Back in business: Ocean Hugger gears up for global plant-based seafood launch after forging JV with Nove Foods
A wholly-owned subsidiary of global manufacturer NRF, Nove Foods has “multi-continent manufacturing capabilities and sales relationships with many of the world’s largest retailers,” and is “quickly becoming a major force in the supply of cutting-edge plant-based foods,” said David Benzaquen, co-founder and board member at Ocean Hugger Inc.
The plan is for a global launch of an expanded portfolio of plant-based seafood products in retail and foodservice in late 2021, said Benzaquen, who told FoodNavigator-USA that the order is still to be determined, but the company "will enter North America, Europe, and Asia."
'The only thing we could do was pause operations'
Founded in 2016 by Benzaquen and Certified Master Chef James Corwell, New York-based Ocean Hugger Foods occupied a distinct niche in the plant-based food space, using vegetables as its starting point rather than extruded soy, pea or wheat proteins.
Its first product Ahimi was made from fresh tomatoes, gluten-free soy sauce, filtered water, sugar and sesame oil, and tasted uncannily like raw tuna; while its second product Unami was pitched as an alternative to freshwater eel (unagi), and was made from eggplant, gluten-free soy sauce, mirin, sugar, rice bran oil, algae oil, and konjac powder.
Up until COVID-19 struck, things were looking promising for the company, which debuted in Whole Foods in November 2017, and had started picking up some sizeable accounts over the past couple of years, Benzaquen told FoodNavigator-USA last fall.
“We were expanding really quickly, but we were 100% selling to foodservice, so even when we were in Whole Foods or other retailers, we were selling in their sushi bars. And more than any other part of foodservice, sushi was probably hit the hardest [when COVID-19 struck], because people were terrified of eating raw animal protein, so many of the largest sushi and poke chains went out of business, and they were our huge clients.”
Ocean Hugger Foods was also scaling operations very fast, which carried with it greater commitments as regards production runs and procurement, said Benzaquen: “The only thing we could do was pause operations.”
'Seafood is one of the most urgent industries to disrupt'
Benzaquen, who runs a consultancy for companies in the plant-based foods industry, said plant-based seafood is still in its relative infancy, with many brands still reaching vegans and vegetarians rather than mainstream meat/fish eaters.
That said, given the laundry list of problems linked to seafood - from overfishing to inhumane slaughter, contaminants, pollution, plastic, fraud, mislabeling, illegal labor practices, habitat damage, and bycatch – there is a pretty strong case for finder greener, cleaner, and kinder alternatives, whether plant-based or cell-based, he argued.
“If you are looking at this in terms of animal welfare or sustainability, seafood is one of the most urgent industries to disrupt."
'Americans are intimidated by cooking fish so they eat most of it out. This is not the case everywhere'
Asked about the current state of the market, he said: "No company is selling on more than one continent (and most in just one country) and there are very few companies overall, compared to the number of plant-based burger companies. And still there are so many markets that have no options, and species that have no alternatives."
As for consumers, he said, "I think attitudes started changing in the trade when products like Ocean Hugger’s Ahimi first came out and we started garnering distribution deals, awards, and investments from major industry leaders. Nevertheless, consumers have still by and large never had plant-based seafood, and we have billions of fishes to protect from extinction."
Asked whether the opportunities were bigger in foodservice or retail, he said: "This is very market and product specific. Americans are intimidated by cooking fish so they eat most of it out. This is not the case everywhere. Likewise, cooking a perfect sole almondine might require finesse and a cook’s hands, but microwaving fish sticks does not.
"Seafood consumption is accelerating at home and outside of the home and we need options for all eating occasions."
According to SPINS data, the US retail market for plant-based seafood is worth just $12m in measured channels, but things are heating up rapidly, claim key stakeholders.
“This is not an extruded protein isolate. There’s a complex mechanical proprietary process we use with all our vegetables to eliminate the flavor and create a firmer texture that mimics the experience of biting into raw fish, and from there we can layer on any flavor we want. We sell it frozen and chefs can thaw and cut it the same way they would raw fish."
David Benzaquen, Ocean Hugger Inc