Q&A with CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms

/ / Business, Food & Flavor

Atlantic Sea Farms began 2020 with landmark accomplishments. Their food service partnerships were bigger than ever, providing ready-cut kelp for David Chang’s kelp bowl created for Sweetgreen restaurants, seaweed kimchi for B.GOOD restaurant’s burgers and a kelp puree for salad dressing at Western Pennsylvania restaurant Lil’ Bit.

Then the coronavirus pandemic business shuttered restaurants, and Atlantic Sea Farms — which had sold 90% of their Maine kelp to food service establishments — had to flip their business model. Their new fermented products (Fermented Seaweed Salad, SeaChi, SeaKraut) and frozen Ready-Cut Kelp and Kelp Cubes became the focus of kelp processing. Atlantic Sea Farms will end 2020 processing 900,000 pounds of kelp and selling their retail product in 800 stores.

“People are excited about what we’re doing. We’re fermenting seaweed, and it tastes really damn good. We have retail buyers even at a time when every store is limiting SKUs, and they want our product,” says Brianna Warner, CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms. “The seaweed people typically eat in the United States is imported dry, rehydrated, then dyed with all the same chemicals that’s in Mountain Dew. But we are making a fermented seaweed that’s fresh, healthy and has all the goodness that comes from fermentation and kelp.”

Atlantic Sea Farms launched nine years ago as the first seaweed farm in the country. The majority (98%) of seaweed Americans eat  is imported from Asia dried and unnaturally dyed. American-grown seaweed is still a new concept. When Warner became CEO two years ago, she set big goals for the small company. She wants Atlantic Sea Farms to provide alternative income sources for Maine’s lobster farmers, clean the water to aid climate change and make healthy food. They’ve increased the amount of kelp they produce to 14 times what they did two years ago and, by 2021, they will be in retail locations all over the U.S.

Coming on  the heels of numerous awards for their one-of-a-kind, fermented kelp-based products, Warner spoke with TFA about Atlantic Sea Farms.

TFA: Tell me how your work at the Island Institute (Maine’s community sustainability non-profit)  introduced you to Atlantic Sea Farms.

Briana Warner: At the time, Atlantic Sea Farms was called Ocean Approved and they were basically just a farming company. They were growing seeds and farming and I’m a development economist by trade. I was in the foreign service for a number of years before I moved to Maine. And the big question that the Island Institute was trying to solve and why they hired me as their first economic development director is we’re so dependent on this natural resource, which is lobster. It’s a lobster monoculture, we’re one of the most rural states in the country, we’re the oldest state in the country as far as demographics go, and there’s very little else in many of these communities other than lobster. There just is no diversity.

At the same time in Maine, we’ve had 10 of the best lobster farming years in the past 20 years. But that is worrying. Why? We know the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of oceans worldwide, and we know that’s because there’s arctic ice melt that’s creating a confluence of currents that gives the best opportunity for lobsters to thrive here. But what that ultimately means is it will continue to warm. And it will continue to warm to the point that lobsters are no longer surviving at the rate than they’re surviving now. 

So with my economic development background, the ultimate solution is to provide alternative supplemental sources of income now while people have the money to invest in it. This is a way to absorb some of the shock of that lobster volatility so that in 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years, whenever it is that lobster isn’t as secure as it is now. And it’s not secure now either — we know there will be lobsters now, we just don’t know where the price is, we don’t know where it will go, that’s some of the volatility, and all the eggs are in that basket.

The ultimate proof of concept is if we’re able to help people adapt to this kind of economic change and at the same time, mitigate some of its climate change effects. Because when you plant seaweed, you’re actually removing carbon and nitrogen from the water and reducing acidification locally. So it’s this incredible crop that’s off season to the lobster income.

I started working with fishermen to start getting them into seaweed, but the problem is there is no institutional buyers at scale in the entire country. We were the first commercial seaweed farm in the country, when I joined, they were just farming their own seaweed but not buying anything from anyone else. So we really had to think big about what could the supply chain look like? And how could we make this a viable alternative income for fishermen?

The answer to that is, first, make a good product that people want. Second, make sure that that money goes back to the fishermen. And that’s really what our entire business model is based around. Coming up with products that are really delicious, putting them out there in a way that’s accessible, because right now 98% of the seaweed that we eat in the United States is imported, Fresh seaweed is not something anyone has had in the United States. This is a totally different product from the very very cheap stuff that comes from Asia, and it’s a very clean product because it’s grown in the clean, cold waters of Maine by independent fishermen farmers. And it tastes good. Our supply chain that we’ve built from that narrative, we create all the seeds in house, we give them out to our farmers for free, then we guarantee purchase of every single blade of kep that they grow.

