From Maine, with Love: The Story of SoPo Seafood
Article & Photography by The Briny Babe
“Never in a million years did we think we would be opening a brand new seafood business days before a global pandemic was declared,” Joshua Edgcombe, the Director of Marketing and Co-Founder of SoPo Seafood, chuckled, as he recounted the business’ first few weeks of operation. “I thought it was over for us before it even began.”
Edgcombe, along with business partners and friends, Matt Brown, SoPo’s star fishmonger, and Lucas Myers, of O’Oysters, had spent months cleverly crafting and building SoPo Seafood—a locally owned and operated Maine Seafood Wholesaler and Online Fish market that sources and supplies seasonal and sustainable seafood of the highest quality to consumers nationwide. Since the beginning, SoPo Seafood’s mission has always been to support local fisheries and aquaculture industries by purchasing products directly from Maine’s working waterfront.
Although SoPo has only been open for seven months, it has achieved a massive fan base and received rave reviews from chefs and everyday consumer alike. From plump and briny Maine oysters to ruby-hued Bluefin tuna steaks to hand-harvested sea urchin, and a gorgeous array of domestic caviar, SoPo Seafood ensures it sells only the most pristine products from its partnership with local Maine fishermen and aquaculturists.
However, SoPo Seafood’s rise as one of the nation’s up-and-coming premier supplier of local Maine seafood was not without its scares. Virtually overnight, the team had to scrap its entire business model that had been months in the works, in order to adapt to the looming realities of COVID-19 and its effect on the restaurant and fishing industries.
THE INITIAL PLAN: BECOME THE GO-TO SEAFOOD WHOLESALER FOR RESTAURANTS AND CHEFS
The initial concept: the SoPo Seafood team planned to leverage the founding trio’s combined forty-years of seafood distribution experience and industry connections to sell high-quality products directly to restaurants in New England.
“Our goal was to be the go-to seafood distributor for restaurants and chefs in New England,” Edgcombe explained. “We had spent months building business relationships and soliciting accounts from restaurants, and had solidified pre-existing connections with local fishermen and shellfish farmers whose products we were going to sell.”
SoPo Seafood was poised to burst into the wholesale seafood distribution marketplace in March 2020.
Then, the unthinkable struck.
Mere days after fulfilling its first orders to local restaurants, businesses nationwide were forced to shut their doors in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With the initial restaurant closures, and businesses now operating at only a fraction of their capacity, the whole model of our business crumbled,” Edgcombe recounted. “We were terrified the business we spent months developing would disappear overnight.”
THE SOLUTION: BECOME THE PREMIER DIRECT-TO-CONSUMER SELLER OF FRESH, LOCAL SEAFOOD
In order to survive the new realities of the COVID-19 marketplace, businesses have been forced to pivot their existing operations, find creative ways to sell goods and services, and oftentimes attract an entirely new client base. Those businesses that have managed to stay afloat—and, for a lucky few, thrive—have a few things in common: concierge customer service, impeccable product quality, and a commitment to the local community.
Along with unparalleled industry expertise, Brown, Edgcombe, and Myers possess a great deal of creativity and resourcefulness. The team realized regular consumers would still want access to impeccably fresh seafood to prepare in the comfort of their own homes, especially in light of restaurant closures. The team worked to build a platform that would distribute Maine seafood to folks outside of New England region in the most sustainable way possible.
“We spent a ton of time researching shipping supplies, and we only use totally recyclable materials, including cardboard and reused denim liner. We pride ourselves on the fact we never ship our products using Styrofoam or plastic, or other products that are bad for the environment,” Edgcombe explained.
Despite the adversities posed by the pandemic, SoPo Seafood was determined to pivot their business in a way that still allowed them to support the local fishermen and aquaculturists from whom they were purchasing seafood products.
“We realized that we had to transform our entire business to go from selling primarily to restaurants, to operating like a seafood market and selling direct to consumers,” Edgcombe mused.
“Plus, we wanted to give fishermen and shellfish farmers another avenue to sell their seafood, especially since so many of them were facing a drop in demand that would, down the line, threaten their livelihood,” Myers explained.
