WATERBURY — Branzino is typically served at restaurants as a weekend special. But Eric Pedersen, president and founder of Ideal Fish, and his lifelong friend and Chief Operating Officer Andy Russell, have made the once-difficult dish into a staple at restaurants from New York City to Boston.
Ideal Fish, a recirculating aquaculture system to feed and grow Branzino, is located at 64 Avenue of Industry in Waterbury,
“I started the company in 2013 and then began building the company in 2016,” Pedersen said. “Andy and I were college buddies and had been talking about this for years. He joined the company about three years ago.”
Though their business office is in Norwalk, the bulk of operations happens at their facility in Waterbury, Russell said, with talented marine scientists running the place.
Before entering the fishery business, Pedersen was a banker. But after the 2008 financial crisis, he transitioned to running development for filtration technology companies.
Russell, meanwhile, had been running a modeling company in New York City and then was a mechanical engineer for Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo.
While working for a tech company in Pueblo, Colorado, Pedersen said he began missing his New England family and pondered ways he could work with filtration technologies. That’s when he discovered recirculation aquaculture.
“It made so much sense that I thought it must already be a huge industry, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s in the beginning stages, which made it more interesting.”
He then teamed up with Pentair, a pool and spa business based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The principle of recirculated aquaculture, he said, is that fish like branzino grow in tanks in a secure facility. Water moves through the tanks two to three times an hour, keeping the water in the tanks clean.
“You filter the water, and what’s important is you recover byproducts of fish production – poop, uneaten food, dead fish – and you repurpose all of those to make an organic nonpetrol-based chemical fertilizer product that farmers can use.”
The byproducts, he said, amount to close to half a ton of waste a day that is then sold to composters, who then sell it to field farmers.
“The benefits of producing fish this way is astonishing,” Pedersen said. “You’re not only not polluting the oceans, you’re actually recovering the byproducts. The trimmings we get from our fish is made into alternative products like pates and dips, and they can end up into the pile we make seafood broth. Andy pioneered that process with a couple of enterprising Southern Connecticut State University students and developed a recipe with some local high-profile chefs.”
Construction on the Ideal Fish farm started in 2016, and it had its first harvest in November 2018, Pedersen said.
Though branzino is the only fish grown at Ideal Fish, Russell said they partner with similar facilities that produce salmon, trout, barramundi, shrimp and caviar, where the fish is brought to their facility and processed.
“We’ll bring the fish in whole as it’s harvested,” he said. “For example, New Hampshire Trout. We’ll bring it here, some of it will get fileted, some of it will get packaged for retail sale. We smoke it.”
“All of our fish are grown in a recirculating system, whether it’s one we own or one that is owned by third-party partner farms,” Pedersen said. “All of our fish is produced that way based upon our lofty ideals.”
One of the selling points about Ideal Farms’ product, particularly its branzino, is freshness.
Pedersen said the shelf life of branzino is about 10 days, and it can take a week for branzino farmed in the Mediterranean to arrive at a restaurant or market in the United States. But with branzino harvested at Ideal Fish, a customer can have it on hand for nearly the entire 10 days.
“That’s why you go to a lot of restaurants, and with the exception of salmon and shrimp, most fish are specials because they don’t want to order too much. Because if they order too much, it goes bad and you have to throw it away,” Russell said.
Pedersen said the price of their branzino is a little more expensive upfront, since they have to create a saltwater environment in their facility. But having fish with a longer shelf life provides an economic advantage, less frequent purchases and less waste.
Regardless of sustainability and freshness, at the end of the day, it all depends on taste.
“We’ve all said all along if we can’t supply a fish that is better tasting, fresher, better for you than what’s alternatively available either on farms or in the wild, we don’t have a business,” Pedersen said.
“We have to produce a great-tasting product,” Russell said. “Farmed fish has a bad reputation. Some deservedly earned. There’s a lot of misinformation that’s out there.”
The branzino Ideal Fish harvests, Russell said, are shipped from European hatcheries, each no bigger than a fingernail and weighing about 0.2 grams.
By the time the branzino is ready to harvest, they weigh about 500 grams and are big enough to cover a plate, he said. So far this year, Ideal Fish has had over 2,000 customers, ranging from individual buyers online to restaurants and grocery stores.
“A lot of those are individual consumers,” he said. “Upon processing, anything that’s going to go out through our ecommerce channel is immediately vacuumed packed to maintain peak freshness, and is either sold fresh in a vacuum pack or frozen packed in dry ice.”
He said they also market their product at 14 farmers markets across the state.
Ideal Fish’s success has grown with every year, Russell said, and sales are on track this year to be more than double 2022.
“People are scrambling to find sustainable sources of food, and seafood is that one character that the wild stuff is not sustainably harvested,” Pedersen said. “There’s room for artisanally managed, wild-captured fisheries. That is exactly how we should be producing some of the seafood we as Americans consume, but the vast majority should come from sustainable farming techniques.”
Pedersen said Ideal Fish currently harvests about 4,000 branzino a week and hopes to expand the operation soon.
“Our plan is to grow substantially,” he said. “We have plans to build a facility 10 times this size in terms of production just down the road.”
He said they’re looking to purchase a new property and plan to break ground toward the end of the year, with production starting in 2025.
Pedersen said the expansion will help Waterbury, too.
“Waterbury has been an enormous advocate for us,” he said, noting Ideal Fish can take advantage of the city’s industrial infrastructure.
“They’ve got the power, the sewer, the water supplies that used to fuel these industries a hundred years ago,” Russell said.
“We can take the underutilized industrial infrastructure in this country and repurpose it for green and sustainable food production,” Pedersen added. “We can take workers who know how to run production processes and put them back to work.”
Arturo Franco-Camacho, executive chef at Camacho Garage and Shell & Bones Oyster Bar & Grill in New Haven, said Ideal Fish can help him meet with his restaurant’s goals and values.
“The closer for me the product is sourced, the better for everyone,” he said. “The local economy benefits, the environment benefits. It’s all about sustainability. The future is for food systems to be more local. It’s pretty amazing what they do there.”
Kevin Conroy, owner of Rowayton Seafood, said he partnered with Ideal Fish because it allowed him to expand his menu by adding branzino.
“That fish is only sourced and grows naturally in Europe, and it takes five to seven days before the fish are harvested to get to the United States and to get to me as an end user,” Conroy said. “But these fish are being farm raised in Connecticut, and I get them pulled out of the water and to me within 24 hours.”
Before partnering with Ideal Fish, he said, branzino could only be offered as a special rather than as a full-time menu item.
“Now, because the quality is so much better, we have it full-time as a regular menu item,” Conroy said.
When his customers learn the fish come from a farm-raised, high-quality water environment, they feel much more comfortable ordering the dish, he added.
“Sustainability, local sourcing is becoming a much bigger part of the consumer’s awareness and desire to support places that practice those techniques in both what they grow and buy, and who they buy from,” Conroy said.