Since Briana Warner took over as CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms in 2018, she has transformed the company formerly known as Ocean Approved from the first commercially viable seaweed farm in the country to a retail product company that is winning food industry awards and increasing consumer knowledge of kelp as a delicious and climate-positive ingredient, all while supporting Maine’s working waterfront. This transition was made possible with support of targeted funding from CEI and Maine tax-incentivized financing.
The heart of Atlantic Sea Farms is its network of 24 kelp farmers. Since the 2018 transition, the company no longer grows its own kelp to harvest, instead opting to work with Maine fishermen by supplying them with kelp seed, training them on growing techniques and, perhaps most importantly, providing a guaranteed purchase of their entire harvest. The arrangement allows Atlantic Sea Farms to outsource farming to individuals who are knowledgeable about Maine’s waters and have the necessary equipment (boats, ropes) on hand, while it helps the farmers, who primarily fish or lobster, diversify their income.
To create an outlet for increasing amounts of farmed kelp (production increased from 40,000 lbs. of seaweed in FY19 to 800,000 lbs in FY21), Briana has focused on establishing the Atlantic Sea Farms retail brand and selling to ingredient companies and fast casual restaurants as base ingredients. 2020 kicked off strong, with the February launch of a partnership with sweetgreen™, a national fast-casual restaurant chain focused on salads, with a special offering developed by renowned chef David Chang – a partnership profiled in the NY Times and Washington Post.
Atlantic Sea Farms was also preparing to launch their retail food brand, consisting of pureed kelp cubes for smoothies, thaw & eat shredded kelp and fermented seaweed products, like the Good Food Award-winning Sea-Chi. When the pandemic hit, wholesale to retailers and direct e-commerce sales became even more vital. But launching a retail brand, particularly with an unfamiliar key ingredient like kelp, takes a lot of consumer education and advertising.
To date, Atlantic Sea Farm’s growth has been financed by a dedicated group of angel and institutional investors, including CEI. Given the company’s relationship with its kelp farmers, Atlantic Sea Farms was an excellent fit for CEI’s Catalyst Fund, which makes early-stage equity investments in food system businesses that support local agriculture and aquaculture production in Maine and the northeast.
“Entrepreneurs need investors willing to invest in infrastructure,” said Briana. “That’s where CEI first came in. The Catalyst Fund investment gave us the flexibility and time to scale up our value-added products, helping to grow the impact and health of seaweed farming along the coast, with the objective of building a diversified income stream for coastal fishermen in the offseason.”
In late February 2020, Atlantic Sea Farms learned they had also been named to that year’s CEI Tastemakers cohort, a FocusMaine-supported program that provides specialized consulting and investor networking opportunities for emerging food and beverage companies. The $15,000 in funding from the Tastemakers program allowed them to hire iBec Creative, a local digital marketing firm, to develop an online-focused marketing plan that boosted their Google ranking, increase website traffic & ecommerce sales, and launched a targeted brand ambassador program.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” recalled Briana, “because we were applying for funding for more advertising. We knew we needed to do substantial advertising, to get people to know about our products and to drive people both to the store to purchase on the shelf and our store on the Internet. It came at a time when we needed it, as everything just started shutting down. It drove sales directly to our e-commerce site and also the support retailers when we weren’t able to demo in person. It wasn’t a ton of money, but it did a ton for us.”
The ability to hire and pay expert consultants was a key feature of the Tastemaker program for Briana. While she acknowledged there was a critical mass of retired business professionals offering advice on a volunteer basis, she emphasized there was a different level of engagement and service with hired consultants, who “are hard-charging to get the job done because they’re being paid for it by real money.”
Flexible money like that provided by the Tastemaker Initiative isn’t easy to come by, Briana noted: “What was so cool about the Tastemakers funding is that it was quite literally focused on the question, ‘What you need to make your business grow?’ So you could use it to fund things like digital ads, when that is not something there is usually money for. Quite frankly, that flexibility made fifteen thousand worth more to us than fifty thousand dollars would be if it was limited to something like equipment purchases. We could use it on what’s actually going to make us money.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT ATLANTIC SEA FARMS
- Website: https://atlanticseafarms.com/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OceanApproved/
- Instagram: https://instagram.com/atlanticseafarms
LOOKING TO START OR GROW YOUR FOOD PROCESSING OR AGRICULTURE-BASED BUSINESS?
CEI’s Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Program supports an economically just and sustainable food system that creates quality jobs for a diverse workforce and builds wealth and resilience in rural communities. CEI offers free business advising, short & long-term financing and the Tastemakers Initiative, a targeted food and beverage producer accelerator in partnership with FocusMaine. Learn more at: https://www.ceimaine.org/advising/natural-resources/agriculture/