2019-2020 SPIRIT OF INNOVATION AWARD WINNERS
EDITOR’S CHOICE / MOST INNOVATIVE-DISRUPTIVE
MIND BLOWN COCONUT SHRIMP / THE PLANT BASED SEAFOOD CO.
Both personally and professionally, Monica Van Cleve-Talbert has been around seafood all her life. Yet admittedly, it was only recently that she began to “sea” food differently.
Here’s the backstory. Van Cleve-Talbert grew up around seafood as a family member-employee in The Van Cleve Seafood Co. in Spotsylvania, Va. The company dates back to 2001 when her mom, Shelly, opened a small seafood “shack” to source and sell better quality seafood in the area. From the start, Monica and her sister, Allie, were involved in every step of the business.
By 2004, that business boasted as many as 100 different fresh and frozen offerings, a larger location, restaurant and even a gift shop. Fast forward then to 2013, when Van Cleve-Talbert promoted the family’s well-known Blue Crab Pie on Lifetime TV's Supermarket Superstar reality show. The product made its national debut, hooked the attention of QVC and even the landed on the menu at the Virginia Governor’s executive mansion. It also was featured in Oprah Magazine's "O" List of Favorite Things.
Van Cleve-Talbert say it was in 2018 when company team members traveled to Costa Rica for a wellness and surf retreat. It’s here that she picks up the story.
“You could say we hit ‘reset’ and came back with an unexpected 'food as medicine' outlook for clean and healthy living,” she says. “Seeing is believing—but living it and feeling it—was a powerful experience. It was [a moment] that not only sparked a product ingredient change in our company but a brand new line of products we identified as better for you, better for the planet and better for the ocean. With global population and climate change on the horizon, with sustainability and clean and healthy ingredients a new way of living, it’s where we were first challenged to create our plant-based Crunchy Coconut Shrimp.”
It was in 2018 that Van Cleve Seafood created an entirely new line, “Wild.Skinny.Clean.” as a “superfood” seafood brand. In part, the line immediately featured conventional, healthier frozen seafood items while Van Cleve-Talbert and R&D team members began developing plant-based seafood alternatives, principally based on konjac flour. The Wild.Skinny.Clean. line then began to grow with plant-based offerings during the course of 2019. As product development progressed, the company’s plant-based Crunchy Coconut Shrimp soon emerged as a top product.
“Taste-Testing our product with people that have been catching and eating seafood their entire life was easy to do on an island,” says Van Cleve-Talbert. “That's where we concentrated our efforts and we know we had a break-through moment when these lifetime seafood and shrimp lovers thought it was real shrimp!”
By January 2020, Van Cleve Seafood was ready to test its Wild.Skinny.Clean plant-based Coconut Shrimp in nine-store test market. After product sold out within just a few weeks, the retailer’s order increased by 70%--and Van Cleve-Talbert knew something bigger was coming.
“Our plant-based seafood debuted on the retail shelf and in direct-to-consumer online stores in 2020,” she says. “Once we saw the opportunity to 'make' seafood, we were excited and committed to help change the way the world eats. We remain thrilled to keep creating, innovating and breaking barriers in expanding this product line.”
Van Cleve Seafood’s plant-based line now spans as many as five items. That fast growth prompted Van Cleve-Talbert and the family members to start seeking equity investment and formation of an entirely new start-up called The Plant Based Seafood Company (now fully separate from Van Cleve Seafood). In tandem, the business embraced a new brand name (Mind Blown) and complete package redesign.
The Plant Based Seafood Co. also boasts a new, multi-functional facility with its own Innovation Kitchen to test ingredients as well as develop and test new products. Now serving as co-founder and CEO, Van Cleve-Talbert says the new operation on Gwynn's Island, Chesapeake Bay, Va., also has its own greenhouse to grow medicinal herbs, fungi and spices. Speaking of ingredients, she notes that R&D researchers are experimenting with sea kelp, seaweeds, algae, fungi, dried pulses and other omega-3 plant proteins. Meanwhile, the company is determined to keep other items—anything related to soy, gluten, dairy and corn—completely off of ingredient labels.
Today’s line includes Mind Blown Dusted Shrimp, Naked Shrimp, Crab-like Crab Cakes, Crunchy Coconut Shrimp and Dusted Bay Scallops. Van Cleve-Talbert says ongoing plans call for new flavors within the existing line and extending the brand to a new species, such as lobster.
“To come right out of the gate with Prepared Foods’ ‘Editor's Choice/Most Innovative Product of 2020’ is a testament to how we plan to be the taste leaders in this space and it really sets the stage of where this brand is headed!” says Van Cleve-Talbert. “This is just the beginning of creating great tasting and healthy products, all while having a positive impact on our oceans.”