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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Startup Test Kitchen: Mermaid's Garden

The Startup Test Kitchen is a weekly feature on food, drink and agriculture startups in this eager and entrepreneurial borough. Know a startup, small business or Kickstarter campaign that we ought to write about? Let us know!


Click the image above for Mermaid's Garden Kickstarter video.

Making sustainable choices about the fish and seafood you consume can be a lot like going fishing—you try your best, but in general, it's a pretty uncertain game. You try to go and talk to the guy at the fish counter or closely read the packaging on the bag of shrimp from Trader Joe's, but at the end of the day, there are so many steps and middlemen between the fish in the ocean and the fish on your dinner plate that it's really hard to know where it came from and if it was raised, caught and processed sustainably. 

It was this uncertainty, an entrepreneurial drive and a love of really fresh fish that led husband and wife team Mark Usewicz and Bianca Piccillo to start Mermaid's Garden, a sustainable seafood business which includes a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) seafood pickup program and soon to open retail shop in Prospect Heights. 

Often, said Piccillo, fish and seafood are, "caught here, sent to China, processed, sent back to the US and sold here." It is a lengthy and inefficient process that costs the consumer and the fisherman. "Rather than having the fish go through many different hands, we make that chain much shorter. [It means] better, fresher fish for the consumer and a better price for the fisherman." 

Mark and Bianca at the ocean. Photo credit: mermaidsgardennyc.com.
With backgrounds in ocean sciences and the service industry, Bianca was a marine biologist and Mark a chef, the couple put their know-how to use to start the business with a six-week trial run of the CSF. 

Once a week, members could pick up a share of sustainable seafood from Mermaid's Garden, which included fish like New England and Long Island black bass, haddock, swordfish and even Alaskan salmon and Florida stone crab when in season. Most of the fish was from friends (or friends of friends) of the couple in the Northeast, all of them small boat fishermen. This meant they knew the story behind each fish, who was catching it and if it was being caught and processed in a sustainable way. The CSF caught on, and they were soon offering the program year-round. Today, they have 350 committed customers. The CSF costs $132 per month for a full share (half shares are available too), with pickup locations around Brooklyn. 

"The response has been incredibly positive," says Piccillo. 

The model worked well and the couple wanted to expand to a brick and mortar shop. But finding the capital to support their small business wasn't easy. 

"There's not money for start-ups out there unless you go to a VC. We're not trying to be the next Tumblr. Most banks won't even talk to you if you haven't been around three years," added Piccillo. 

Just as the couple found that the Brooklyn community was supportive of their CSF, they found that they could tap into the local community to help launch their shop. They just completed successful Kickstarter campaign last week, bringing in over $18,000, which combined with personal investment was enough to make their their business plan work. 

The shop, to open on Vanderbilt Ave, will feature a rotating variety of seasonal fish and seafood as well as prepared dishes and sides. Brooklyn, it seems, is the right place to open such a shop. 

"Definitely people here are very invested in what they're eating and want to know where it comes from, from the farm to the plate or the ocean to the plate," said Piccollo of her Brooklyn-based customers.  

And for Brooklynites wanting to take the guesswork out of where their fish and seafood came from, Mermaid's Garden was the place to go.

"A model like ours," Piccillo chimes in about the business, is one "where you can tell the story."

Visit www.mermaidsgardennyc.com for more information on the CSF program and the forthcoming shop. Follow the company @MGFishNYC.

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