Think Out Loud

Northwest food entrepreneurs bring locally grown seaweed to market

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
March 30, 2022 1:01 p.m. Updated: March 30, 2022 8:22 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, March 30

Oregon Seaweed grows and sells Pacific dulse, a type of edible, red seaweed, in 1500-gallon tanks at their seaweed farms in Garibaldi and Bandon on the Oregon coast.

Oregon Seaweed grows and sells Pacific dulse, a type of edible, red seaweed, in 1500-gallon tanks at their seaweed farms in Garibaldi and Bandon on the Oregon coast.

Oregon Seaweed


If you’re familiar with the taste of seaweed, it’s probably as an ingredient in a sushi roll, cup of miso soup or as a side salad served in a Japanese restaurant. In fact, almost all of the edible seaweed consumed in the U.S. is imported from Asia. But as the demand for plant-based foods grows, some entrepreneurs think the time is ripe to expand the range of edible offerings made from seaweed grown in the U.S., including a puffed snack made from sugar kelp and a leafy, marine substitute for kale. Travis Bettinson, the CEO and director of research and development at Blue Dot Kitchen, and Chuck Toombs, the founder and CEO of Oregon Seaweed, join us to talk about expanding consumers’ minds and palates to the possibilities of edible seaweed.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We end today with the entrepreneurs behind two Northwest food companies. They have very different products, but they share a vision that seaweed could and should play a much bigger role in our diets. Travis Bettinson is the CEO and Director of Research and Development at Blue Dot Kitchen in Washington. His company uses kelp harvested from the Puget Sound to make a puffed snack. Chuck Toombs is the founder and CEO of Oregon Seaweed, which grows a leafy red variety of seaweed at farms in Garibaldi and Bandon. Welcome to you both.

Travis Bettinson / Chuck Toombs: Thank you. Thank you, Dave.

Miller: Chuck Toombs first. What kind of seaweed are you growing at these two facilities?

Chuck Toombs: The scientific name is Devilariamalis and it’s commonly referred to as Pacific Dulse, which is a red seaweed that’s common in cold seawater, from about Santa Barbara up to Alaska and about Maine up to Nova Scotia and from France up to Iceland. So it’s a common cult dulse.

Miller: Why did you choose this particular seaweed?

Toombs: This particular seaweed was isolated a long time ago and it was grown at the Hatfield Center at Oregon State University, and it’s become a clonal strain, meaning it just grows, it doesn’t go through a very complicated life sexual reproductive cycle. And it just grows, which makes, which makes scaling it a lot easier. So we just grow these in large tanks and that’s the way it works.

Miller: Why grow this in tanks as opposed to in the open ocean?

Toombs: We probably would grow it in the open ocean. But the problem with cultivating seaweed in the open ocean is that you can’t feed it and you can’t watch it very closely and when it comes to processing it, unless you process the fresh seaweed very quickly, it deteriorates very quickly. So we think the tradeoff of using land that’s never been used for anything, or repurposing abandoned paper mills and pulp mills on the coast is a good use of that property to grow a real high value seaweed.

Miller: Chuck Toombs, there’s a lot more to hear from you about how you grow it and what you do with it. But as I noted, Travis Bettinson is with us as well. What kind of seaweed are you focusing on at Blue Dot Kitchen?

Travis Bettinson: The seaweed that we’re using in our Kelp Puffs Seacharrones we’re using two species, Saccharina latissima  and Alaria esculenta, which are more commonly known as sugar kelp and winged kelp. Those are the ones that we’re focusing on right now for our products.

Miller: How did you choose those two different kinds of kelp?

Bettinson: It’s interesting because these two kinds of kelp, within the open water sea farming communities are the ones that grow best in the cold waters of the Puget Sound, and indeed the rest of the United States, USC Farming Communities have found the same thing, and it’s about the environmental temperature, the environmental nutrients that are present in the open ocean that can support these species, but also the way that they are seated into the growing system that is used in US sea farms. So these two species have worked the best so far, as far as growing goes.

