"We're working on creating a world-first vegan seafood jerky,” Sea Chips’ founder Daniel Pawson told FoodNavigator. “There’s not really a release date for that but it’s something we’re working on.”
Giving meat names for plant-based or vegetarian alternatives is a contentious issue in the food industry at present.
The EU is proposing a clampdown on the use of meaty descriptors on vegetarian and vegan food packaging, which some believe misleads consumers. Others, including a recent House of Lords investigatory committee in the UK, conclude there is no harm in the practice.
Meanwhile, the meat substitute market is poised to reach global revenues of $7.5bn by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate forecast at 7.7%, according to Allied Market Research. Europe dominated the alt-meat market in 2017, accounting for nearly 40% of global revenue.
Pawson is aware of the hullabaloo surrounding the topic.
"You get some people who are against the whole kind of calling burgers meatless burgers,” he said. “But I have no problem with it.”
Society in general is under pressure currently “to stop eating so much beef”, he continued. So calling a plant-based patty a vegan burger gives people that “easy way of knowing ‘this is just as nutritional as burger but it’s vegan’. It’s the same thing with this jerky.”
People will know the new jerky product is a seafood snack, he pointed out. But as it contains no seafood he expects people will be drawn to the product’s sustainability credentials. “I quite like the linking it back to the actual meat fill products,” he said.
‘Being ahead of the curve is really important’
Sea Chips has further innovations up its sleeve. It plans to capitalise on the circular economy trend as it looks to become a fully sustainable food company. It aims to launch a conventional smoked salmon range in ethical biodegradable packaging. The labelling will state that the salmon skins have gone on to become Sea Chips’ crisps.
What’s more, from 2021 the company will only use salmon skins from fish bred on onshore farms.
The company has also spotted a pet food premiumisation trend. It plans to turn the ‘dark bits’ of the salmon skins that some customers don’t enjoy into a separate pet snack. This will allow the Sea Chips crisps to be the same consistent colour. The move may also mean Sea Chips becomes the first ever company to offer a ‘human’ and ‘pet’ version of the same product.
Pawson, then, clearly believes these trends have legs. And as a trend spotter, Pawson has form. The story behind Sea Chips’ salmon skins is now well known. Pawson was a chef. After seeing the huge amounts of fish skins being wasted in restaurants, he decided to crisp them up and serve them as garnishes. Customers loved them and the rest is history.
As a private chef to the rich and famous, he explained, he was always way ahead of trends. “When pork belly got popular I knew that was going to happen two years before because I was cooking it for celebrities who tend to be these people who start the trends."
Sea Chips, the next Marmite?
Last year, Sea Chips secured financial support from Jonathan Brown, the former owner of US-based McKnight Food Group known for pioneering a number of own-label smoked salmon brands.
Brown’s backing helped Sea Chips secure a new a state-of-the-art production 930m2 facility in Maryport in Cumbria, UK, as well as connections for bigger clients and retailers.
In June, Sea Chips secured a listing in 70 Sainsbury’s stores in the UK for its three salmon skin crisp flavours. It is set to launch in the US, Singapore and Hong Kong.
But a challenge for the company, admits Pawson, is the “divisive” flavour. Take his appearance on Dragons’ Den, where Pawson turned down an offer for £30,000 for 35% of the business from Touker Suleyman. "I love salmon, yet I don't like this product," said the Den’s Peter Jones. "I really like them,” replied rival investor Deborah Meaden. “This is just personal."
Pawson hopes to exploit this love/hate reaction among consumers and become “the new Marmite.”
Why does the product cause this extreme reaction? “It’s because it's fish-based,” said Pawson. “In the UK we're fussy about fish, but other places have no issue about eating fish. In Asia they won't think twice about it because they’ve got similar products [to Sea Chips].”
Meanwhile, the divided opinions only assist Sea Chips’ marketing.
“It gets people talking, so does a lot of promoting for us. Whether you like them or not you're going to tell someone about us. So we've found that one of the best tools to get the word out.
"We're not trying to please everyone. We're launching a snack into a category which is very fast growing. It's an innovative product which is good for you and good for the planet.”
Pawson expanded on the product’s health benefits. "Nutritionally speaking it is literally like eating a fillet of fish. You get high Omega 3 and high protein. It's a nice quick way of getting that nutrition in and in the UK one of the main nutrients that we are deficient in is Omega 3."
All this means Sea Chips can appeal to a wide range of customers. As a health snack they appeal to people on certain diets - from paleo to ketogenic. “We're also a really good salty savoury snack. Like a healthy pork scratching that’s great with a beer,” added Pawson.
“We're not saying we're going to go into pubs and challenge pork scratchings, but at your higher end craft beer pubs and wine and champagne bars we fit really nicely.”
‘Get your story and brand right and develop it from there’
As a young successful entrepreneur, what’s his advice for others in the food industry with an innovative product? "I think at the start it's really important to build your story,” he said.
“We focused probably more on our story and what we were trying to achieve rather than the taste of the product. The taste of the product over a year ago wasn't great. But we knew we were onto something.
“A lot of people take years to develop something and then launch it and by that point they’ve spent hundreds of thousands. I would say get the product out there, get some feedback and make sure you’ve got a really strong brand that people can relate to and that's relevant. So get your story and brand right and develop it from there."