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June 27, 2018

Seaweed entrepreneur expands in Biddeford, launches new products

Courtesy / Ocean's Balance
Courtesy / Ocean's Balance
From left, Ocean's Balance principals Lisa Scali, Tollef Olson and Mitchell Lench have launched nine new edible seaweed products and moved into a larger facility to expand production.

Ocean's Balance Inc., a Maine innovator of edible seaweed products, has moved into a new facility in the Pepperell Mill Campus in downtown Biddeford and will launch nine new edible seaweed products.

The new products will be unveiled at the Fancy Food Trade Show, which will be held June 30 to July 2 in New York City.

Ocean's Balance was founded in 2016 by Tollef Olson and Mitchell Lench. Olson is a long-time aquaculture operator and a senior advisor at the Macroalgae Nursery and Research Cluster in the University of New England's Center for Excellence in the Marine Sciences. Lench owns the impact investment management firm Treetops Capital in Cape Elizabeth.

Olson launched his first product line — a shelf-stable kelp puree in 9-ounce jars for retail and gallon containers for the service industry — in January 2017, gaining traction with orders from New England, New York, Pennsylvania and California, with distributors in New Hampshire, New York and California. He sold his first processing facility, in a 1,156-square-foot building at 188 Presumpscot St. in Portland, in November 2017 to look for a larger space.

Lisa Scali — who comes from a 20-year career in finance, then joined Ocean's Balance as a third principal and director of marketing and sales — told Mainebiz the new space in Biddeford is about 3,000 square feet. The company moved there in early May.

They chose the space for several reasons, she said, including the innovative vibe of other new companies within the mill.

"There's room for us to grow, if we need to," Scali said. "The rent is attractive. It's an exciting place to be."

Set-up involved installing a seaweed spore nursery in one room, another room for multiple purposes like drying seaweed, and a main space for processing and to house inventory, she said. They're sharing the space.

The work is performed by the principals, plus an intern this summer.

"We'll be looking to take on additional staff, probably to start part-time, then full-time, this year if all goes well," she said.

Building demand

Courtesy / Ocean’s Balance
Courtesy / Ocean’s Balance
Ocean’s Balance moved into a larger space at the Pepperell Mill Campus in downtown Biddeford.

Earlier this year, Olson told Mainebiz that he and his partners have taken several routes toward building demand. That's included grants to aid product testing, placing product at seafood-friendly outlets like Harbor Fish Market on Portland's waterfront, and conducting frequent cooking and tasting demonstrations at venues like retail outlets, colleges and seafood shows.

The company, though small, has seen excellent growth, Scali said.

"The revenue in the first six months of 2018 eclipsed revenue for all of 2017, and it continues to come along at a very healthy clip," she said.

Currently, working with distributors, Ocean's Balance is in 100 stores along the East Coast plus a few stores in California.

Identification of new product forms was based on the success of the kelp puree, she said.

"You just open the jar and it's ready to use," she said. "We wanted to continue to introduce products that were somewhat innovative in order to make seaweed more accessible. Our goal is to help people include it in their diet as often as possible."

The new lineup includes "Seaweed Sprinkles" in three varieties — spicy, bonito and shitake; plus three types of seaweed — dulse, kombu and wakame — with flake or whole leaf options. The Seaweed Sprinkles are inspired by Japanese furikake, which means "sprinkle over," Scali said in a news release: "Unlike traditional furikake, which uses a lot of sugar, salt and oil, ours contain less sugar and salt, no oil and are made with organic seaweed."

Scali, who developed the recipes, said the product can be used as toppings on rice, avocado toast, soups, salads and more.

Building inventory

Courtesy / Ocean’s Balance
Courtesy / Ocean’s Balance
From top, Ocean’s Balance’s new lines – edible-seaweed flakes, “sprinkles” and whole leaf, joining the company’s first product, kelp puree – are being rolled out through distributors and the Fancy Food Trade Show in New York.

The organic dried flakes are available in reusable tins and the whole leaf option comes in a resealable pouch. Both are intended to provide a convenient ways to add seaweed to meals.

Scali said she's been sampling the new products around New England, at retail shops like Browne Trading, LeRoux Kitchen, Cambridge Naturals and Portsmouth Health Food Center. They've been getting reorders and are in the process of rolling out to distributors. In general, the stores looking at the products have a health, seafood or Asian focus, she said.

Overall output from hundreds of pounds of seaweed this year is at least 1,000 cases of puree, plus, in the last six weeks or so, at least 750 cases of sprinkles, and 100 to 200 cases each of flakes and whole leaf. Each case holds six packages.

"The plan is to continue to build up inventory this summer," she said.

Some of the raw seaweed is harvested from Ocean's Balance's 400-square-foot limited purpose aquaculture lease sites on Casco Bay; the rest comes from other farms and from harvesters of wild seaweed. Limited purpose aquaculture lease sites are governed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources and are designed to provide small areas to research potential aquaculture operations. The partners are looking into longer-term standard lease sites along the coast, Scali said.

"Ten years ago, I couldn't get anyone to look at seaweed, but now, seaweed is in demand, especially by those seeking healthy, sustainable foods," Olson said in the release.

The partners expect continued growth, said Scali.

"In the next two to three years, we'd like to have doubled or tripled" the size of the operation, Scali said.

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