Miller: My understanding is you just finished a harvest a couple of days ago. Can you describe the process of growing and then harvesting kelp?

Bettinson: So the growing process is the really fascinating and interesting part, and essentially it starts at the end of the life cycle of the kelp in the open water from the previous leader of the previous year, where what happens is it grows something called saurus tissue, and in the kelp blade you’ll get a pocket of sporophyte that would, as the kelp degrades get released into the ocean and then set into the various substrates in the Puget Sound to grow next year’s kelp. What we do is we dive and the sea farm will grab the saurus tissue and then we will control where that gets released by bringing it into a controlled tank that we’re adding a little nutrient to make sure it’s healthy. And we also add a long line out into that tank so that when the sporophytes grow, they actually latch into the line itself. Now, once they’ve latched in, we then in November-ish, late October, early November, we will then attach that line to the sea farms anchored buoys out in subtidal waters of the Puget Sound. That line will then directly grow help out of it and it will reach up just like every other plant does in the world to the sun, more to the surface of the, of the sound and then we just let it go so it doesn’t grow with any inputs. We don’t use any fertilizers, pesticides, any freshwater, any arable land in growing it. It’s just monitored by our farm manager. Then at the end of the season, in March, we harvest, which is really, a relatively simple process. We essentially hall the line up and we pull it out over the boat either through a davit or a special system that’s been created by our farm manager and then it’s hand cut right now, so it’s just hand cut and we use it right off the boat from there. As Chuck had mentioned, we have to use it quickly or get it into an appropriate processed space to make sure that we can maintain the quality.

Miller: And then my understanding is you’re drying it and adding it to a puff snack called chicharrones to play on chicharrones, fried pork skin snack. What are Chicharrones?


Bettinson: Exactly, yeah. So what we’re doing with it is we’re making Seacharrones, so what they are, is they’re a crispy crunchy kelp snack. What we’re doing is we’re taking our dried and powdered, rinsed kelp, we’re mixing it with some rice and sorghum and then we’re popping it into this curly snack food that has crisp that has crunch. It pairs really well with everyday items that people you know across the United States use, ie, it pairs well with beer. It pairs well if you’re going out to the beach with your family and once we have it in a popped state, we’re tossing it in a variety of different spice blends to give it a different flavor profile that we can get out to different customers depending on what they like. And the first three we have right now are a spice mix, we have a salt and pepper and then we have an umami blend that utilizes mushroom and nutritional yeast to really highlight the really culinary flavors of seaweed, which is very umami focused.

Miller: Chuck Toombs. What does dulse taste like?

Toombs: Well, you may have heard a few years ago, Oregon state had a press release where they had discovered a seaweed that tastes like bacon.

Miller: And that was one, it went around the world.

Toombs: Yes, and that was the discovery in my class that I teach in marketing and I reached out for a technology at Oregon State University and lo and behold, we started testing this and gave it to a local chef in Portland, Vitaly Paley, and he was the one that fried it and said it looked like- he fed it to his customers and they said it tastes like bacon. So that went viral, that went all over the world and that sort of kick started the seaweed craze in general. But we do think it has a lot of good notes to it. It’s a great ingredient. We’ve been developing our fresh market because our seaweed is very pretty and it’s twice the nutrition value of kale. So we’re marketing it fresh through specialty food service distributors that are selling it to restaurants. We’re gonna be launching it fresh as an alternative to kale because although kale has a lot of good nutrients and it’s not anywhere near as nutritious as our product, it has a fraction of the protein plus kale is in what they call the dirty dozen as the most pesticides possible. So there’s a lot of it also, but the bigger thing is that ours is high in a very valuable protein and we’ve been extracting those and we’ve been supplying that to the growing plant-based meat industry. So fundamentally our third facility, which we haven’t announced yet, will be a facility that will be creating an actual negative carbon protein. So the more you eat, the better the world gets.

Miller: I want to turn to the protein extraction plans for your business in a second. But I want to stick first with the idea of Pacific Red Dulse being a replacement of sort, fresh, for kale, because the price, it does seem significant here as an issue. Am I right that right now, fresh, it’s about $20 a pound?

