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Meet one of America's fastest-moving sustainable seafood companies

By flying under the radar and focusing on quality over quantity, this firm quietly built up a business with retail giant Whole Foods. Now, it's ready to grow its footprint.

Washington, DC-based Blue Circle Foods isn't a household brand name, but for some it’s about as exclusive as it gets when it comes to sustainable seafood, and farmed salmon in particular.

The group, one of eco-friendly retail chain Whole Foods’ biggest seafood suppliers, has built a reputation on supplying sustainable seafood, and its performance with the retailer has helped it not only grow the business in the chain, but impressed one of its key staffers enough to bring him on board.

Davit Pilat, former global seafood director at Whole Foods, a retailer known for having one of the most exacting specs in the business, worked closely with Blue Circle as a supplier for years, and is giving the company another edge in its growth strategy, President Bill Cole told IntraFish.

When Cole started Blue Circle Foods 12 years ago, with co-founders that included renowned chef and restaurateur Nora Pouillion, farmed salmon was still a non-starter in sustainable seafood circles. So the company had to hunt to balance its mission to meet high environmental standards with the demand for what is now America’s most popular fish.

“For us to get into farmed salmon wasn’t an easy decision,” Cole said.

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The decision was made, though, after discussions with Norwegian salmon farmer Kvaroy Fiskeoppdrett, which has focused on developing some of the most sustainable salmon farming operations on the globe.

“We saw there was a road map to get better,” Cole added.

Blue Circle also counts Icelandic salmon farmer Arnalax as one of its salmon suppliers, another provider recognized for its farming practices.

In addition to fresh and frozen farmed salmon, Blue Circle now supplies Whole Foods exclusively with its Changing Seas brand smoked salmon, and is integral to the group’s new skinpack chilled fish program, which is branded under Whole Foods’ 365 label.

The company also carries Fair Trade-certified Maldives tuna, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified cod, haddock and smoked salmon under its own brand.

Blue Circle, through Whole Foods exposure and other higher-end sellers, has built up a following, Cole said, and the group hopes to parlay that into foodservice expansion and more value-added items.

The company has stuck to its strategy and refused to chase volumes alone or compete in the commodity segment. “It can be a cutthroat world, so we’re really about what we do best,” Cole said.

In addition to product certifications and its own audits, the group also partners with TraceRegister on tracking its products. All the effort pays off, Cole said.

“I think it matters to consumers,” he said. “Once they understand what you are doing and the changes you are making, there’re a shift.”

Pilat, who left Whole Foods after more than two decades to attend to family matters before approaching Blue Circle, said that the biggest mistake he saw in his career as a seafood buyer was suppliers did not push the sustainability story hard enough.

“The big one is still quality,” Pilat said. “Regardless of the certifications you have, your fish has to taste good.”

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