"Tinned fish-heads" is how Caroline Goldfarb — TV writer, podcast host, and the woman behind the wildly popular @officialseanpenn Instagram account — refers to the ultra-niche fan club that has, in recent months, emerged both online and in real life. How does Goldfarb know what to call the very if-you-know-you-know, sardine-loving group? She's one of them.
Earlier this year, Goldfarb quarantined with her friend Becca Millstein, and the two spent that time building Fishwife, a direct-to-consumer brand that officially launches today and is dedicated not only to serving the existing community of tinned fish-heads, but also introducing even more people to the beauty of preserved seafood. Millstein, who works at a music management startup says that her years of working in the fast-paced, innovative music industry made her feel like launching a business was an approachable — but still exciting — endeavor as she rode out the pandemic. The two were also helped by Goldfarb's extensive experience in direct-to-consumer online sales through the OfficialSeanPenn merch store. "I love selling merch online," she says. "It's a fucking passion of mine." When it came to deciding what they'd sell, the answer was obvious: tinned fish.
Goldfarb comes by her "deep, undying love for all things tinned fish" honestly. "My mom would send me to school with sardines on the regular, and I would get so made fun of," she says. "I have a Persian mom, so I just grew up eating all kinds of things that my American friends didn't eat. Tinned fish was always a super staple in our house, specifically sardines." Millstein, on the other hand, turned into a tinned fish-head later in life. "I became enchanted by tinned fish when I was living for a brief time in Spain," she shares. "While I was there, I traveled around and went to Portugal, and there's just such an insanely artful culture around conservas there."
Millstein is not the only American who discovered a new side of canned seafood while traveling — specifically to Portugal, where in the last five years, it seems like everyone you follow on Instagram has gone. Perhaps, you even went yourself. That tourist boom, according to Anna Hezel, senior editor at TASTE and canned fish fan, is exactly why this specific food has gained popularity in the U.S. recently. "By traveling into this culture, Americans were learning how to eat tinned fish in a new way," she explains. Hezel points out that many Americans, including herself, grew up using canned tuna in dishes like tuna sandwiches and tuna noodle casserole. These trips to Portugal, though, taught many to think beyond those basic menu mainstays. "So many Americans were introduced to the idea of how fun and casual it is to open a bottle of wine and then open a special little can of fish that they'd been saving for a while," she says.
Goldfarb and Millstein echo that sentiment. "Here, people think of it as this stinky food or this food their grandma ate in the Great Depression," Goldfarb explains. "When you go overseas to Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, it’s chic! You're being served this beautiful can of $18 cockles at a happy hour in a small town in Northern Spain or you're visiting a specialty shop in Paris dedicated to selling different flavors of tuna."
Because the rise of tinned fish-heads in American was inspired by European adventures, up until 2020, the trend was fairly exclusive. Cool foodies were buzzing about it, gourmet grocery stores were stocking it, and according to Hezel, restaurants specializing in preserved seafood, like Sardine Head in Portland; Saltie Girl in Boston; and Maiden Lane in New York, began popping up in the hippest areas of the country. What changed the way even more Americans thought about tinned fish, however, was — surprise, surprise — the coronavirus pandemic.
On their website, the co-founders of Fishwife refer to tinned fish as a "future-facing" food. One big reason for that is how we grocery shop, cook, and consume food in this COVID-19 era. "We're thinking about the way we stock our pantry differently," Goldfarb explains. "You can't just go to the market to get fresh food every single day. You have to be more mindful with the way you plan your meals, and tinned fish is a really reliable, cost-effective food that can sit in your pantry for two years and only get better if you ask me."
Convenience, reliability, and nutrition are so important during this time, and canned seafood offers all of that. "A lot of us are, for the first time, eating three meals a day at home," Millstein points out. "It's hard to prepare myself a healthy lunch and a healthy dinner every day. It just takes so much effort and cost, but with tinned fish, it's simple. I just had tinned trout on some crackers for lunch, and it's like this incredibly nutritious, super delicious, filling food." Goldfarb agrees, "I'm working from home, but I feel busier than ever before. With this modern lifestyle, it's often not realistic to cook a full meal when you only have a 20-minute break between Zoom meetings, so there's something very futuristic and future-facing about the convenience of tinned fish."
According to Hezel, tinned fish's convenience, nutritional value, and long shelf life aren't the only reasons it grew in popularity during quarantine. "I've noticed, in my neighborhood, a bunch of restaurants have started selling select retail items, so I've been seeing canned fish pop up at more and more of those restaurants," she says. "Often, it's stuff that's a little harder for consumers to find at grocery stores, like some imported stuff from Spain and Portugal and cans that only restaurants would have access to wholesale." In an effort to support local restaurants, as the foodservice industry continues to suffer through the pandemic, customers have taken to buying up these tinned fish offerings.