Toombs: Well, that would be if the restaurant bought it from a wholesaler, that’s true.

Miller: So it would be more expensive for retail.

Toombs: Yeah. Well, we haven’t set the price for retail yet. What we’re gonna do is we’re going to set a price at retail, that’s maybe a 20 or 30% premium to kale and see what the market does. And we’ll test it and then we’ll go from there.

Miller: In other words, if your plan is to charge a lot less in the future for the product than you’re charging now?

Toombs: I would think so. I mean, we want to expand and we want to make this very easily available to everybody that wants it. Right now, we’re just learning how to grow it. We’re scaling it, we’ve got two farms going and we’re growing different varietals of the same strain and we’re just trying to find out how we can best grow the company as quickly as possible.

Miller: And then, what could be done with the protein that you would be extracting?

Toombs: Well, the value that is that, of course, compared to proteins from any other source, since it doesn’t require any fresh water, it doesn’t require any fertilizer per se. We can grow this protein at a very low carbon input and because we’re growing this on land, we can design a facility that that we can process the seaweed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which turns all agriculture from a batch system which we’ve been using for the last 10,000 years to a continuous flow system which anybody that knows anything about manufacturing, understands that that’s a major cost reduction in itself. And so it’s already been tested at some of the biggest plant-based meat companies in the world. And it has exceptional characteristics because we’re extracting it from the fresh protein and the protein’s are not denatured in any way.

Miller: Travis Bettinson, what are your hopes for other applications for the kelp that you’re harvesting? Either in fresh form or dried?

Bettinson: Yeah, our focus right now is mainly on the dried form, in the long run we really want to see kelp in everybody’s diet as much as possible where the goal of Blue Dot Kitchen is to bring sea greens to the people. Get a little bit of kelp in everybody’s diet every day because the environmental impacts of kelp are significant. The positive environmental impacts, the carbon sequestration, the ocean acidification are all there. It just needs to also have the impact on the demand side to support the kelp growers. So that’s what we’re trying to do with the dry product is getting it into shelf stable form, so that we can use it year round so that we can use it whenever we need to. We can also get it to and from different parts of the country and the region very, very easily as opposed to carting a 93% water-based Kelp. So we’re definitely focussing on the dried product. As we’re moving forward and our plans from there are multiple. We ideally would have more products coming out in 2023. We definitely want to focus on Seacharrones and make sure we give it the appropriate attention and care and management and love needed to get it out, make sure we’ve established it as the seaweed snack of the US, and the Puget Sound and all these other wonderful spaces. We intend to bring it out into various different products in the future. We really think that within our current product, Seacharrones we have the ability to adapt the flavor profile for various different markets. Geographically, whatever market segment you’re talking about, we’re actually finding it’s getting really great traction and attention from the breweries that we’ve been selling into. People are very interested in having this really sustainable snack to munch on while they’re drinking their beer with their family. I mean, who wouldn’t? So we can extend the future online geographically based off of different skew blends, barbecues, etcetera. But we do want to focus on other products in the future as well. I would be remiss to just lay out what our future products might be in 20 seconds. I wouldn’t exactly want to do that. But you know, we definitely want to keep in snacks and then expand out into other categories as well. To focus on kelp.

Miller: Travis Bettinson and Chuck Toombs, thanks very much.

Bettinson / Toombs: Pleasure. Thank you very much.

Miller: Charles Benson is CEO and Director of Research and Development at Blue Dot Kitchen based in Bainbridge Island, Chuck Toombs is Founder and CEO of Oregon Seaweed, which has farms in Bandon and Garibaldi. Tomorrow on the show, we’re going to hear how the backlash against COVID restrictions led to the election of anti-government leaders in one northern California county, it is the latest chapter in the saga of the secessionist dream to carve out a new state on the border of Oregon and California, the state of Jefferson. If you don’t miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR-One App on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’d like to get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at eight p.m. Thanks very much for tuning into Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.

Narrator: Think out loud is supported by Steve and Jen Oliver, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust and Michael and Kristin Kern.

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