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March 8, 2019

New Seaweed Week seeks to expand market

Courtesy / Malorrie Ann Nadeau
Courtesy / Malorrie Ann Nadeau
Josh Rogers, owner of Heritage Seaweed in Portland, conceived of the idea of Seaweed Week as a way to make the product more visible to the public.

A new event, Seaweed Week, is being organized for April 26 through May 4 in Portland to spotlight businesses across greater Portland that champion sea vegetables and challenge others to start innovating with them.

The event will be North America's first-ever seaweed-focused restaurant week, according to a news release. It will feature sea greens on menus at eateries, bars, breweries and distilleries. Participants lined up so far include restaurants such as Fore Street and BaoBao Dumpling House; beverage companies like Marshall Wharf Brewing and Maine Craft Distilleries; and consumer products from Akua, Ocean's Balance and Ocean Approved.

Other Seaweed Week events include kelp farm tours in Casco Bay, cooking demos, a Fork Food Lab maker competition and a kick-off party at Maine Craft Distilling, showcasing the process behind their seaweed-smoked 50 Stone Whiskey.

"Seaweed checks all the boxes: it's sustainable, nutritious, and tasty," the event's organizer, Josh Rogers, said in the release. "It's one of those intriguing foods that people are curious about, and we're seeing increasing numbers of chefs and product developers experimenting with seaweed."

Seaweed Week is being launched by Rogers and the University of New England, University of Maine Sea Grant, Maine Seaweed Council, Island Institute and Maine Food Strategy, as well as kelp farmers, wild harvesters and value-added producers.

Exploding kelp aquaculture

The idea for Seaweed Week emerged as a way to highlight the exploding kelp aquaculture scene in Maine, according to the release.

Rogers is the owner of Heritage Seaweed, a retail seaweed shop at 61 India St. in Portland. He told Mainebiz that he got involved with seaweed products when he created a line of seaweed-inspired teas, Cup of Sea.

A native Mainer, he was working in New York City at the time, where he spent 12 years as a Google content strategist and a Zagat Restaurant Guide senior editor. That's where he was when he got the idea for seaweed tea, he told Mainebiz.

"I was on a tea break and drinking green tea," he said. "I noticed it tasted exactly like the kelps I was cooking with, that I had been ordering from Maine. So I Googled seaweed tea and it didn't exist."

He put that in the back of his mind, knowing that he wanted to move back to Maine and that, when he did, he wanted to have a career change and get into seaweed products.

After he moved back, "I started small, experimenting in my kitchen with family and friends and iterating on the idea," he said.

Eventually, he began looking for commercial space to expand production. A friend introduced him to the India Street space, part of an 1800s livery stables complex with a view of Portland's working waterfront.

Originally, he had no intention of starting a store. But when he saw the India Street space, "I was struck with this idea of having a showcase for all these cool products that I had come into contact with," he said.

He had also returned to the New York Google office to offer a tasting of his tea product. "I was talking with their event planner about bringing some of my seaweed friends down to do a cooking demo," he said. "She said, 'If we do that, will employees be able to find the ingredients afterward?' I was dumbstruck and said, 'Yes, of course, you can find seaweed anywhere.' But that brought it home to me that seaweed is everywhere, but it's invisible. There's nowhere for anyone to go to find about it, or engage with it."

As a result, he said, his store, which opened July 1, is meant to be a showcase of seaweed products, including his own Cup of Sea.

Lots of doing, no talking, around seaweed

Since launching the tea, he said, he's learned that many people are interested in seaweed but don't know much about it or how to use it.

At the same time, he said, a growing number of chefs are using seaweed as an ingredient.

"I realized what a bummer it was that there are all these chefs doing things with seaweed in Portland and Maine, but no one was talking about it," he said. "Consequently, the public isn't seeking it out. That's the thing with seaweed, it's here but it's kind of invisible."

Enter the idea of Seaweed Week.

"The goal is to raise awareness and demand for Maine seaweeds," he continued. "We have this rapidly growing kelp aquaculture industry. About 10 years ago, there were no seaweed farms in the U.S. Now Maine has well over 100 lease sites. Seaweed is happening. So whatever we can do to get there a little faster and support all the people in Maine who are getting into that business, we want to do that."

The event coincides with the annual kelp harvest, running April 26–May 4; and is designed to build on Portland's reputation as a major foodie destination.

Maine has more than 140 lease sites, Jaclyn Robidoux, Marine Extension Associate at the University of Maine's Sea Grant program, said in the release, and Maine leads the nation in the number of seaweed farms, diversity of crops grown, and research and development. Many growers plant kelp alongside other farmed seafoods, such as mussels, oysters and scallops.

According to the release, U.S. seaweed retail products increased by 76% between 2011 and 2015 (Food Business News).

Rogers said he welcomes more participants in Seaweed Week. Visit www.seaweedweek.org for more information.

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