A touch of sea in your dessert

Natural sweets made from unusual ingredients have long stopped being a rarity in grocery stores. However, some ideas can surprise even experienced gourmets. Svetlana Novak shares how it occurred to her to make marmalade from seaweed and what challenges she faced.

Healthy food from childhood

Svetlana Novak was born in the Russian Far East, and one of her childhood memories is of gathering kelp on the coast with her parents. After graduating from the State and Municipal Administration Department at the Far Eastern Federal University, she headed the department for supporting scientific projects at the university in Vladivostok, then moved to Moscow in 2011.

At first she worked at the Food Processing University, then managed projects at a law school and a management university, but after taking a leave to have a baby she realized she had reached her potential, professionally, and thought something needed to be changed. In 2018, Svetlana decided she was ready to start a business and opened an online culinary school for children, where she took care of finance and marketing, while her partner was directly involved in the cooking part.

In November 2018, Svetlana attended the Local Food Market gourmet festival in Moscow and was greatly impressed by a presentation by a former doctor from Orenburg, Valentina Kolesnikova, who started a jam business after retirement. Svetlana’s colleague, Tatyana Yudina, a food industry technologist with 40 years of experience, was just planning to retire. The young woman invited Tatyana to join her new food processing business, and Tatyana liked the idea. The plan was to use kelp (laminaria) as a key ingredient of their future product.

“These algae are known for their high iodine content, and many Russians suffer from iodine deficiency. They also contain many useful trace elements and vitamins. But many people do not like seaweed because of its specific taste and smell,” Svetlana says.

So she decided to find a way to neutralize the problem and asked Tatyana to join her in inventing a kelp-based dessert, combining the benefits with a taste that would satisfy lovers of sweets. They eventually chose to make marmalade, and named their product Sea Marmelad.

Challenges of disguise

Developing a recipe required solving several problems. First, there had to be a way to mask the peculiar taste and smell of laminaria so that customers who don’t like kelp would also want to buy the marmalade. Ingredients were picked through trial and error. In January 2019, the entrepreneurs bought dry kelp and started experimenting with flavors of different foods that would complement laminaria in an organic way. Friends and family were the first people to sample the combinations.

Apples, which are often used to make marmalade thanks to high amount of pectin, had to be replaced because they made the taste and smell of kelp stronger. Pumpkin, strawberry and cherry were rejected for the same reason. The four winning components were oranges, mint, cocoa and hibiscus tea. The last one was still later replaced with raspberry, a better choice, according to Svetlana. Besides laminaria, the sea marmalade contained an unusually low amount of sugar.

“When I started learning about the production technology, I was shocked to find out that regular marmalade is 80% sugar,” Svetlana says. “Our marmalade is only 30% sugar, which is as low as it can get because sugar acts as a natural preservative. Without it, the product will not last long.” 

Laminaria makes up 40% of the contents; fruit and additives (pectin, agar-agar and spices) 30%. Once the flavors had been selected, it was time to figure out the thickness.

Because sugar content was reduced to the minimum and additives and preservatives were foregone, it was impossible to store the marmalade as conventional pieces as it would last only five days. The decision was to store it in jars like jam. Thanks to sterilization and hot filling, the product would not expire for an entire year.

Experiments took about four months. The first presentation of the marmalade took place at the Local Food Market in May 2019. Svetlana and Tatyana offered their dessert to visitors. Opinions were divided. One-third of people, who did not like laminaria in general, could taste it in the marmalade. One-third could not taste laminaria but still did not like the product. Another one-third offered positive feedback. The entrepreneurs decided to continue with the project and look for sales partners.

Funding and team

Svetlana initially planned to make marmalade as a side hustle while promoting her online cooking school. In March, at a women’s business forum she managed to find investors. Serial entrepreneur Lyudmila Bulavkina and Fintech Lab Operations Director Nailya Zamashkina offered funds for further development. However, Svetlana had a disagreement with her business partner. Investors were ready to participate in exchange for a share in the project to which the partner objected and their relations turned sour. Svetlana had to leave the cooking school project.

The investors agreed to fund the marmalade production but first suggested raising money through crowdfunding, which brought RUR 110K ($1.5K) (the initial goal was 100K ($1.4K)).

Then Lyudmila and Nailya also invested RUR 600K ($8.3K) in Sea Marmelad. They also helped with the promotion strategy. Svetlana put in RUR 300K ($4.1K) of her own savings as well. The money was spent on buying raw materials, making labels, registering the trademark and other operating costs. Paperwork also took some time.

The next step was to find a suitable production facility. Svetlana wanted to find a jam and jelly plant in the Moscow Region or neighboring regions. She contacted 20 companies and received 4 replies. After talks, two of them rejected the orders. Cooperation with the plant that took the first order did not work out as the plant violated the production technology. Svetlana did not even collect the batch and decided to include a clause on technology violation penalties in the contract.

Eventually, she closed a deal with a plant in the Tula Region. The facility not only complied with the production technology but also had its own quality control lab and all necessary compliance certificates for food production, which was a big advantage.

Svetlana and her technologist spent the first two days at the plant to make sure the production process is up to standards. Some technical issues needed to be resolved – for example, including laminaria processing in the production process, which is not easy. The first batch of 1.2K jars was released in late September and cost over RUR100K ($1.4K).

Expectations and reality

Svetlana expected her products to be popular among those who practice healthy lifestyle. However, such customers are usually scared away by added sugar.

“These fears are groundless as sugar is a natural product and a small amount of it cannot do harm to a healthy person,” Svetlana explains. “Popular artificial sweeteners are produced with the use of a complex technologic method; they are as refined as regular sugar – and it is nonsense to think that they are less unhealthy due to having zero calories.”

Yet, currently Svetlana is seeking other options together with a technologist, such as unrefined brown sugar or concentrated grape juice.

The Russian supermarket chain VkusVill was among the first ones to be offered seaweed marmalade for sales. Initially, the retailer refused the offer as managers were skeptical as to whether the product will be in demand. Then Svetlana took part in VkusVill’s Festival of Friends event, where visitors who tasted the product and left positive feedback were asked to give their name and loyalty card number. The information was then sent to VkusVill as evidence of customers’ willingness to see Sea Marmelad product sold in the store and buy it. In October 2019, an agreement was made on purchasing a pilot batch of the product. Negotiations are underway with other large retailers such as Auchan, Azbuka Vkusa, Perekryostok, and Globus. Svetlana is making efforts to enter regional markets as well.

“Moscow customers are more spoiled; they are rarely impressed by a new product – while those in regions are easier to attract,” she explains.

Currently, the company’s product can be found in health food stores in the cities of St Petersburg, Kazan, Rostov-on-Don and Yekaterinburg, as well as in Dagestan.  

In November 2019, Svetlana received the healthy living and conscious consumption national award, Green Awards, as the best natural foods brand from the Wegreen public relations agency. In February 2020, the Sea Marmelad brand was introduced for the first time at the Eastern Europe’s largest food and drinks exhibition, Prodexpo, where Svetlana presented a new line of products which includes candies, chocolate, and jelly sweets.

By Christina Firsova

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