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This L.A. Food Startup Wants You to Know There Are Other Fish in the Sea

A Los Angeles-based seafood subscription service for overlooked catch hopes its business model will get people to try new things and patronize farmers markets, and fix the food economy in the process.

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BY Julie Walmsley - 12 Dec 2017

This L.A. Food Startup Wants You to Know There Are Other Fish in the Sea

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

There's such a thing as underloved fish. And if you could just get into it, you might finally learn to use your kitchen and help the oceans too.

It's a busy moment in the get-Americans-to-cook-a-little-better sector. We all know we need to slow down and pay attention to eating local and mostly plant-based, but we live intense lives and are used to swiping up conveniences on our phones. We order energy-intensive same-day delivery for anything and everything, including food. And so a cadre of companies is marketing paradoxy: Slow-cooked convenience and fossil fuel-delivered organics.

Close to home, but not delivered to your home

While others jockey to dominate the large-scale meal kit delivery niche nationally, Trashfish is taking it back hyperlocal. The Los Angeles startup wants to package your next culinary adventure, but not exactly on demand. So dubbed as a reference to the phrase "trash fish" that is assigned to heretofore unwanted fish, the company aims to not only get you to try new seafood, but to start walking your closest farmers market and give those small businesses and their locally sourced product a boost as well. Depending on one's subscription and preparation and portion choices, the price works out to $12 to $14 per meal.

Officially, Trashfish delivers for a $15 flat fee, but the company would rather you stop by its booth to pick up that month's share, and chat about the recipe ideas from local chefs you'll get in your box along with that month's surprise gift, a pantry item like artisanal vinegar or a useful tool like a crab mallet.

If you can't get to one of L.A.'s farmers markets, you can pick up your share at the company's Culver City headquarters. But Trashfish founder and Forbes 30 Under 30 nominee Ren Ostry is determined to get you to browse all that's good at the market. It could revive your local food economy and begin to rebalance the oceans' species.

Throwing back The Big Three

Ostry hopes to minimize the perils of industrialized food production by shifting demand. As of 2015, about 55% of the seafood Americans consume comes from only 3 species. And, the shrimp, tuna, and salmon we devour comes mostly from only a few untraceable sources.

Intense demand of course produces competition to supply, and also eventually produces efficiency in the form of scale. That is, large firms are advantaged and our food supply becomes ever more mechanized and less local. At the same time, oceans are depleted.

Apart from stimulating business for farmers markets and local restaurants whose chefs are featured on the recipe cards packed into each Trashfish box, Ostry's model catches new customers for small-scale California fishers in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Francisco counties.

Teaching diners to try something new

Ostry's ocean-saving odyssey began with Brooklyn-based B-corp Sea to Table. Employed as a west coast representative for four years before launching Trashfish earlier this year, she would sell the strategically sourced seafood by convincing chefs and servers of unseen beauty in so-called trash fish, first gaining attention for pushing a new chef at a Los Angeles mainstay, Silver Lake's Cliff's Edge, to showcase blowfish last year.

Ostry expected her concept to become a non-profit, but then found Women's Economic Ventures. The Santa Barbara-based non-profit cultivates entrepreneurial female talent, a kind of accelerator minus the the seed cash. Sixteen weeks of training and coaching prepared Ostry to assess the viability of her concept and write a business plan. She invested her own money and found one investor. She continues to look for more investors, with a goal of expanding the model to more California counties in one year.

Subscribing to a new model

It's private sector entrepreneurship that solves an environmental problem and helps other local businesses to compete in an industrialized food system. Ostry's calculations show the math does add up to profit, while maintaining reasonable pricing for customers, but she has to educate the public to get the buy-in. And she has to compete with huge firms who have a head start on crafting food-plus-recipe packages and who have already scaled.

Blue Apron and Amazon are poised to duke it out for the high-volume meal kit market. Plated and Hello Fresh are also players in the crowded sector. Not to be confused with Plated, Plate is an online community that is part food and drink news outlet and part recipe database.

The average consumer believes that seafood is expensive, and anything unusual is exceptionally expensive. Ostry attributes this to narrow demand, which spikes pricing: "Instead of having a consumer food, we're taking inexpensive [industrially sourced and packaged] fish and making them insanely expensive."

Trashfish's $12 to $14 meal prices hover just above Blue Apron's, at about $9 to $10 per meal, but the price difference is almost offset by the $7.99 shipping fee one pays on Blue Apron's two-person plan. (The family plan offers free shipping.)

Ostry wants people to think of buying seafood seasonally. That's why she's set up shop at the farmers market.

"I'm on a mission to get seafood into the same conversation that produce is in," Ostry said. "There are flavors, there are seasons, there are producers to support."