LoveTheWild, the high-profile, plucky seafood startup that raised millions from investors as it burst onto the global stage, has come face-to-face with the harsh reality of the US retail market.

The early days of LoveTheWild were filled with glowing press, big promises and financing from mega-star Leonardo DiCaprio.

But, as LoveTheWild's founders quickly learned, seafood is not an easy game to change.

"It’s a sad statement on what we as an industry have done to ourselves," Jacqueline Claudia, CEO of Love the Wild, told IntraFish.

"The market isn’t growing. Yes some businesses are growing, but they are simply taking share from other seafood companies. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

In May 2019, the company decided to exit US retail entirely, Claudia said, and is now looking at different channels and geographies.

The company, which was formed in 2014 with a mission to change perceptions around aquaculture and innovate the frozen sustainable seafood space, was at one point listed in 3,000 stores across the United States, including Whole Foods, Wegmans, Target, Sprouts and Safeway.

Businesses are simply taking share from other seafood companies. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Riding the roller-coaster

Claudia entered the seafood industry while working on the Kampachi Velella offshore demonstration project with Lockheed Martin. She launched LoveTheWild with co-founder Christy Brouker (who left the company in 2018), with an enthusiasm for changing the seafood sector.

LoveTheWild's fast-growing popularity, aided in no small part by Claudia's background in marketing, soon caught the interest of private equity group Aqua-Spark, which invested $2.5 million (€2.3 million) into the company in 2017.

The plan at the time, Aqua-Spark said, was for LoveTheWild to reach more than 6,000 stores by 2021 and "make sustainable seafood available to everyone."

Soon after, the company made the explosive announcement that actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio would invest a substantial amount into the company, and join as an advisory board member. DiCaprio continues to be an investor, and still serves on the company's advisory board.

In September of the same year, LoveTheWild nabbed $25,000 (€23,135) in funding as well as mentoring opportunities from Greek yogurt company Chobani.

By this time, Aqua-Spark had invested a total of $3 million (€2.8 million) in the company's operations as part of its financing program.

A few months later, LoveTheWild announced its products were being carried nationwide by Whole Foods, which said at the time it would carry three items in over 420 of its stores.

When we invested early on, we knew it was going to be a hard road.

--Amy Novogratz, Aqua-Spark

By June 2018, LoveTheWild had expanded to nearly 2,700 stores nationwide.

In January 2019, the company announced it was conducting a "national relaunch" with product rollouts at Whole Foods for several barramundi, shrimp and rainbow trout offerings.

The group overhauled its packaging by moving to a smaller box, and shifted from a recyclable plastic sauce tray to a plant-based fully compostable tray and film to significantly reduce waste as part of the process.

Meanwhile, the company's retail success had begun to slowly fade.

All of the company's meal kits with Wegmans were discontinued last year due to declining sales, and LoveTheWild's products slowly disappeared from other retail shelves as they failed to catch on, and faced a market dynamic of increasing production costs, rising slotting fees and consumers' low price expectations.

Difficult sourcing strategy

Claudia long-touted LoveTheWild's ability to offer "every fish traceable back to the source" as part of the brand's sustainability bona fides.

The majority of the farms, which at one point included Pacifico, Fish Breeders of Idaho, Plymouth Springs Fish Co., John O Foods and Norwegian salmon farmers Kvaroy, no longer continue to supply product to the group.

Claudia said the company's sourcing strategy of premium aquaculture products eventually came into conflict with LoveTheWild's business model.

"As we learned more about our customer and the prices they can tolerate, we needed to focus on species and suppliers that can be value-added and still hit the right price point (which happens to be the same price as an organic chicken breast)," she said.

'The seafood system is broken'

LoveTheWild isn't dead.

Aqua-Spark will continue to invest in the company, co-founders Mike Velings and Amy Novogratz told IntraFish, and are not giving up on its strategy.

"The seafood system is broken and we need to work together to improve so companies like LoveTheWild can exist," said Novogratz. "When we invested early on, we knew it was going to be a hard road."

It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall for the whole industry if we don’t get our shit together

Aqua-Spark is actively working with Claudia and other investors to pivot LoveTheWild by looking into other models, including business-to-business opportunities.

"It's still in the discovery phase," Novogratz said.

Both co-founders expressed immense support for Claudia and her company's mission.

"You have good times and bad times, you have to use common sense. But at the same time, we can stick with it and keep supporting people over the long-term, that's what we really want to do," Velings said.

Claudia is also now a fellow with start-up backer Unreasonable Group, which offers companies support to create "solutions to seemingly intractable challenges."

'How we all win'

Claudia developed a reputation in the industry not just as a savvy marketer, but as an executive more than willing to openly criticize seafood's shortcomings, and the industry's challenges.

Claudia said she hopes her story shows "how hard we worked to shine a light on great seafood and the people who make it, the impact we have had, and use it as a rallying cry for the seafood industry to work together in a meaningful way to grow consumption," Claudia said.

"[The industry needs to] take the long term view and support a check-off program to fund much needed marketing that no individual company can pull off on it’s own. And fund innovation, infrastructure, and policy that reduces cost so that more American can afford to eat seafood more often. That’s how we all win."

Claudia pointed out selling new seafood products at retail is not a problem unique to her, and the industry as a whole will continue to struggle without concerted effort.

"While I’m strongly in support of rewards flowing to companies with better products, as an incentive to push everyone to do better, it’s not hard to see the writing on the wall for the whole industry if we don’t get our shit together," she said.

"Seafood will remain an expensive, niche, after-thought in the American diet."