Quick Take:

Clarice and Matt Owens are set to pitch Santa Cruz-based Pescavore and its line of fish jerky to retailers and investors next week at an Oakland event, with a trip to a bigger, national stage on the line.

This story was originally featured in this week’s Lily Belli on Food newsletter. Be first the first to hear about food and drink news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Lily’s email newsletter here and text alerts here.

During a trip to the Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands, Clarice and Matt Owens got hooked on a local snack made from seasoned dried marlin. And that got them thinking about how they didn’t see fish jerky products in U.S. stores.

More important, it got them thinking about how they could bring something similar to the U.S. market that was both sustainable and delicious. After much research and market evaluation, and the purchase of a facility in Santa Cruz, Pescavore’s line of seasoned tuna jerky products hit the market in 2018.

Now, about a decade after the Owenses first conceived the idea, Pescavore is one of seven businesses that will participate in the upcoming Pitch Slam & Community Celebration, hosted May 10 by Naturally Bay Area, the Oakland-based affiliate of Naturally Network. A panel of investors, retailers and peers will evaluate each pitch to decide who will move on to the Natural Products Expo East Pitch Slam this fall in Philadelphia. The Bay Area winner gets a free booth for the 2023 Expo East, plus a cash prize and other services.

“It’s less about the bragging rights and really about engaging with retailers,” said Clarice Owens, noting that the competition — and a booth at the event — is an invaluable opportunity to gain exposure.

Pescavore brings together the couple’s desire for entrepreneurship with their respective professional backgrounds. Matt Owens started his career with the Peace Corps, working on sustainable aquaculture projects in Africa, before later working for FishWise, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit sustainable seafood consultancy. Clarice Owens was an engineer focused on wind turbines and other sustainable technology.

Their goal with Pescavore is to provide a healthy, fish-based snack with low environmental impact, working closely with fishermen on the West Coast to source the tuna the Owenses use. Currently, Pescavore offers three different flavors — island teriyaki, Caribbean jerk and smoky poke — with products sold in about 1,000 different locations, mostly in California and Hawaii. Safeway is one of its biggest commercial accounts, and has been instrumental in helping Pescavore launch in stores throughout Northern California and Hawaii, according to Clarice Owens. The company also recently inked a deal with Target to bring Pescavore products to 106 of the retail chain’s stores, and it’s now focused on launching with a large natural retailer, like Whole Foods Market or Sprouts.

“We’ve always wanted to reach that mass premium point,” Clarice Owens said, noting that they’re also being very intentional about their distribution to ensure quality and commitment to their sustainability goals.

The Naturally Bay Area pitch slam represents another step toward this goal. Winners will be announced that day and will go on to the national event.

The Naturally Bay Area pitch slam takes place Wednesday, May 10, at Square Uptown Station in Oakland starting at 4 p.m. Tickets are $75 for Naturally Bay Area members and $100 for non-members.

Jessica M. Pasko has been writing professionally for almost two decades.She cut her teeth in journalism as a reporter for the Associated Press in her native Albany, NY, where she covered everything from...