When someone is buying a jar of our Fermented Seaweed Salad, that money is going back quite literally into the pockets of fishermen because our whole supply chain is built around as much as we can sell, the more we can put in the water and buy. Then we can make the ocean cleaner, we can make the coast healthier from an economic perspective, and the products are really good for the consumer and taste good. So it’s sort of this five-legged stool that we’re constantly working towards. 

TFA: How does kelp farming work?

BW: Our fishermen usually have four-acre farms, so you lease the water. You have to get a permit and a lease (from the state), which takes many months if not years. And we help them with all of that. We provide all the technical assistance for their site selection and leasing requirements. And then on four acres,  they put two mooring balls at either end of about 1,000 foot of line, and they do this 13 times on the farm. They put it about  7-feet under water, so all you can see is mooring balls. They put it on these 1,000-foot, horizontal ropes and the kelp starts growing.  Kelp grows up to 6-inches a day in the warmer summer months. So it really grows very quickly. We harvest what we call a baby kep because it’s so young. Because it’s at the top of the water column, its this incredibly high-quality food that allows us to serve it fresh in a way that wild harvest wouldn’t because wild harvest you don’t know if you’re getting a 4-year-old plant or an 8-year-old plant whereas, with us, we’re harvesting very young, very tender, very clean kelp that’s  at top of the water column.

Right now, we work with 24 kelp farmers. It’s owner-operator run, they have the license to fish and own their own boat. Our farmers work lobster season from June to November, plant our kelp seeds in November and December, then start harvesting them in April. Kelp is the inverse of lobster season.

TFA: Atlantic Sea Farms was just a kelp farm when you joined the company two years ago. Why expand to commercial products?

BW: We were growing 30,000 pounds of kelp a year when I came on in 2018, and now our kelp farmers are growing 900,000 pounds of kelp a year. We rebranded and came out with all these products in 2019 because 30,000 pounds is such a small scale. Nobody is going to make money from doing that, especially farmers. If we really want to make an impact on the coast, there’s a sense of urgency to build this quickly and make sure that we get the scale that we need so we can actually help absorb some of that shock. 

Most lobster in America is actually sold to restaurants. But with COVID, people had absolutely no idea what kind of season they were going into this year. It was terrifying. But we were able to send out an email before kelp harvest season saying “There’s a whole lot to worry about right now, but us picking up is not one of those things. We will be there and we will honor every commitment we have.” And it was not easy. It was very, very challenging. And we did it. Because we know above all else, integrity along this coast is what we’re built on and what we’re doing this for. So if we can’t do that, what are we doing? So we picked up, by the last dollar we had.

We were mostly working in food service, that’s why there was such a big fallout. But we had these fermented products that were used in some food service locations but were mostly part of our regional brand we were building in New England. We have our jars, we have our frozen products. They were just in the region. And we really just turned it on its head and went after buyers of national chains for retail and switched our food service to retail. We’ll be launching in Sprouts in January with our frozen products, we’re in several regions of Whole Foods already and we’ll be in more starting in April, we’re in MOMS, Wegmans, all these places where there are ferments. We feel very blessed and very lucky, we’ve been working our tails off. I can’t quite say it’s worked yet. We’ve got these placements, now we’ve got to slam these out. In June we were in 100 stores but by January, we’ll be in 800 stores.

TFA: What does Maine kelp taste like?

BW: It’s very fresh, very vegetal, very light. For our ready cut, for our cubes and for our fermented salad, We blanche it so it knocks off the sort of low-tide taste. That also gives it the green color because, when you dip seaweed in hot water, it turns bright green, so we don’t ever use any dyes or anything. For our SeaChi and our Sea-Beet Kraut, we use it raw because people want those kick-in-your face flavors. If you like kimchi, you’re not going to be afraid of a pretty hard umami taste. It makes our SeaChi so good to have that deep, ocean flavor on it that you’d usually have to use fish sauce for. The blanched seaweed really tastes super mild. It kind of takes on the flavor of whatever you put in it. It’s loaded with calcium, potassium and iodine. 

TFA: Have you seen Americans’ perceptions of eating seaweed change? Do you think their perceptions of fermented food have changed, too?