Edgcombe worked feverishly to quickly build an online presence and ordering system for consumers to peruse SoPo Seafood’s inventory of fresh finfish, shellfish, and other marine products, including a bountiful selection of caviar and locally smoked seafood. The business organized local delivery services and curbside pick-up options for those in the nearby community. Brown, Edgcombe, and Myers also researched and purchased entirely biodegradable packing and shipping materials that allowed them to ship fresh Maine products to seafood lovers nationwide.
“We ship all of our products overnight via next-day air,” Brown explained. “And because we are getting the seafood directly from local fishermen and shellfish farmers the day it is pulled from the water, we can ensure our customers are getting the most pristine seafood possible. We want to provide our customers with the opportunity to have the freshest, restaurant-quality seafood in the comfort of their own homes.”
Impeccable Quality Seafood Sets SoPo Seafood Apart
SoPo Seafood’s online marketplace is a foodie lover’s wonderland. Enthusiasts, home-cooks, and professional chefs can peruse the constantly rotating selection of fresh Maine and domestic products, and the owners are more than happy to offer their guidance to customers contemplating their selections.
The company’s online retail store boasts an abundance of sustainable finfish and shellfish options caught or farmed in the Gulf of Maine by local fishermen and aquaculturists. Some of the delicious offerings include Bluefin tuna, Swordfish steaks, Sockeye Salmon caught by Maine fishermen in Alaska, and Atlantic Salmon that is farm-raised in the Gulf of Maine. SoPo Seafood has also partnered with Gulf of Maine Sashimi, a company that works directly with fishermen and harvesters to secure the highest quality fish in the Gulf of Maine, such as cod, monkfish, Pollock, and flounder. Each piece of fish sold by SoPo Seafood is carefully hand-cut by Co-Founder Matt Brown; he further takes the time to remove the bloodline and prepare cuts of fish to individual consumer’s preferences so that each piece of fish is received to be cooked as is.
Maine is arguably at the epicenter of the nation’s East Coast oyster scene, and SoPo Seafood has dove headfirst into ensuring that they have a vast array of oysters for eager consumers. Founding member and Director of Operations Lucas Myers has spent years building relationships with local oyster farmers via his Southern Maine-based mobile raw bar, O’Oysters. The team has been able to tap into Myers’ industry connections to showcase a huge geographic and flavor profile range for sale at SoPo Seafood.
SoPo’s owners have accumulated decades of experience within the caviar industry. SoPo Seafood’s goal is to help the domestic caviar industry thrive, and the majority of the caviar they sell is domestically-produced, from Bowfin Roe from Louisiana, to White Sturgeon from California, and caviar produced by wild-caught Spoonbill and Hackleback.
Concierge Service and Community Commitment
“The response we have gotten from our local community has been humbling, and allowed our business to thrive, especially during such a difficult time,” Edgcombe proudly beamed during our meeting.
One of the keys to SoPo Seafood’s success has been its concierge services.
“When customers call to place an order, they are calling one of the founding members of SoPo Seafood directly,” Brown explained. “If a customer wants a particular fish or product, and we don’t have it available, I will personally work with them to work out an alternate pick-up date, or make a suggestion of a replacement. I want every customer to be entirely satisfied with every aspect of working with us; I want everyone to feel special.”
With a remarkable amount of outstanding online reviews, and legion of repeat customers, SoPo Seafood has had a stellar response from members of the local Maine community, that the company is actually in the works to open its first all-in-one brick-and-mortar retail store and raw bar in South Portland in the Spring of 2021.
“We plan on having an expansive selection of Maine oysters, and other New England favorites like lobster rolls,” explained Myers who will be helming the raw bar.
SoPo Seafood’s storefront is scheduled to open on Ocean St. and Hinkley Dr., near Mill Creek Park in South Portland in the Spring of 2021.
Order From SoPo Seafood This Holiday Season . . . And Beyond
SoPo Seafood is currently taking orders for the busy holiday season. Whether you live local to Biddeford or on the other side of the country, SoPo Seafood delivers the utmost premium quality seafood direct to your door, in entirely sustainable packaging. Plus, the SoPo Seafood team will utilize their vast industry knowledge and expertise to work with you to personally ensure your expectations are exceeded.