SANTA FE, N.M. — Nick Mendoza grew up in Southern California, but his roots run deep in New Mexico.
His grandparents are cattle ranchers in the Gila Wilderness of southwestern New Mexico, where he worked summers as a kid. And a few years ago, when he left behind his career as a marine scientist, Mendoza returned to the family ranch.
The 29-year-old, who now lives in Santa Fe, specialized in research for reducing waste in aquaculture, the practice of farming seafood. He worked on projects intended to improve sustainability in an industry where millions of pounds of edible food is wasted annually. But he became discouraged when the practices he helped develop weren’t being moved forward by industry leaders.
“What I care about is sustainability and how we produce food, from the oceans and from the environment, and seafood waste, because nearly half of all seafood we harvest ends up in a garbage can or as pet food or fertilizer,” Mendoza said in a recent interview at his Santa Fe home.
he types of wild-harvested fish that can go to waste include catches that aren’t the right size or shape to produce filets that sell, or species that don’t have name recognition of popular varieties, like salmon or bass.
Now, an idea to start a beef jerky business for his grandparents’ ranch has transformed into something that connected him back with his original passions – fish jerky, a product that can reduce the waste of lesser known fish varieties.
His startup company, OneForNeptune, is taking off with the goal of creating a market for “underloved, undervalued” fish through a snack format already familiar to its audience.
“We’re working to put fish to its highest purpose in the market and offer this really healthy, high-protein option in a really convenient way,” said Mendoza.
Though Santa Fe is his home base, his product is produced and packaged in Washington state.
The company, which went live in late November, currently sells its Pacific rockfish jerky online and at expos across the country. It is also preparing to sell its first retail packages in a few Bay Area stores in coming weeks.
The jerky, for now, comes in three flavors. The original “Norse Smoke” option is made with sea salt and juniper. The juniper comes from spent botanicals left over at local distillery Santa Fe Spirits.
The other flavors are “Fiery Cajun” and “Honey Lemon Ginger.” Last month, Mendoza’s Fiery Cajun flavor was named a finalist for Best New Product at the Seafood Expo North America in Boston.
Leading up to last fall’s launch, the company crowdfunded $65,000 via Kickstarter. Its initial goal was $10,000, which Mendoza said it reached in six hours. The company had built up a mailing list of 6,000-7,000 people through social media ads before starting the campaign.
Kickstarter also took notice of the campaign and mentioned it in its newsletter, which brought the business $15,000 in one day. In October 2018, Mendoza also won the ABQId Balloon Pitch Competition’s $10,000 prize.
The company has produced 30,000 packages so far that have been sold, put into inventory for online sales or sent out in subscription packages.
Though fish jerky may seem like an unusual snack to many U.S. consumers, Mendoza said dried fish and seafood-based snacks are common in Southeast Asia and other regions of the world. In the U.S., other jerky companies offer selections using popular fish types like salmon, tuna and trout.
Mendoza said fish jerky in fact helped “build the modern world.” Vikings traveled with dried cod as a primary food source and Roman armies took along dried tuna when marching to battle.
“There’s a definite huge global tradition of seafood snacks, just not in the U.S. yet,” he said.
The product’s taste has been likened to beef. Mendoza touts the fish as a leaner, higher protein option.
The business’s target audience is primarily outdoorsy types aged 20-30, like hikers, hunters or anglers. According to Mendoza, the nutrition content has attracted Keto and Paleo diet followers, and an unexpected market turned out to be expecting mothers and mothers of young children due to the fish’s selenium and Omega-3 levels. Selenium is believed to have pre-natal and brain development benefits.
A market for rockfish
The specific family of fish used in OneForNeptune jerky was selected to go with its sustainability mission. All of it comes from members of the rockfish family caught primarily off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
Mendoza described rockfish as a “Cinderella story” in the seafood community. By the ’80s and ’90s, rockfish, comprising about 80 different species, had been severely overfished due to international vessels fishing in U.S. waters. A federal law that created a restricted 200-mile zone around U.S. fisheries helped stop the overfishing.
The rockfish population has since bounced back years before experts expected it would, Mendoza said. But commercial fisherman are catching only about a quarter of the “quota” that has been set for the rockfish. The quota, he explained, is the amount that can be can be harvested each year without threatening the species.
“Because (rockfish) was off the market for 10, 20 years, it was pretty much no longer available,” he explained. “Now that it’s back, it’s been forgotten and doesn’t have the name recognition.”
