What’s more rewarding for entrepreneurs than translating their passion and expertise into a business that is thriving and that also may make the world a better place? One answer: joining two such startups together to do the same thing—and arguably doing it better than either could alone.
That’s the formula Monica Talbert and Bri Warner are following with Mind Blown plant-based seafood analogues, produced by Talbert’s outfit, The Plant Based Seafood Co. in Grimstead, Va., now featuring kelp supplied by Warner’s Biddeford, Maine–based Atlantic Sea Farms. Their cooperation aims to advance alternatives to fishing overstressed oceans for proteins while mitigating environmental impacts locally.
The first tangible results of their partnership are the latest versions of Mind Blown Dusted Shrimp and Dusted Scallops, with an all-new product, Crab Cakes. The Mind Blown “shrimp” and “scallops” are actually imitation products made from ingredients including konjac powder, vegetable gum, root starch, and paprika, now with dustings of kelp as well as tapioca flour, coconut flour, and spices. The Crab Cakes include kelp in their basic formulation.
The Mind Blown concept originated with Talbert’s mother, Shelly Van Cleve, who founded The Van Cleve Seafood Co., about two decades ago, with Monica and Allie, another daughter. It supplies products based on Chesapeake Bay crab meat to thousands of stores and restaurants. Van Cleve came up with some crab cake analogues several years ago after Talbert, representing the environmentally concerned next generation of the company, asked her mother to develop a crab cake that was as “clean” as possible.
Van Cleve succeeded by tricking her daughter into sampling an imitation crab cake that was made from artichoke hearts, cabbage, and hearts of palm. “It was so good, I said, ‘No way,’” Talbert recalls. The Plant Based Seafood Co. formed quickly from there, and introduced Mind Blown as a consumer brand in 2020.
Mind Blown shrimp and scallop imitations have been making their way into the more than 300 Sprouts Farmers Market stores nationwide and will expand their presence in those stores in early 2023, with the recently launched Crab Cakes.
Kelp, the newest ingredient in Mind Blown products, which provides an umami taste element in the crab cake analogues, is grown off the Maine coastline by Atlantic Sea Farms, a startup that aims to create the first significant domestic supply of the seaweed variety that had been entirely imported to the U.S. market.
Warner launched a kelp-raising startup called Ocean Approved in 2009, taking advantage of Maine’s vast coastline to produce the fast-growing seaweed variety by the ton. She constructed a supply chain from scratch with local fleets of lobstermen, whose boats, nets, and hauling equipment for catching the crustaceans were ideally suited for nurturing waterborne lines of kelp in the fishing off-season.
She notes that raising kelp, which requires “no [fresh] water, no arable land, no pesticides, and has no ingredients and additives,” actually “locally mitigates” some environmental effects by temporarily sequestering carbon and nitrogen and reducing the acidity of the water. The Atlantic Ocean around Maine, she says, has warmed faster than ocean waters elsewhere, threatening the lobster population.
“Seaweed felt like a great market opportunity and also an opportunity for the lobstermen in Maine to be leaders of this entire new industry using the same equipment,” Warner says. Soon, the renamed Atlantic Sea Farms scored deals with Costco to supply seaweed salad and kimchi.
The two women, and their two companies, came together after Talbert bought Atlantic Sea Farms kelp at Costco. She reached out to Warner, who embraced the opportunity to work as a supplier to a like-minded outfit.
“I’d always wanted to play with seafood,” Talbert says. “Then I found out the company was woman-led, which is a rarity in a male-dominated industry. You have to have a certain grit and perseverance to do that, and then to change the industry you have to have even more grit and perseverance.”
There may be a lesson for other entrepreneurs in the collaboration the two women have embraced. “If you’re truly passionate about your mission and just getting off the ground, and you can find another company you’re aligned with and can help in that mission, go for it,” Talbert urges.