Next-gen seafood company Kuleana has enjoyed a wave of recent success as alt seafood continues at the forefront of consumer minds, investor interest, and innovation. The young San Francisco brand recently launched its plant-based tuna into Poké Bar restaurants across North America and was even named semifinalists of the XPRIZE Foundation Challenge.
“We’re creating #thenewschooloffish”
Kuleana takes its name from the Hawaiian word for taking responsibility for balancing what we give and take from the earth and honors it by producing sustainable, plant-based seafood in the US. It entered the US seafood market at the perfect time, just last September, with its debut product being a raw tuna, as part of its mission to “create next generation seafood with plants and biotechnology.”
We were fascinated to talk with Jacek Prus, Co-founder and CEO of Kuleana, to talk about its sushi-grade tuna and the “raw” alternative protein sphere.
Can you give us Kuleana’s elevator pitch?
Kuleana is a next generation seafood company that combines plants and biotechnology to celebrate everything we love about seafood: from taste, to texture, to heart healthy omega-3 DHAs, without dropping a single hook or fishing net. We use a mix of sustainable, plant-based ingredients like algae, potato, bamboo, and radish to honor the ocean’s abundance, while simultaneously restoring its health. Our customers span home cooks, tastemaking chefs, and foodservice operators.
The goal of building a future of food that is good for our palate and our planet aligns us. We’re creating #thenewschooloffish.
Kuleana recently raised seed investment, what does that signify for the business at this stage?
This investment indicates that our company has successfully taken the leap from product concept to product actualization and adoption. Our team of biotechnologists, manufacturing operators, and go-to-market strategists have been building the distribution, retail, brand, and media partnerships foundation to define this blue-sky category. The US consumer seafood space is a $102B market. Alternative seafood is a sleeping giant, and we have the product and the team to put it on the map. It’s exciting that investors have taken notice and feel confident taking the plunge with Kuleana to chart a new course in the alternative food space.
Do you consider yourself to be at the frontier of “raw” alternative proteins? Why is that important?
Yes, leading the charge in this format of alternative seafood is both a privilege and an opportunity that we don’t take lightly. Over the past few years, consumers have grown familiar with plant-based burgers, bacon, sausage…plant-based eating is not just for vegans and vegetarians anymore. It’s proven that it can have mass appeal, so long as it can go toe-to-toe with its animal-based counterpart. Still, plant-based seafood is uncharted territory. We carry this spirit of redefining expectations around plant-based food to drive innovation. Why choose between a spicy tuna roll and plant-based eating, when you can have both, with Kuleana.
“We don’t need to give up seafood, but we do need to chart a path to balancing growing consumer demand with the ocean’s sustainable supply.”
Zooming out from the individual consumer, there are also planetary considerations. While demand for seafood shows no signs of slowing down, the ocean supply is dwindling. Ocean fish populations are down 50% in the past 50 years. In that same time span, Bluefin Tuna populations have fallen a staggering 97%. We don’t need to give up seafood, but we do need to chart a path to balancing growing consumer demand with the ocean’s sustainable supply.
Since we have the opportunity to set industry standards for plant-based seafood, we want to do one better than creating a vegan fish stick, and have challenged ourselves to create plant-based products that come raw and unobscured. Kuleana seafood doesn’t hide behind a crispy coating or particular preparation method. What you see with Kuleana is what you get. No smoke and mirrors — although smoked seafood products might be on the way!
You recently entered a partnership with Poké Bar restaurants to supply your plant-based tuna across North America, how did this materialize and what benefits does it bring?
There has been appetite for plant-based seafood, but virtually no companies offering it. Since we commercialized our product earlier this year, we’ve had numerous restaurants and food distribution brands approach us. Poke Bar has been one partner we’ve launched with. Poké Bar’s national coverage allows us to reach more customers.
“Kuleana is on a mission to reimagine the food system with a seafood option that can sustainably and satisfyingly feed Earth’s next billion people”
On our end, we chose to partner with Poke Bar because of their national footprint and their specialty in sashimi-grade fish. Kuleana is on a mission to reimagine the food system with a seafood option that can sustainably and satisfyingly feed Earth’s next billion people. We are only as successful in this mission as the number of people our product can reach.
Can you detail your current portfolio and bestsellers?
Our debut product is our plant-based, sushi-grade Kuleana Tuna filet. It is currently available in poke bowls at national restaurant chain Poke Bar and in prepared sushi rolls at cult-favorite Los Angeles grocer Erewhon.
As the alt seafood market continues to expand, what makes your products unique among their global peers?
Our product mimics a whole muscle raw tuna fillet so you can use it for the preparation of a large variety of dishes, including serving it raw, smoked or marinated and choose multiple sizes and cuts to serve.
Our world-class R&D team, culinary experts and Michelin-decorated chef collaborators have successfully recreated a raw tuna experience that is uncompromising on taste, texture, and presentation. So both high-end culinary experts as well as home cooks can treat Kuleana the way they are most familiar with right now: they can marinade or dress it and put it in a salad, they can smoke it, they can slice it and serve it on a bed of sushi rice.
“both high-end culinary experts as well as home cooks can treat Kuleana the way they are most familiar with”
We use a proprietary blend of protein, enzymes and other substrates that brings a high biological value amino-acid profile and create the structure like that of an animal based product. We don’t have any ingredients that are not already GRAS (FDA) or Novel Foods (EFSA) approved, allowing us to go to market as we please.
What comes next in your plans to populate the consumer marketplace?
On paper, we’re a plant-based seafood company. In practice, we are seeking to create a category that transforms what our plate is composed of. When one puts a traditional fish filet on their plate, they know they’re getting heart-healthy omega 3-DHAs, but are often unaware that they are also consuming cholesterol, heavy metals and microplastics. Recent studies have revealed that the average human ingests roughly a credit card-sized amount of plastic each week.
We want to recompose plates to remove all of the drawbacks of seafood, by paying homage to the flavors of the ocean with a plant-based product that is better for our health and the planet’s.
The future of food—and the consumer marketplace—rests on the shoulders of innovation. Biotechnology will play a fundamental role in recreating many of the foods that we simply expect to always be available to us. Over the next 12 months, Kuleana will be available at more restaurants, online marketplaces, and groceries nationwide, so we can meet seafood demand wherever it is — whether it be a celebratory meal, a nutritious workweek lunch, or sushi night at home.