Briana Warner is the economic development director at the Island Institute. The nonprofit, which has a mission of sustaining Maine’s island and coastal communities, recently released a report on consumer preferences for edible seaweeds. We called her up to talk about the report, which she co-authored. Our conversation ranged from why growing kelp is such an easy aquaculture sell for fishermen and ways to build demand for Maine seaweed to what the “low tide test” is and how to pass it. And yes, we did ask her about the much-loved pie company she used to run.

SEAWEED DU JOUR: Warner teamed up with James Griffin, an associate professor at Johnson & Wales University, to write “In Pursuit of Sea Vegetable Market Expansion: Consumer Preferences and Product Innovation.” Griffin developed a number of recipes using Maine seaweeds, and in August, the team asked 18 volunteers to taste the results. They tried 10 different items, including a sea vegetable power bar, a sugar kelp flatbread, a dulse ice cream, sea vegetable lasagna and a sea vegetable beans and sausage dish. Sea vegetable, by the way, is a nicer way of saying an edible seaweed.

THE MOTIVE: The lobster fishery is thriving, but Warner and the Island Institute fear that dependency on that species for income is dangerous. “People are able to make some pretty good money fishing for lobster right now, but they are singularly dependent on that fishery and that is particularly true for the island communities.” Thus the Island Institute has been promoting aquaculture programs in those communities through the Aquaculture Business Development Program. “It’s a soup to nuts, let’s help you get in the water program.” The first year they had 20 participants. “We turned down a bunch of people, and then the second year we had 24 and turned down a lot of people.”

MARKET RESEARCH: The program includes assistance on water quality, selecting a site and getting a lease, and it focuses on mussel, oyster and seaweed farming. The first two are pretty easy to sell. But seaweed is trickier. “It is such a new industry.” On the plus side, seaweed farming is low maintenance, doesn’t require a lot of “farming” and can round out an income in the off-season. Maine lobstermen make for ideal seaweed farmers, Warner thinks. “They say, ‘I grow kelp on my traps all the time just by accident.’ ” She believes Maine can be a leader in this field of aquaculture. But first, there has to be a market. “The issue is making sure that we are not getting so many people growing it and not having anybody to buy it.”

TASTE TESTS: Ocean Approved is the only Maine company that buys line-grown seaweed for processing, she said. “They are a great company, but certainly it is important to have multiple folks available to buy it.” It’s also tough to compete with China, price-wise, on dried product, she said. So Griffin set out to create recipes that would use Maine seaweeds, both dried and fresh. The 10 in the report all received at least a 4 out of 5 on the taste tests at the August event. What scored highest with Warner? “I was a huge fan of the ‘pork and beans’ and also the seaweed lasagna. It was so good. When you bite into it, it tastes just like lasagna. I couldn’t feel that there was no noodle, and I am a culinary person.” Also, these recipes definitely pass the low-tide test. Wait, what’s that? “Does it taste like low tide smells? If so, then Americans aren’t going to like it.”

RECIPE SHARING: Another criteria the Island Institute set was that seaweed be more than just a minor ingredient in the recipes. “It doesn’t help us if it has a tiny silver of seaweed in it.” Playing up the nutritional aspects of seaweed – it’s got everything from calcium to iodine in it – is also key. The Island Institute won’t be posting the recipes online, but it is sharing them with companies that are interested in developing the market. Check in with Warner,, if your company is interested.

DIPLOMATIC DELIVERY: Warner is no newcomer to cooking with seaweed and her family doesn’t object to eating it. Her toddler son (she’s got another baby due any minute now) devoured leftovers from the testing panel in August. When she was in her 20s and working for the U.S. Foreign Service she was stationed in Belgium, Libya and Guinea. Occasionally while in Africa, she ordered dried seaweed from Maine. It arrived in a diplomatic pouch, and she popped it into stews, soups and pot roasts. Nonetheless, Griffin tried out some ideas that would never have occurred to her. “I’m a baker, and I didn’t always know how to cook with it.”

BYE BYE AMERICAN PIE: About that baking … can we talk about Maine Pie Line, the wildly popular pie company she started in 2013? When she and her husband returned to the States, moving to his native state (he’s from Holden), Warner, a passionate baker, started the pie company in Portland. “I thought it was really important that I start walking the walk, and know what it is to run a business every day.” She employed refugees at Maine Pie Line and turned out pies so good that they quickly made a name for Warner. Then one day she heard about a new position being created at the Island Institute for an economic development director. Her master’s degree from Yale was in International Affairs and Economic Development.

CURIOSITY AND THE FAT CATS: Warner had a meeting with the Island Institute to satisfy her curiosity, and ended up with an offer that was too good to pass up. What was so compelling? The unique position of most island communities for one thing. Warner was signing on to help them sustain their economies on an island, or remote stretch of the coastline, where sometimes the self-employment rate is as high as 70 percent. Business ventures don’t tend to be about wanting to make a million bucks, she said. “It’s more like, ‘There needs to be a general store, and I don’t want to go broke doing it.’ ” The social mission of Maine Pie Line had been important to her. “And this was an opportunity to expand it beyond just that one company.” She quickly sold her recipes to Two Fat Cats Bakery. Now she’s got a few new ones. Maple-dulse-cranberry scones, anyone?

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: