As the market for plant-based seafood outpaces the overall meat alternatives category, The Plant Based Seafood Co. – maker of Mind Blown – is setting sail for national expansion this year with new innovation and a focus on foodservice.
The company was founded in 2020 by CEO Monica Talbert with her mother and chief innovation officer Shelly Van Cleve. Van Cleve previously founded the Virginia-based Van Cleve Seafood Co. and has sold seafood ingredients and products for over two decades.
“If it crawled or swam, we carried it,” she said.
In 2019, the pair became interested in the potential for plant-based seafood alternatives leading to spinning off The Plant Based Seafood Co. from Van Cleve Seafood the following year. Mind Blown was introduced as a direct-to-consumer platform at the height of the pandemic.
Today, Mind Blown has four full time employees – including Talbert and Van Cleve – and last year the brand raised a funding round backed by S2G Ventures, joining capital firm Hatch at the company’s cap table.
Since its online debut, Mind Blown has now added a brick-and-mortar business with about 500 retail stores nationwide, and Talbert said the brand will look toward increasing its footprint throughout 2023 and 2024. However, the bigger push for Mind Blown will come through the on-premise and foodservice channels, including high-end restaurants, colleges and universities and food trucks with accounts like PFG, U.S. Foods, Cisco. Talbert said the company has long seen foodservice as its best avenue towards driving trial, and while retail continues to be a core growth sector, on-premise sales is where Mind Blown hopes to convert consumers.
Mind Blown’s portfolio includes plant-based versions of popular seafood dishes like Dusted Shrimp, Dusted Scallops, Coconut Shrimp and Crab Cakes. Now, as the company looks to expand its foodservice business and provide products that chefs can more readily customize to their taste, the brand launched its first unflavored offering last month with Shelf-Stable Sea Scallops.
“We knew that we needed to recreate a familiar seafood experience for customers if we could convince them to try a plant-based seafood product,” she said. “So, a crunchy coconut shrimp dipped into Thai chili sauce, I think, is a much better sell than a raw shrimp sitting maybe in a bowl of cocktail sauce. So that was the reasoning behind the types of products that we decided to launch with first.”
But with the Shelf-Stable Sea Scallops, the brand is hoping to tap deeper into the restaurant space to fuel sales and awareness. Although Mind Blown only began selling in foodservice last fall, Talbert estimated that it will comprise 70% of the brand’s revenue this year.
“This is strategic,” Talbert said of the foodservice expansion. “The plant-based industry, when it really took off and launched, it was during COVID and the foodservice and restaurants were closed. That was really unfortunate, because we think that the best place to launch a new novel product or industry like this is with the chefs; it’s with the restaurants, it’s with the chefs that consumers trust with their taste buds.”
According to the Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association, plant-based seafood dollar sales were up 15% in 2022, while unit sales improved by 5%. Although the segment makes up just 1% of the total plant-based meat category, seafood alternatives were up by 53% between 2019 and 2022.
While Talbert views foodservice as its strongest near-term growth avenue, Mind Blown isn’t the only plant-based seafood maker in the space. In 2021, New Wave Foods raised $18 millionfor its plant-based foods business and also announced plans to tackle foodservice with a similar “chef driven” approach. Good Catch has also eyed chefs and restaurants as a key space to raise awareness.
Mind Blown has at least two high profile culinary supporters in Top Chef star Tom Colicchio and Eat the Change co-founder Spike Mendelsohn who have invested in the company.
Talbert called Mendelsohn one of the brand’s biggest “cheerleaders” and said the chef has played an important role in promoting the company, making guest appearances on morning news shows and hosting launch events for the Sea Scallops product at Plant Based World Expo 2022 in New York and, most recently, Gulfood 2023 in Dubai.
“Spike has an incredible stage presence and excitement to him,” Talbert said. “He’s really good at bridging that gap between the vegan community and the meat eaters. And so he plays an important role in our company for that.”
Colicchio joined Mind Blown as an investor last year after being introduced to the brand by Mendelsohn. Van Cleve noted that, while the brand never sought to court celebrity investors or ambassadors, the genuine interest from top end chefs has been important to legitimizing the products and drawing attention to the larger potential for plant-based seafood alternatives. She added that Colicchio has been a strong partner for the company and, when it comes to marketing, has developed seasonal product recipes.
For Mind Blown, much of the capital from last year’s fundraise, Talbert said, has gone towards marketing and product launch support, including sampling initiatives and event activations.
The brand has also now launched internationally in Aruba, she added, and intends to grow the footprint into other countries over the next year. Talbert said the focus will be on markets where plant-based alternatives are already understood in order to limit the need for education, and the roll out in Aruba will be part of an island-focused expansion “targeting eco-tourism.”
“We’re looking at the Maldives and Sri Lanka, where they are looking for planet-friendly, climate-friendly plant-based options to offer on their menus,” she said. “They have to be well positioned for the plant-based or climate-friendly products and market, we wouldn’t go anywhere that we would have to really educate at this time.”
Article by: Brad Avery