Nothing But The Trout: Fishwife's Becca Millstein On Building A Tinned Fish Empire
This Valentine's Day, we're playing matchmaker.
In the interest of giving Proxies fans a dynamic, delicious way to enjoy Valentine's Day, we took two of our fave bottles, and two stellar products from our favorite indie food brands, then smushed them together and bellowed "now, kiss!"
The result: The ultra-limited-edition Proxies + Pairings sets. We teamed Velvet up with Raaka’s Pink Sea Salt chocolate for a cherry-and-cocoa-laced flavor trip. Tart, apple-accented Sauvage, meanwhile, meets its match with the rich, savory Smoked Salmon from Fishwife.
If you've been riding the artisanal canned fish wave of the past few years, you're no doubt familiar with Fishwife, the L.A.-based seafood brand whose gorgeous cans and simple-yet-quality recipes have graced countless artisanal wine shop shelves, IG-feed salads and art-directed picnics. The brand even found itself in a somewhat unlikely media moment last summer, as the "tinned fish as hot girl food" mini-meme swept across food outlets.
Not half-bad for a fledgling company hatched early during COVID quarantine by Becca Millstein and Caroline Goldfarb, two friends who—despite their lack of background in the consumer product world—knew North America was hungry for an artful tinned seafood product.
We talked to Millstein about breaking the U.S. out of the "light chunk tuna" box and building an empire—one can at a time.
First off: Why fish?
I would say it's less “why fish?” and more “why tinned fish?”
The idea for the company came when me and my friend Caroline were quarantining together. We were eating so much tinned fish during quarantine—because it's shelf-stable, it’s healthy, it’s delicious.
At that time, I’d just seen so much enthusiasm around tinned seafood. There was just like a hum around it, probably in conjunction with the natural wine buzz that had erupted over the course of 2018, 2019. People were trying to elevate their home eating experiences, wanting to bring that classically Euro-Mediterranean hybrid of simplicity and elegance into their home.
Caroline and I were on a hike one day and came up with the idea randomly, and once it materialized in my head, it was so obviously a thing that had to exist—an amazing American tinned seafood company that represented tinned seafood as it is represented in, honestly, almost all nations around the world except for the U.S.
For whatever reason, in American advertising boardrooms in the 1960s or whatever, someone was just like, “We're gonna make canned seafood like survival food.” It was looked at as a depression-era staple, not sexy at all. Meanwhile, in other nations around the world, it's continued to hold a really important place in the culinary imagination.
After digging into it a little bit more, we realized it's one of the only foods that's incredibly healthy—so much protein, vitamins, Omega-3s, all the great things—while being shelf-stable. Our products currently have a four-year shelf life, and there are basically no other comparable products in terms of health and shelf-stability, except for maybe canned beans.
It's a miracle food. I think you can look into the future and be like, Okay we're all just literally just gonna be eating canned seafood, and that's gonna be where people get their protein.
Obviously there's a massive gulf between how people view canned food in a place like Spain and Portugal, where you’d go to a wine bar, crack a few cans and make an evening out of it. In North America, it’s sold as a relatively inexpensive convenience food—it really doesn't have that razzle-dazzle to it. I wonder if it’s because North Americans are more stereotypically interested in red meat, and seafood is just kind of a secondary concern?
I grew up hearing about my grandparents, living in Brooklyn in the 1930s, eating canned tuna because it was healthy and really cheap—and that is, like, the conception Americans grow up with in terms of canned fish. Canned fish in the U.S. is canned chunk light tuna. It doesn't look like fish at all—and we love that about it in some ways. It's that thing we mash up, put celery and tons of mayo in, and put it in our sandwiches.
But our products—they look like beautiful little fillets of fish, because that's what they are. And I think, just like with so many other misconceptions about food, people just never thought about canned tuna actually being connected to a fish. We talk all the time about the divorce between the animal and the food, and I think our products retain the recognition that it is, in fact, a sea creature that you are eating.
It's the chicken nuggetification of fish. Or the fish fingerification of fish. Do you think that perception is changing now?
I do—and obviously I'm the one that sees the most, because I run a tinned fish company, and obviously the mission is to change people's perception.
I mean, it's so obvious. I don't even think about it anymore. People have started to use our products in soba noodles, stews, onigiri—they're using it in a way that no one would think to have used Starkist tuna.
So in my incepting audience of like 30,000 or so, people are totally on the boat of, “This is something that can be approaching the protein in the most elevated of meals, with little to no alteration actually done to the product.”
I have to remind myself it is the tip of the iceberg, because I think we've seen this behavior change in my customers, and I think it will happen. Especially if I do my job and Fishwife does its job right. In all different parts of the country, in different socioeconomic backgrounds, we can see people just start to conceive of tinned seafood as a very appropriate place to get the protein for their family dinners, for their dates, for their dinner parties.
What was it like to launch during COVID?
Neither of us were from this world at all. I was working in the music industry, and Caroline is currently still a television writer.
We started the process by talking to Spanish and Portuguese canneries, because that's where we assumed we would source and process. That's where the richest heritage of tinned seafood is. But then I started getting connected to a lot of fishermen and canneries in the U.S., and it was way quicker to develop products and get them out to market. We developed a product with a Spanish cannery and it took a year to get to market; we developed a product with an American one and it took like three months.
