Not too long ago, the giant white freezer in Laura Johnson’s car was filled with fresh, whole fish. The fish were on their way to restaurant tables all over California and a few even journeyed to the far-off eateries of the East Coast. They were delivered with a hand-written card listing where the fish came from, who harvested it, how it was harvested, and its sustainability information because getting the message out about sustainable seafood and the fishermen making it possible has always been a core part of Salty Girl’s mission. Some restaurants loved the cards and shared them with their customers, but many tossed them away.
“We always wanted to reward fishermen who are doing the right thing– that’s the idea our company grew out of. But we also wanted to do something bigger– change the way the individual consumer–everyone– sees and understands seafood, and that wasn’t happening,” co-founder Norah Eddy explains.
There were other downsides to the restaurant business model. Most of Salty Girl’s customers were high-end, low-volume restaurants who could only put in small orders so there was no efficiency of scale. Direct shipping was very expensive and significantly cut into profits. And when friends, family, and others who had heard about Salty Girl from restaurants or community events would ask to purchase seafood, the answer was, “No, unless you can put in a restaurant order.”
A surprisingly large number did. Laura (co-founder, Operations), Norah (co-founder, Sales), and Gina (Marketing) found themselves cooking fish at home parties, work parties, receptions, and other events where they were often asked to demo filleting and give cooking tips. Attendees would also ask about sustainable seafood– what it was, where to buy it, and how to learn more. More often than not, these questions would lead to, “So, where can I buy Salty Girl seafood?”
It became clear to the Salty Girls that their company wasn’t meeting demand for sustainable seafood where it actually existed – in people’s homes, not in chefs’ kitchens. The idea of offering sustainable, traceable seafood that anyone could pick up at his or her local grocery store was making a lot of sense. But what would it look like, how would it taste, and who would buy it?
Research and focus groups confirmed that customers want sustainable seafood, but are confused about where to find sustainable seafood they can trust, what sustainable seafood is, and how to cook it. Furthermore, the Salty Girl team found that people are looking for more than just a product when they align themselves with a mission-driven company like Salty Girl. They want a brand they can connect to and be a part of. “Realizing that was exciting,” Laura recounts. “The story is important. Telling the story of the fishing community and the fishermen was always really important to us and what we wanted our seafood to do. We felt we now had a business model that would let us build our company with customers that really cared about these stories.”
Just a few months after the retail idea was born, Laura Johnson’s giant white freezer is filled with marinated fillets packed and labeled. The Salty Girls have a kitchen, the quirky gadgets they need to prep, package, and label their fish– including my favorite, the “Use by” sticker gun – and promising relationships with retailers, including one nationwide home food delivery service and two major grocery chains. They also have their first three retail offerings lined up and ready to go: Coho Salmon with Lemon Pepper & Garlic, Black Cod with Sweet & Smoky Teriyaki, and Rockfish with Garlic Chili Rub.
The fish are all flash-frozen fresh and come marinated so it’s easy for customers to keep a supply of fish at home and cook it when a hankering for seafood arises. As always, the seafood is sustainably harvested and a code on the back label lets customers trace their Salty Girl fish to its source. One-line cooking instructions guide customers through the preparation of a simple, yet delicious meal. Like the restaurant cards that preceded them, the package labels list the fish species name, how it was caught, and where. They also include sustainability information and buzzwords like bycatch and Seafood Watch.
“Even if someone just picks up the package and reads the label, that’s a success, “ says Laura. “We’re starting a conversation about seafood and sustainability, fishermen, and their communities.”
Having this direct conversation is not only crucial for fulfilling the company’s mission. It also makes things a lot more fun, admits Norah.
“I don’t think of our new business model as the “retail” model at all. I think of it as the “more fun” business model. Because it really is more fun to have a direct connection and conversation between our company and our customers, and we can’t wait to get that happening on a bigger level.”