[USA] Move over kale and quinoa, you’ve got company. Tucked away in a business court just off Shiloh Drive in Windsor, a small seaweed snack company is hustling to keep up with demand for the lightly flavored munchies.
Aside from their regular inventory, Sea of Change has taken more than 1,000 pre-orders of their soon-to-be-released chocolate seaweed bars.
“The taste tests are blowing peoples’ minds,” said Cole Meeker, co-owner of the 2-year-old company that makes Sea Bakin’ Seaweed Snacks.
Of course, this new superfood isn’t actually new. Humans have been harvesting and consuming seaweed for thousands of years.
Known for its health benefits, seaweed-infused cuisine has a long history in many cultures around the world. In a restaurant in Japan, you’re most likely to consume seaweed in a small kelp (kombu) salad, simmered into miso soup, and in a sushi roll. In Asia, nori is also a major snack.
In the U.S., seaweed is not widely used. You’re most likely to find it wrapped around a sushi roll. But Meeker and his business partner Courtney Smith are hoping to ride the tide of the marine plant’s emergence into mainstream culture.
“It’s a challenge here because it’s a unique product,” Meeker said. “A lot of people aren’t used to dealing with it this country.”
Meeker says he enjoys taking the product to the Healdsburg Farmers Market, where people have a mix of reactions. While kids are used to eating it, older adults who have gotten medical advice on the health benefits of seaweed seek it out.
“To keep it real I go to the market, talk to people and give demonstrations. It’s so encouraging,” Meeker said.
Other cultures have long known the health benefits of eating seaweed. Most notably, it contains high amounts of iodine, which is important to maintaining a healthy thyroid, which helps produce and regulate hormones. It is also high in calcium — higher than broccoli —a nd in Vitamins A, B, C, and minerals like iron. It’s also rich in protein, and a source of fiber, mostly soluble fiber which slows down the digestive process, thus inhibiting the absorption of sugars and cholesterol.
There are about 10,000 kinds of seaweed, or as some prefer to say, sea vegetables, that grow and live in the ocean.
“That would be like calling all vegetable we grow on land ‘landweeds,’” Meeker said
The most commonly eaten (and researched) are the brown varieties such as kelp and wakame, followed by red seaweed, which includes nori, which is what most sushi chefs use.
Unlike the flat sheets of nori that are used in sushi and also eaten as a snack, Sea Bakin’ snacks are made with whole leaf nori, and the end product is strands of seaweed that are light and crunchy, lightly flavored and slightly salty.
A couple of times a month, at low tide, Meeker, Smith and their small team trek out to the Sonoma coast and spend two or three days harvesting seaweed.
It’s a laborious process. The wet seaweed is heavy, Meeker said, weighing up to 50 pounds per backpack-full. They are careful to cut only a certain percentage, preserving young plants for future growth.
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, licensed harvesters may take up to two wet tons (4,000 pounds) of seaweed a year. They are also required to pay 12 cents per pound of edible algae harvested.
Meeker and Smith also source seaweed from licensed commercial harvesters that are based in Northern California, and various other locations where it is farmed, including Asia, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Maine.
Eventually Meeker sees the company farming their own seaweed.
“You don’t need fresh water to grow it — that’s huge,” he said.
Meeker and Smith are only full time employees. With the help of a part time crew of four or five working three days a week, the small team does everything from harvesting the seaweed to packaging and marketing the snacks.
Once back at the factory, the harvest is washed, dried and tested for quality and safety.
The dried seaweed is mixed with spices, baked, and packaged. The small team currently does all of the production and packing manually.
Using quality seaweed is crucial to the taste and consistency of the end product. Considering a large percentage of it is ground into paper used in making sushi, the issue for Meeker is how to get the good stuff.
“I can’t stick just anything in there,” he said.
Aside from sourcing enough quality seaweed, taking the leaves and turning them into a product with an agreeable texture is tricky. Its delicate nature is vulnerable to controlled elements like baking, which can easily be overdone.
“We have lots of secrets,” Meeker said of the process. “If someone wants to knock me out of position, they’re going to have to work at it.”
Sea Bakin’ Snacks are flavored, but not overpoweringly so. Most of the varieties are slightly sweet with a mild seaweed flavor and its natural saltiness which adds to the savory quality. There is Maple (as in syrup), Bangkok Bar Mix (with peanuts, cashews, flakes of coconut and Thai spices. There is also California Whole Leaf, crunchy fronds of dried sea palm, and seaweed salts.
The products are certified organic, gluten and soy free with no GMOs.
The fledgling company has been figuring out some things as they go, like that they have been packing twice the product into the same size package as other seaweed snacks. Smith said the company is looking into having someone else handle the packaging.
“We can’t be experts in everything,” she said.
After two short years they are trying to keep up with demand by looking for more capital and a bigger location and generally experiencing growing pains.
The company will be crowdsourcing on indiegogo.com, hoping to raise $12,000 for ingredients and molds for the chocolate bars.
“Banks don’t lend to little people with no collateral,” Meeker said.
From southern Oregon, Meeker himself is a former sushi chef. He says he’s passionate about food and cultures and how they work together. His interest in seaweed was piqued when he went on a field trip with his wife’s herbal class. With $20,000 borrowed from friends and family and help from TMC Working Solutions, Sea of Change was launched.
Distributed by Dove Distributing in Richmond, their products are in Whole Foods in Northern California, Oliver’s Markets, which is helping out by taking a smaller margin of profit, Good Earth, Community Market, independent stores in New York and Florida, and on their website. Co-ops are also a helpful place for new foods to find a footing in the marketplace, Meeker said
Sea Bakin’ products are also on Thrive Market, an online subscription based store, like Costco, with organic and healthy options.
Photo: There are about 10,000 different kinds of seaweed, or sea vegetables, that grow and live in the ocean.
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