While quarantine created the perfect scenario for even those who weren't tapped into foodie culture or never traveled to Europe to try out and embrace tinned fish, there was still a gap in accessibility — not everyone has those local restaurants around the corner that sell hard-to-find preserved seafood. That's exactly where Fishwife comes in. "We want everyone to understand that this should be a staple in their pantry," Goldfarb says. The brand's direct-to-consumer setup makes it easy for you to keep your kitchen cabinets stocked with tuna, trout, salmon, sardines, mussels, and more.
Getting Fishwife to a place where it could ship canned fish to the masses, however, took some time. Once Goldfarb and Millstein made the decision to try and launch a direct-to-consumer tinned fish brand, they set out to find canneries. That turned out to be a whole hilarious process. "Thank God it was quarantine, and we had time because we dug our heels in," Goldfarb says.
The two started by borrowing a trick from Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer, founders of the online artists marketplace Witchsy. "Look, this is an old-school industry. A lot of people warned us the international fishing trade can be very shady, and we're two young women who are novices in this game, so we created a completely fake man named Richard that we pretended worked for our company and cold-emailed these giant canneries in Portugal and Spain that have been making sardines for hundreds of years under his name," Goldfarb explains. Thanks to "Richard," who they presented as "a representative of an up-and-coming fish brand based in Los Angeles," responses came quickly.
But getting the canneries to take them seriously wasn’t the only challenge. The co-founders had to put in the time to find a canning partner that would work with them on minimums so they wouldn’t be forced to order 100,000 cans of sardines at once. They also wanted to work with a cannery that used sustainable practices and produced high-quality products. "Many 5 a.m. Skype calls later with people being like, 'Where’s that Richard guy?' we found an amazing factory in Galicia," Goldfarb shares.
Because their love for tinned fish was, in part, inspired by the conserva tradition in Europe and because the fish from that area tastes unbelievable, the Fishwife founders were thrilled to be working with a supplier in Spain, but they also wanted to be involved in making canneries a part of America’s domestic economy again. That proved difficult because most major canneries in the U.S. have closed. After Fishwife’s soft launch in August, however, micro-canneries in Alaska and Oregon and fishermen and women in Northern California began reaching out about potential partnerships. It was a win-win since many of these folks had lost sales to restaurants because of COVID-19.
The old-school fishing and canning industries got a totally modern makeover as many of these partnerships between Fishwife and its suppliers took place over social media. "We started reaching out to fisherwomen and men on Instagram and asking them if we could buy their fish and then connecting them with this really amazing and flexible cannery in Oregon that we started working with," Millstein explains. Goldfarb's Instagram prowess came in handy during this process. "Truly, can you imagine DM-ing fisherwomen on Instagram? Not to get too into the weeds of it, but I remember at one point I was on this Instagram account called like 'fishermen taking naps' or something — it was literally an Instagram account of just fisherpeople on fishing boats taking naps — and I was just scrolling through it, finding people's handles, going to their accounts, and being like, 'Hey!' It was crazy." Through all that, Millstein and Goldfarb found a tuna fisherman in the Humboldt area and Katfish Salmon Co, owned by Alaskan fisherwoman, Kat Murphy, both of which they now work closely with.
While Fishwife's mission is to introduce tinned fish to a wide audience through its direct-to-consumer model, the co-founders were sure to incorporate one aspect of the food that appealed to those bougie buyers who discovered the art of conserva in Europe. When there was that explosion in tourists visiting Portugal a few years back, Hezel says many travelers purchased sardines and other canned fish as souvenirs because of how they look. "People were bringing back these beautiful cans and celebrating them as their own aesthetic objects," she shares.
That gorgeous packaging that European tinned seafood is known for served as inspiration for Fishwife’s branding. "We have the Sun-Maid raisin girl and other classic iconic American packaging, but in Spain and Portugal, they have tinned fish ladies," Goldfarb says, "We wanted to bring that history, those bold colors, and especially that feminist iconography to our brand. We wanted our own cool fish lady." To make that happen, they worked with Danny Miller, an L.A.-based illustrator and designer known professionally as DanBo, who has historically worked on album art for indie musicians.
Together with DanBo, the two founders ended up with branding that had a connection to the vintage aesthetic so many tourists had already been drawn to. Thanks to a healthy dose of humor and whimsy, however, the branding also makes Fishwife products approachable for those who haven’t experimented with tinned fish before. "We want to appeal to young hip Gen Z folks but not alienate older generations. Because it's fun and playful and beautiful, we feel like everyone can love it," says Millstein. Goldfarb agrees, "Repackaging tinned fish and making it something accessible, fun, sexy, something that people of all generations can relate to was so key. For all the people that love tinned fish because they grew up eating sardines or because they traveled to Portugal, there are also a lot of people who are new to it and unsure of it. For them, seeing a package that brings them in and begs them to be a part of this movement is so important."
So far, it seems to have worked. In August, Fishwife launched a Beta Box to test the market. Both Millstein and Goldfarb call the response to that test "overwhelming." "People really responded to the branding and really responded to the story. So many tinned fish-heads are coming out of the woodwork to say, 'Yes, tinned fish should be cool, tinned fish is sexy, tinned fish deserves to go viral,'" Goldfarb shares. "We have more than 500 people on our waiting list."