Real Good Fish

Lisa Kleissner
Philanthropist and Impact Investor

Monterey harbor looks like any fishing port: the tintinnabulation of riggings, jetties on stilts, a marina, and a place aptly called Old Fisherman's wharf. What differs, however, is the emergence of a new fleet working for Real Good Fish.

The name is a bit of a giveaway: Real Good Fish, founded in 2011, provides the public with direct access to locally caught seafood. As is already the case for organic or locally grown fruits and vegetables, boxes of fish are distributed to individual customers, businesses such as restaurants, schools, and community centers.

“There are too many middlemen, and too many opportunities for distributors, retailers, and restaurant owners to get between fishermen and consumers, impacting pricing and access to local, fresh product,” explains Alan Lovewell, founder of Real Good Fish.

Lovewell, who specialized in public policy and marine conservation in graduate school, grew up in Martha's Vineyard on Cape Cod. His love for the ocean was a given. He surfed, sailed, and fished, too, sometimes with his father. His mother exchanged food for fish from a local fisherman. He attended the University of California at Santa Cruz and travelled to Mexico, and Indonesia, and then to Seattle, to learn more about coastal communities and their relationship to the sea. He went on to work for the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as a Sea Grant Fellow.

“I have always been fascinated by the link between food and our natural resources,” Lovewell says, referring to one of his first and seminal experiences: doing research on small-scale fishing in Indonesia.

“The ocean is a public commons,” he emphasizes. “If there’s anything to come together over, it’s the oceans. Unfortunately the international community still hasn’t quite figured out how to effectively manage shared resources, however, many local communities have, and this is where we see the greatest opportunity for ocean stewardship.”

Preserving the ocean and the fishermen
Fishermen have been disproportionately held responsible for unsustainable fishing practices. We have to remember that fishermen catch fish to meet demand here on land. Increasing demand, market forces, our inability to manage this finite resource, all conspire to drive this food system toward ecological, economic, and social collapse. It is a system failure requiring a system solution if we are to ensure the health of our oceans for future generations.

“I am encouraged that consumers now want to know where their fish is coming from, and fishermen want to know where their fish is going” Lovewell says, “so transparency and traceability are critical.”

At the moment, however, it is difficult to trace most of the fish. Why? Because there are no checks and balances that ensure the fish a store or restaurant is selling is, in fact, what they say it is. “Some 90% of the seafood consumed in the US is imported,” says Lovewell. “Even in Monterey!”

Customers as shareholders
The idea of a community-based business formed in Lovewell's mind after meeting a number of fishermen in New England who decided to take an innovative market approach by regaining control of their supply chain. This was a last ditch effort by the fishermen and their community in response to the debilitating market forces of cheaper and cheaper seafood imports.

Lovewell's vision, like those of these pioneering fishermen, is modeled on community-supported agriculture groups that have sprung up around the country. It is based on the subscription sale of shares to customers thus generating capital to produce food that is then distributed back to shareholders.

Real Good Fish works with about 50 fishermen and has over 500 shareholders (customers), who, for around 30 dollars a week, receive a box of seafood with recipes.

Although Lovewell has proven that his product has a market, his business model is still too early to deem viable. In 2013, a $100,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation was awarded to Lovewell to begin to stabilize his business model and build his strategy to expand beyond the Monterey Bay area. However, without thought partners, Lovewell needed to reach beyond Monterey for help.

A welcome break
Always scouting for new talent and social ventures, Lisa Kleissner invited Lovewell to join the Hawai’i Investment Ready cohort, a social enterprise accelerator she co-founded in Hawai’i. He happily joined the two-year challenge.

“I needed to test my business model,” he explains, “confront other viewpoints, and share thoughts with other social entrepreneurs.” Lovewell was particularly moved when experiencing the Hawaiian spirit.

“There is more awareness here about community-based businesses—it is more ingrained in the culture and social fabric,” he explains. “The cohort inspired me to think how our business could impact not one community in Monterey but others, in Hawai’i and elsewhere.”

Indeed, the small company is scaling up. It formed a partnership with a local processor, opened new distribution centers in San Francisco and San Jose and partnered with a local school district to provide sustainable fish in schools—some 1880 fish tacos this year alone at local high schools. These efforts have not gone unrecognized, and Lovewell was awarded Entrepreneur of the year in Monterey for 2014.

Also, thanks to Hawai’i Investment-Ready, Real Good Fish was able to secure two critical grants—from the United Stated Department of Agriculture and the Packard Foundation. These grants have enabled Lovewell to finance key hires, invest in vehicles to expand his customer area, and thereby move to a more sustainable cash flow and improve his investment readiness.

Leveraging a grant-funded accelerator with the capital of public programs and private foundations is spawning a new generation of impactful businesses. For entrepreneurs like Lovewell, this new approach to utilizing layered capital is enabling him to build a sustainable business. 

Changing how we invest in the impact we want to see involves thinking more holistically about our capital. It requires, in the words of William Shakespeare, a much needed “sea change.”

Lys Baudu is a freelance reporter living in Paris. She has 20 years of experience with La Tribune, a French business daily, as a foreign correspondent in New York, and as a Fulbright Scholar. She specializes in covering women, religion, economics, finance, and travel. Follow Lys on Twitter @LysBaudu.

Lisa Kleissner is a philanthropist and impact investor, working at the nexus of nonprofits and for profits for the past 15 years.  She is co-founder and president of her family foundation, KL Felicitas, board chair of Toniic, a global impact investor network, and Chair of the Finance Committee of The Philanthropy Workshop. Follow Lisa on Twitter @Lisa_Kleissner.

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