CEOs in the alternative seafood space told a panel during the National Fisheries Institute's (NFI) Global Seafood Marketing Conference last week that they are not shying away from US foodservice, despite much of the sector being shut down for nearly a year due to COVID.

Lou Cooperhouse, CEO of Nutreco-backed cell-based seafood firm BlueNalu, told the panel BlueNalu plans to launch both its mahi mahi and bluefin tuna products into US foodservice channels later this year.

Headquartered in San Diego, BlueNalu is pioneering the category of cellular aquaculture, in which living cells are isolated from fish tissue, placed into culture media for proliferation, and then assembled into fresh and frozen seafood products.

"We want to begin foodservice because our volumes are small," he said. "The foodservice environment offers a way to launch in a limited capacity, but also to learn a great deal."

The California company's goal is building large-scale factories, each producing around 9,000 metric tons per year.

In January, BlueNalu announced the closing of $60 million (€50 million) in debt financing from new and existing investors that will be used in part for a 40,000-square-foot pilot production facility as well as initiating marketplace testing in a variety of foodservice establishments throughout the United States.

While foodservice is the main avenue for the company to introduce its product to American consumers, the playbook for other countries such as Europe and Asia could be different, according to Cooperhouse.

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"We could literally be producing seafood that is on watch lists or is no longer available, or complement the supply chain with species," he said of the company's business model. "We don't see ourselves as an American company, but clearly as a global company."

GM salmon

Sylvia Wulf, CEO of land-based salmon producer AquaBounty, said foodservice remains its target for introducing the first genetically modified salmon to US consumers later this year.

"We like foodservice because that’s where culinary innovation tends to take place," Wulf said.

Foodservice provides the consumer with a "top notch" dining experience, she said, which allows the consumer to try out the product before attempting to cook it at home.

Though the company completed the first harvest of conventional salmon in the second quarter of 2020, the harvest timing for its fish was delayed by the collapse of the US foodservice sector.

That led to lower volumes and higher inventory for the company, a situation it expects to continue through the first half of this year.

Wulf said retail will also be important moving forward, with an even bigger opportunity in the direct-to-consumer model, which has flourished during the pandemic.

More successful than expected

For Christine Mei, CEO of plant-based seafood brand Good Catch, launching several of its new products last July in the midst of a pandemic came with its own challenges.

Mei said Good Catch initially had to pause plans to launch into foodservice last March, as restaurants around the world closed indoor dining options for customers.

Instead, during the first and second quarter of 2020, the company ramped up its retail businesses, which she said proved more successful than expected.

"We found retailers are very open to be able to provide this experience," she said.

Last November, Good Catch announced the nationwide debut in Canada of its frozen, plant-based entrees and appetizers: crab cakes, fish cakes and fish burgers. The products are now available in 640 retailers throughout Canada, including Loblaws, the country's largest retailer.

But Good Catch didn't give up on foodservice altogether in 2020, either.

Last October, the company also launched its first foodservice partnership with US chain Veggie Grille, a fully plant-based, fast-casual restaurant. Veggie Grill now has a limited-edition tuna melt that features Good Catch tuna at its 38 locations across the United States.

Mei said the company's nostalgia-inducing tuna melt is now a permanent menu item at Veggie Grill as of February.

"It’s great news for us and it’s a positive confirmation consumers do accept new ways to have and consume protein," she said.

The company recently also started selling new tuna products at several US Whole Food locations as well.

The plant-based deli-style tuna salad can now be purchased by the pound in the prepared food sections of Whole Food stores in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.