3 Women Schooled in a Famous Family Seafood Business Launched a Plant-Based Alternative. They Hit a Tsunami of Opposition.

Shelly Van Cleve and her daughters Monica and Allie have been selling gourmet fish and shellfish dishes for more than 20 years under Van Cleve Seafood Co. from Gwynn Island, Virginia. Back in 2017, they became a media darling when they made Oprah’s favorites list with a 200-year-old family recipe for seafood pie with blue crab.

But new times call for new ingredients. And the daughters of the storied seafood family are up for the change. Van Cleve jokes that she’s the mother, but her daughter, Monica Talbert, is definitely in charge.

Last year, the women launched The Plant Based Seafood Co., a separate business from the still-active family seafood company. Ingredients in the new food include kelp, seaweed, artichoke and medicinal herbs. Each product is also free of dairy, gluten, corn and soy. Still, they’ve gotten the recipes very close in taste, appearance and texture to the real thing from being around and eating seafood for so many years, Van Cleve said.

“All of our products are tested on seafood lovers, and usually people who catch it as well,” Van Cleve said. “When it passes all that, the guy sitting in a third floor apartment in Ohio, he’s gonna love it.”

The reaction was immense.  “We got a ton of backlash from our own industry. They almost outcast us as traitors to the industry,” Van Cleve said. But that was a good thing to Talbert, who welcomed the pushback so that there could be an open discussion about some of the issues in the industry, Van Cleve said. Van Cleve Seafood Co. operates through contract manufacturing and has three employees

The women use the new company as a platform to discuss fraud, child labor and overfishing in the industry — topics they know about from being in the seafood industry themselves for decades. “We are the foods-of-the-future, passionate in making healthy, sustainable plant-based seafood products to give the marine animals and oceans a much-needed break,” Van Cleve wrote in an email. “We want to ease the pressures and demands of those overfished species, species that we have or are fished to extinction.”

So far, they’ve raised $150,000 from Cork, Ireland-based incubator Hatch with plans to raise more.

For Talbert, eating plant-based is about feeling better than when she ate meat — she and her sister tried the diet during a retreat and felt healthier, Shelly Van Cleve tells me over a video call from her home in Virginia as Talbert boarded a delayed flight. And as she settled into her new diet, Talbert wanted to make food they could buy and eat themselves.

Now, more than a year since the launch, Plant Based Seafood Co. has debuted three plant-based products —  coconut shrimp, dusted shrimp and scallops — which are sold in frozen boxes of 10 for $13.99 in more than six dozen grocery stores across the country as well as a few online grocery sites such as British Columbia, Canada-based Vejii.

 Its packaging reads “mind blown” after the way people react to trying their food for the first time. The women and their team of 10 are working on new launches, including a plant-based oyster they plan to launch soon.  

The women have been passionate about ethics and the environment from the start of Van Cleve Seafood, Shelly said. For instance, they refused to sell female blue crabs so they could remain in the water to lay eggs and say they don’t buy from companies or places that violate human, environmental, or sanitation standards or mislabel products. 

Van Cleve Seafood was a 20 year schooling that provided a degree in what’s wrong with the seafood industry and armed with that knowledge we hope that The Plant-Based Seafood Co., is where we can work on what is right…for the environment, the animals, the people and the planet,” Shelly wrote in an email.

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