I came from a creative direction, brand partnerships, marketing background. So, creating the visual of the brand, the name, and all the brand identity was really natural for me, and very easy, and very, very fun. Other than that, we were just figuring it out as we went.
We do most of our processing in the U.S.—currently the vast majority of it is in Washington state and British Columbia. We're still sourcing our sardines from Galicia, and we're still looking at other partners abroad because there is so much out there.
Our first tuna product was basically a recipe that this cannery already had, just a classic smoked recipe—but I’d never had anything like it. Smoked tuna is not a product that people are familiar with in the U.S.
Our next product was rainbow trout, and we basically just kept the same recipe in terms of ingredients for the three hero products. So that's tuna, trout and salmon—just classically smoked recipes. Then we did a ton of recipe testing and development: Brine time, smoke time, skin on, skin off, different cuts and preparations.
Is there a dream ingredient, or something you'd really love to offer that you just haven't been able to make work just yet?
The dream is introducing people to new species of seafood, which is definitely a dream we will be able to realize, but it’s always the balance of finding products that are sustainable—which means a million different things to different species, and is a blanket term, but it has very real meanings.
They have to be sustainable, they have to be super high quality. Ideally, they can be scalable sources, because we are a company that is looking to scale. And they need to be affordable enough for our customers. Like, we have figured out ways to get incredibly high-quality sustainable fish at prices that still have us landing at a very premium product, but is still not totally exclusionary.
There are a bunch of species of fish that we are really excited to introduce people to, but making sure that we can hit all those points is definitely challenging. There will be times we'll compromise: Like, if I really want to introduce people to abalone, for example, and it's super expensive, maybe we'll do a 5,000 can run and just use that as an opportunity to expose people to new species and educate them, but maybe they won't be products we hope to scale.
How do art and aesthetics play a role in the brand?
There are a few drivers that have allowed us to have so much organic growth, and I would say the the visuals of the brand are the primary one. That's the one that hooks people, and then the quality of the product is what keeps them coming back.
I work with an illustrator named Danny Miller, and he's my closest creative collaborator. He's an illustrator in LA. He had never done any sort of brand or packaging work before, but his style just was so clearly aligned with what we were trying to communicate. I think we have been able to create a really original brand because we weren't working with a branding agency that just kind of cranks them out. I think it's really good to have fresh perspectives and to maybe not have people that have done the thing a million times before, because they're coming in with fresh eyes. We approach packaging by just creating the most beautiful work of art we can.
Otherwise, we just collaborate with artists all the time. From day one we were a very art-forward brand so a lot of artists came to us to collaborate, and then we've just kept doing it and it's really really fun. And it's fun to have a legion of artist customers, because they're just really fun advocates for the brand.
What’s the response been to Fishwife thus far?
It's been really amazing. We just got through our first year of business, it was just, like, a dream year. I think people are really driven to the originality of the brand in the space and the fact that no one had innovated in this space in like 100 years. There was much enthusiasm—from customers, from influencers, from journalists.
I think it's that really great meeting of a product that is really new and really innovative, but also a staple product—it's not like we're using adaptogens, or whatever that blue thing is people use. (Spirulina—ed.) We're not using any weird ingredients or creating fake meat or anything. It's a very, very simple product—just in a quality presentation that people aren't used to.
On the topic of the outpouring of public love, especially in media: There was a weird moment last summer where everyone sort of burst forth and proclaimed “Canned fish is the hot girl food.” What was that moment like for you guys? I personally thought it was hilarious, if oddly specific.
It was amazing. It really started with one woman, who tweeted something like “Hot girls are always like ‘tinned fish is great’. And I posted that, and then “Hot girls eat tinned fish” became a whole thing, and then Nylon did a little piece about it.
And then—it was so crazy. We made a line of merch that was “Hot girls eat tinned fish.” And the day that we launched it, another piece in Vice came out. I was like, “A publicist could not have concocted this moment.” It was insane.
So it was just a whole thing. We did a whole series on hot girls eating tinned fish. I think we're letting it go, but people keep saying it to me, so I’m like “OK, I guess that’s still a thing.”
There are worse memes to be associated with.
It was awesome. Culture created that moment, but then we really put a brand to it so I was very grateful for that moment and happy to be a part of it. It was very serendipitous timing all around.
Do you have a favorite Fishwife/Acid League combo?
I do love the Julia Sherman collab, the saffron tomato vinegar. I love putting that on a salad with our smoked salmon, or smoked trout. My most recent Proxies got shipped to my old address, and my old roommates drank them, so I haven’t had them in a long time. But I love the Zephyr—we did a little open-faced tuna melt with the Zephyr.
We’ll have to get you some new ones! What’s next for you guys?
We're doing our first limited-edition brand product collab. I can't say which company it is, but we will be releasing three limited-edition products that are collabs with other amazing companies. I think we'll be launching at the beginning of April.
We’ll tell the people to follow you on IG for updates. Anything else you’d like to add?
I'm just excited for people to try the products. Not to be cocky, but they're better than any salmon I've ever made in my own home, and they don't create any sort of mess, don't require any preparation.
So I think the combination of brands like Acid League that make these gorgeous vinegars or broths or sauces that allow you to skip many steps—that’s what we do as well. It's about bringing you incredibly high-quality food that makes your life easier.
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This Q&A has been edited and condensed.