When it comes to fish, crudo is cool. Ceviche is cool. But canned tuna and sardines? Not so much.
Seven months ago, two 20-somethings set out to rectify that when they founded Fishwife, a company that sells tinned fish that is tasty, good for the planet, fancifully packaged, and healthy to boot.
At the start of their respective careers, Caroline Goldfarb and Becca Millstein did not plan to be tinned-fish torch bearers. Both women live in Los Angeles and are involved in the arts. Goldfarb is a TV comedy writer. Millstein, until she became chief executive officer of Fishwife, worked in the music industry. The idea to found a canned fish and seafood company was born out of the pandemic. During the lockdown, the two ate lots of tinned fish, and they bonded over their mutual appreciation, love and obsession with what they describe as “a miracle fast food.”
“As anyone who loves tinned fish knows,” said Goldfarb,”it is super healthy, super quick and super versatile.”
The more they dug into it, the more they thought that this may be a genre of food ready for its big moment.
Canned tuna and sardines are arguably in Goldfarb’s DNA. When she was born, her dad worked for Starkist Seafood Company. He keeps a framed photo of himself from 1992, standing proudly in front of two walls stacked with cans of tuna fish. Her mom regularly sent her to school with sardines for lunch.
“I lived,” said Goldfarb, “in a fish positive household.”
As young adults, each of the women traveled to the Iberian peninsula and fell in love with the culture of conservas, flavorful tinned fish, especially sardines. They were taken by the umami taste, the rich Spanish olive oil in which the fish was often packed, and the beautiful artwork on the cans.
When they began to investigate the possibility of starting their own canned fish company in the States, they assumed they would have to do a lot of convincing to get people to eat the stuff.
“For the generation that grew up around the Great Depression, sardines were a pantry staple,” said Millstein. “Ashkenazi Jews grew up with sardines in the house and either loved them or had a strong aversion because they were force fed them by their parents who were trying to save money.”
The founders were surprised to learn how many people, of all ages, regularly eat tinned seafood like sardines, tuna, and salmon. According to market research company Grand View Research, the canned fish market in the United States is supposed to reach $27.8 billion by 2025. Sardines, says the company’s report, are expected to emerge as the fastest growing segment of that market.What does Fishwife bring to the canned fish universe? Start with its playful name, a tip of the hat to the founders. The term fishwife was historically applied to women who were bold, brash, and coarse, something to which the two women say they relate.
Then there’s the packaging. Each tin of fish comes in a brightly colored and artfully decorated cardboard box that, like its namesake, is bold, brash, luscious, sexy even. The art is beautiful enough that you could flatten the box, frame it and hang it on your wall.
But then there is the fish itself.
“We very intentionally picked our first product and developed it so it would not be alienating to any palate,” said Millstein. “If you try our smoked tuna and our smoked trout, they are delicious and a low barrier of entry to someone not familiar with tinned fish. It tastes,” she said, “like well-prepared fish.”
In building this food company, both women were committed to focusing on a sustainable supply chain.
The trout comes from Riverence, in Idaho, and is farm-raised using sustainable aquaculture practices. One of the advantages of sustainable aquaculture, say the founders, is that you reduce the impact of seafood consumption on wild fish populations. The fish are raised without hormones and without antibiotics. The fish you get in your tin is 100% traceable — if you need to know you could find out exactly what your fish ate from the moment it was born until it arrives in your can.
Their albacore tuna is, according to the packaging, “caught by small boat fisherfolk in the north Pacific.” It is then smoked and canned in Oregon.
Fishwife sells sustainable fish in beautiful cans
Because the fish is canned, the company can participate in the upcycling movement in which they can use “offcuts” of fish. They can buy fish that is not the right size or shape even though it is premium fish, similar to “Imperfect food” that is cosmetically imperfect but of the highest quality.
The women are getting back to their original love by the end of this month when they will bring to market a limited run of sardines. These come from a supplier in Galicia, on the northwest coast of Spain. Goldfarb and Millstein have many other types of fish and seafood in the pipeline.
“We will be putting in tins fish and seafood that people are not used to eating in that format,” said Millstein.
The month their site went live, in December 2020, Vogue Magazine ran a feature about Fishwife in which the writer described their branding as “stylish.” Take a look at their artwork, their recipes and their Instagram feed to see that this is not your grandmother’s sardines and tuna— it’s a whole different kettle of fish.