smoker. He tried pecan, cherry, mesquite, hickory, alderwood and finally an oak charcoal.
“That’s when I stopped looking,” he said. “It’s a very Scottish style of smoking salmon. That gives it a very delicate oak flavor. The customers who come in from the East Coast, West Coast and Alaska tend to like that one.”
A second flavor — one he calls Double Oaked — he discovered by accident when he threw chunks of oak wood — not charcoal — into the smoker. When he pulled out the salmon, he thought he had done something wrong.
“It looked almost burnt,” he recalled. “But it was just that the extra smoke had given it a very dark color. Folks in the Midwest tend to like that smoke. It outsells the original by a three-to-one margin.”
A third Asian-inspired flavor is achieved by marinating the salmon in a mixture of soy sauce, sake, ginger, garlic and teriyaki.
Davis and his son have been using their expertise in computers to transform smoking salmon into a science.
Martin III, who got his degree in architectural engineering technology from the University of Cincinnati, wrote and perfected a computer software program that precisely tracks the smoke cycle of each batch of fish and the minute-by-minute temperature. That kind of precision and control is vital in producing artisan smoked salmon.
The Food and Drug Administration requires that the temperature be maintained at a minimum of 145 degrees over a certain period of time to ensure that any bacteria are killed. But the temperature must not get too high or the salmon will bake and the quality will suffer.
Oaked & Smoked opened for business in February. Davis smokes up to 18 pounds of salmon a day and so far has smoked 700 fillets. The fish is sold in plastic, vacuum-sealed bags in either four- or seven-ounce pieces. Bulk orders with customer-specified sizes are also available.
“One Saturday we had a customer who tasted the salmon and in three minutes walked away with $66 worth,” Davis said. “And just last week, one customer placed a $180 bulk order for her and her husband’s enjoyment during the holidays.”
He recently closed a deal to supply smoked salmon to Spinoza’s Pizza & Salads and is in sales discussions with several other retailers.
“We are looking at ways to design our own smoker to increase our production capacity,” Davis said. “If we can do that, we can bring it down to as much of a science as an art and would be able to think about expanding.”
Davis grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn. He fell in love with smoked salmon during family vacation trips out west and to Alaska.
Aspiring to be an astronaut, Davis got his bachelor’s degree in physics and space science at the Florida Institute of Technology near Cape Canaveral. An interest in remote sensing and image processing for radar and other technologies prompted him to get his master’s degree from the University of Tennessee Space Institute. And then there was a Ph.D. in computer science from Georgia Tech.
In 1993, Davis moved to Dayton, where he got involved in working for and starting small businesses.
He joined the faculty at Wright State’s Raj Soin College of Business as an adjunct in 2003, teaching high-level courses on computer architecture, networking, programming and operating systems. He went on to teach full time for several years, as well as administering two master’s programs, and then moved over to Wright State’s Institute for Defense Studies Education, where he managed several projects.
“Of all the institutions where I was as a student, Wright State on the whole is much more about wanting to help students,” Davis said.
Wright State is engaged in a $150 million fundraising campaign that promises to further elevate the school’s prominence by expanding scholarships, attracting more top-flight faculty and supporting construction of state-of-the-art facilities. Led by Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks and Amanda Wright Lane, great grandniece of university namesakes Wilbur and Orville Wright, the campaign has raised more than $107 million so far.
Davis credits his teaching experience at Wright State with helping him develop his people skills, which have become instrumental in the smoked-salmon business. It prompted his son to recently ask his father, “What alien has possessed your body and turned you into such a salesman?”
“That experience in the classroom — to be able to relate something technical and make it relate to students’ personal experiences — made it very easy to make the transition to this,” said Davis. “Turns out having walk-in customers is exactly the same process.”
Martin Davis III said he and his father didn’t really know whether they were going to be able to pull off the start-up business.
“The biggest thing we didn’t want to do was change my father’s recipe,” he said. “If we had done that, we would have become like everybody else and then what would have been the point?”