OneForNeptune buys cuts of rockfish that may not be the right size or shape for buyers to sell as filets, as well as what’s called “bycatch.” For example, if a halibut fisherman accidentally catches a rockfish, Mendoza’s company can buy it. Otherwise, the rockfish catch may go to pet food or fertilizer (for which the fishermen don’t get paid much), be shipped to Asian markets, also for a discounted price, or wasted altogether.
OneForNeptune also has a “Find My Fish” tracker on its website. On the back of each bag, there is a number that can be plugged into the tracker, which pulls up details about the specific type of rockfish used for that batch of jerky, the specific fisher or fishers, and where and how it was caught.
“Why don’t we educate about the systems?” said Mendoza. He said his packages could represent the first time a customer has been provided information about the source of his or her food, but “maybe the next time they’re buying salmon or fish elsewhere, they say, ‘Can you tell me more about where this comes from?’ ” he said. “Kind of this idea of knowing the impact that your behaviors and purchasing decisions have on the broader picture.”
‘The epiphany moment’
The OneForNeptune name derives from a specific memory from Mendoza’s research expeditions at sea.
The last night before a tall ship vessel would come back to port at the end of a voyage was the “swizzle,” a celebratory party among the captain and crew members who’d just spent the past several weeks together.
The captain thanks everyone for their hard work and congratulates them on a successful trip. But, first, he thanks Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, for keeping them safe.
“And so really ritualistically he pours a drink, one for Neptune, into the sea, and everyone pours a bit of their own drink, and then you cheer and start this end-of-trip party,” Mendoza recalled.
“People play the fiddle, and it’s this really special moment because you know the next day when … there’s going to be all this stuff, unloading and packing, and everyone’s just gone. Everything you just went through together for 10 weeks and this incredible adventure is just disbanded. So it’s a really important memory and experience for me.”
Mendoza, who said he’s been a “fish nut” since he was a kid growing up in San Diego, got his degree in environmental and marine resources from Stanford University in 2012. He went on to receive his master’s in aquaculture from the University of Sterling in Scotland. Through his grad school studies and later as a researcher for Stanford, he worked in several Central American countries and did three research trips across the Pacific.
When he moved to New Mexico, he continued working in agriculture sustainability for Santa Fe’s Quivira Coalition. Around that same time, he began working to get his grandparents’ cattle ranch certified as organic and grass-fed, which led to the beef jerky idea.
But recent research showed alternatives like turkey, bison and salmon jerkies outpacing beef in market growth.
“That was sort of like the epiphany moment in knowing there’s all these really undervalued sources of West Coast seafood that have sort of the right attributes to be cut into a jerky (and) you can get a really great price,” he said.
It also puts more money in the pockets of fishermen who “would otherwise cut their losses and take cents on the dollar for the fish,” he added.
With this idea, Mendoza applied and was accepted into MIX Santa Fe’s bizMIX program, a pitching competition for local entrepreneurs, in early 2017. Mendoza sold a herd of cows he had been given by his grandparents – one at a time over the years as payment for his summers of work – and bought a fish dehydrator. He started experimenting with recipes in his kitchen.
He used his homemade products to apply to Fish 2.0, an international competition for seafood and aquaculture businesses. Two hundred applicants were cut down to 40, including Mendoza, who then pitched the products to investors and industry experts at a forum hosted by Stanford University.
At the competition in 2017, OneForNeptune received second place in an audience choice vote and investors became interested.
“That was the moment where it transitioned from this is a crazy idea that I’ve left my whole life and career for to, like, I really think this could be something,” he said.
After that, Mendoza brought on two friends as full-time business partners. James Coop, now the chief marketing officer, was an e-commerce entrepreneur who had retired to Portugal in his early thirties. The two had met at a wedding years prior. Mendoza’s best friend from Stanford, Garrett Delgado, is now the chief financial officer.
Are lion fish next?
Going forward, Mendoza has been having meetings with the Santa Fe city government about the possibility of opening a Santa Fe-based facility to package the jerky made in Washington. And beyond the Bay Area co-ops that OneForNeptune has retail agreements with, Mendoza is interested in expanding its retail reach into the Seattle-Portland area, as well as Santa Fe, Albuquerque and up into the Rockies.
The business team is in the early stages of experimenting with other types of products, like single-serving meat bars, as well using as other types of fish. Mendoza said he’s considered the possibility of a jerky made of lion fish, creating a market for a venomous predator fish that has been deemed a danger to reef ecosystems in areas like the Florida Keys.
He said his group is “going to keep working tirelessly, and focus on the immediate tasks and goals to keep growing, but ultimately we have the vision of being the flagship business for sustainable seafood snacks one day.”