There are a lot of non-meat meats on the market, but not as much non-fish fish, which Ocean Hugger Foods is looking to change. I tasted their "tuna" in a sashimi roll and had CEO David Benzaquen not told me it contained only tomato, I would have guessed I was eating fish.
Food and our eating habits have to be a major part, which I've written about:
Since many "green" ventures seem more interested in wrapping themselves in a trend than actually reducing consumption, I attended an event promoting innovation and technology in food with skepticism.
I was pleasantly surprised to find several ventures that could actually help, not just talk.
I asked David about Ocean Hugger, the crisis it addresses, and the food it solves it with.
Let's start by describing your project. Whom do you help? What problem do you solve?
David Benzaquen: According to National Geographic and The New York Times, at the current rate of fishing, there will be no commercially-viable fish of any species left in the oceans by 2048. This crisis affects everything from our climate (the oceans currently store more than 50% of the carbon on our planet), to millions of subsistence coastal fishermen around the world.
Founded by Certified Master Chef James Corwell, Ocean Hugger Foods makes delicious, plant-based alternatives to the world’s most popular seafood proteins to ameliorate the overfishing crisis plaguing our world.
Using clean, simple ingredients like tomatoes, carrots and eggplant, Ocean Hugger Foods provides the incredible taste and texture of premium seafood items like Ahi tuna, unagi (eel) and salmon, without the cruelty, mercury, or environmental devastation.
Your idea makes me think, “Why didn't I think of that?!?”, a thought I associate with entrepreneurial success. It seems like a lot of new food start-ups find clear missing opportunities. How did everyone miss it?
DB: With all the chaos in the world, we focus on those areas which are easiest to grasp. Changing a light bulb and recycling are tangible (and valuable) acts, but there are many other issues we can’t measure or tackle as simply.
The oceans are so vast and unregulated that nobody has accurately been able to measure how much destruction our fishing practices are causing. James had an epiphany when he visited the Tsukiji fish market in Japan and saw a tuna auction of 4,000,000 lbs of tuna every day.
He knew the oceans couldn't keep up. His decades of culinary mastery and knowledge of food chemistry enabled him to make the humble tomato taste like tuna, though it took him years.
Inc. readers like to innovate. Do you see other opportunities or areas outside yours that others can act on or look into?
DB: Farming animals for food is one of our most economically and environmentally unsustainable systems. People eat animal-based foods in spite of their resulting from an unsustainable, unhealthy and unkind system, not because of it.
Every day, we discover new plants on land and in the oceans that can provide the functional and nutritional benefits of animal proteins. New technology makes possible isolating these benefits and bringing them to consumers with everything they seek.
What is the biggest barrier you face? What about for new entrants?
The demand for our product has been so vast that we are constantly looking for ways to increase production.
How big is the opportunity for food entrepreneurship? How is your growth?
DB: Massive! The current system is inefficient.
As the population grows, we need to figure out how to feed billions more people with less land and water to go around. Animals that require more land, water and grain to grow, and then only being able to consume a fraction of the calories they took in, is not efficient.
Technology, whether culinary technique or technology, allows us to bring people the taste, texture, affordability, nutrition, convenience and overall pleasure they seek more efficiently. These solutions make the difference between our survival and our thriving as a species and planet. We also get incredible financial rewards with these efficiencies.
Ocean Hugger has seen incredible growth because people are craving the pleasure of biting into the flesh of the highest-grade tuna, but they know their wallets, and our planet, can no longer afford it.
You seem personally passionate and look like you're working hard. Which came first, the hard work, the passion, both, or something else?
DB: As I learned about our broken food system and the impacts it has on human health, the environment and animals, my passion and commitment to working hard to address this crisis were automatic. What took time to develop was my awareness of how to use my passion and work in an effective manner.
I once believed that the only way to make an impact was through direct advocacy efforts and working in nonprofit organizations. Over time, I’ve come to realize that I am most effective as an entrepreneur developing, launching and scaling innovative solutions to fix the system, rather than complaining.
Here's a curve ball since I avoid packaged food. Can I buy from you in bulk or other way minimizing waste (I consider recycling waste)?
DB: You’re in luck!
Ocean Hugger Foods’ products are sold in bulk to food service operators (i.e. sushi or poke restaurants, hotels, college cafeterias, etc.) rather than packaged to consumers. We chose to do this because most people eat raw fish when it is prepared for them outside of the home and we want our product to be used just like those.