BW: Absolutely. With seaweed, two of the top importers of seaweed are Trader Joes and Costco. People are eating it. There’s nori sheets everywhere and there’s sushi restaurants in the farthest reaches of America. It’s everywhere. People have definitely gotten a taste for seaweed. It’s new for Americans to have it in a form that’s not dried. People want to know where their food comes from, they want to know the food they are eating is regenerative, which is what kelp is, it’s taking carbon and nitrogen out of the water. We don’t use any arable land, we have no fertilizer, we have no fresh water, it’s like this climate change diet dream, everything in it is better for the environment. People also want to know the people connected to it — all our products have the faces of our farmers on it — it checks all those boxes. Let alone it tastes good and it’s good for you.

That’s similar with fermentation. Years ago, fermentation might have been ripe to have it on the menu, but quite frankly, everything out there wasn’t that good. It was these plastic bags of sauerkraut that tasted like pork and sauerkraut. There wasn’t anything else out there. Then you saw some kimchi coming out in the market that you didn’t really know what it said because there wasn’t a whole lot of English writing on it. Then the branding started coming and it started being in more food. For fermentation, it’s been a slow but obvious move because it’s good for you and, again, it tastes good. We just have to take the intimidation factor out, and I think fermentation did that already, and now we’re trying to do that with seaweed.

TFA: Why ferment seaweed?

BW: Part of it is that’s the best way to store it. But the other part of it, the Venn diagram between people who eat kimchi and people who are excited about beet kraut and fermented foods and those who aren’t intimidated at all by seaweed is pretty overlapping. There are few people who say “I like fermented food — but seaweed, ew.” The low hanging fruit is so substantial. That’s kind of our first folks we can approach, they can be our true believers and then they help us advocate for what we’re doing.

TFA: How much time did it take to perfect these recipes?

BW: I’d been playing with them for years. SeaChi was something I was doing — buying kimchi and putting our kelp in it. And the Sea-Beet Kraut came from the fact that beets and kelp really go well together, they’re both very sweet and ferment well together. We spent months trying to figure out how to not make that sugar turn it into a mess of purple explosion.

 But we started working with this wonderful company called Chi Kitchen Foods based out of Rhode Island, and they make kimchi and vegan kimchi. So we basically took the recipes as far as we could take it, then we brought it to Minnie (Minnie Luong, founder Chi Kitchen Foods) and basically begged her to help us figure it out. Our speciality is in kelp. We do all the kelp, and then they make the kimchi. They basically helped us commercialize our fermented products. 

TFA: Tell me about being a female CEO. Females often make the purchasing decisions for the home. What perspective do you bring to the table? 

BW: On top of female CEO, female CEO in seafood. That’s been rarer. Seafood is a white male-dominated category. Most of the fishermen we work with are men — we have one woman.

We have an absolutely broken food system. Things don’t work. People aren’t making more money who are producing the food. The good food is not getting cheaper, and the bad food is getting cheaper. Food is one of the biggest polluters to our planet. Our priorities in what we eat and how to get the food to our table are completely off center and completely broken and creating a massive devastation both on our health and on the health of the environment. 

This is not to slight my male counterparts, but that thinking happened under the leadership of men. So instead of taking the same thinking and trying to slightly adjust it, let’s absolutely rethink how we look at our food system. That’s going to take different minds, and it’s going to take different approaches. And I think women are in the best position to do that. We want to feed our children and we want to feed our planet. We look beyond five years in the future. Our plan is our grandchildren and the health of our families and the health of us. While that may be a vast generalization, I think we really need to look at who broke the system and how we can fix it. And that’s going to take all types of thinking. 

TFA: Where do you see the future of fermented products?
BW: The future of fermented foods is wide open. We’ve seen, there’s been such a shift in the past year or two in branding, flavor. It used to be sort of this niche thing of a few sauerkrauts and kimchis that all varied in taste only slightly. Then everyone started doing a bunch of cool stuff with those products in their home kitchens or in restaurants. But you couldn’t find those cool things on the shelf. I think we’re starting to see people looking beyond cabbage and recognize that fermentation can happen in so many forms. Just like the homebrewers spurred craft brewers. People are realizing there’s a lot of innovation to be had and buyers are realizing the fermented category isn’t limited to just health food people anymore. It’s people who really want to get those probiotics but also the flavor of the fermentation in the first place. Kombucha has shown us that, obviously. There’s a lot of different forms of fermented stuff out there right now that people are going to simply because it says the word fermented. The possibilities, I think we’re just at the beginning.