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Updated: October 5, 2020 The Next List

Next: Briana Warner made kelp tasty — and by January it will be in 700 stores

PHOTo / Tim Greenway Briana Warner expects to grow Atlantic Sea Farms kelp production to 800,000 pounds and be in 700 stores next year.

As CEO of Saco kelp processor Atlantic Sea Farms, Briana Warner has overseen its rapid growth and retail expansion. This year working with 27 “partner-farmers,” the company harvested 450,000 pounds of kelp, up from 240,000 pounds and 24 partner-farmers in 2019. The 2021 goal is 800,000 pounds.

Typically, the harvest is packaged frozen, pureed and fermented for wholesale food service. This year, the pandemic decimated wholesale markets, so the company raised a convertible note round to accelerate expansion of its retail line, developed last year, from 160 locations to over 700 by January.

Warner’s path to kelp was circuitous. A Pennsylvanian, she received undergraduate and graduate degrees in international relations from George Washington and Yale universities, then spent six years with the Foreign Service. Returning to Maine, her husband’s home state, she opened Maine Pie Line, a Portland wholesale bakery focused on international flavors and employing refugees. In 2015, she sold the bakery and became economic development director at the Rockland nonprofit Island Institute, to create a program helping fishermen diversify into seaweed and shellfish aquaculture.

In 2018, she began working with Ocean Approved, a kelp farm off South Portland. Ocean Approved was later rebranded Atlantic Sea Farms.

Mainebiz: What were you doing with Ocean Approved?

Briana Warner: The Island Institute made a strategic investment in Ocean Approved to help them grow supply, provide free seed and purchase the seaweed. The idea was to work with fishermen and help them grow kelp, and we would process it. After a year and a half, I was asked to take over as CEO.

MB: How do you create partnerships with fishermen?

BW: At first, it was mostly recruitment. We knew that good fishermen would make good farmers. Other fishermen saw them making money, so they started coming to us. Now we have a wait list.

MB: What are your goals?

BW: Everything is driven by the idea that the more people who farm kelp, the more supplemental income will be driven back to make the coast more resilient. To do that, we have to make approachable, delicious food that people want to purchase so we can amplify that impact.

MB: How do you convince consumers your product tastes good?

BW: Our partnerships with fast casual chains, using products like our kelp puree in their salad dressing, get our products in front of people. People are looking for foods to improve their health. Seaweed is not a niche food. It’s an $11 billion industry worldwide. People eat it all the time, especially millennials, in the form of seaweed snacks. We’re introducing fresh seaweed: I think people are eager to try that.

MB: How much of that industry does Maine capture?

BW: We aren’t even a drop in the bucket right now. But two of the largest domestic seaweed companies are in Maine — Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, which makes a wild, dried product, and ours, which does line-grown fresh product. We’re leading the charge on these two ways of eating and raising seaweed.

MB: Does the company create demand, or fulfill it?

BW: Both. People eat seaweed. We’re giving them another opportunity to eat fresh seaweed.

MB: What have you lately prepared with kelp?

BW: Lobster pasta with our kelp purée.

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