In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Becca Millstein.
You may have noticed that tinned seafood is having a moment. While it’s always been a beloved delicacy in Portugal and Spain, restaurants and shoppers in the U.S. have only developed a taste for preserved fish in recent years. That’s when Becca Millstein made a crucial observation: None of the high-quality tinned seafood brands gaining popularity were American. She decided to change that.
Millstein, who was working in the music industry at the time, teamed up with her TV writer friend Caroline Goldfarb to found Fishwife at the height of the pandemic. The Los Angeles-based business — named for a 16th-century term for the wives and daughters of fishermen that evolved into a slur for brash women — offers stylish tins of ethically sourced, sustainable seafood like smoked Atlantic salmon and wild-caught sardines. In the two years since launching, Goldfarb has shifted to focus on her entertainment career, so Millstein has stepped into the role of CEO and, briefly, was the sole full-time employee.
The company has been fully embraced by the food community and is constantly partnering with like-minded brands, from Brightland to Imperfect Foods to Susan Alexandra. With new products on the horizon, Millstein shares her fondness for collaborations, gratitude for her mentors, and goals for the future of Fishwife.
Eater: What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
Becca Millstein: I was involved in performing arts from a very young age and that evolved into an interest in working in the music industry. After I graduated from Brown University with a degree in intellectual history in 2016, I moved out to LA to work in music brand partnerships at a talent agency. A big agency is an intense professional environment, to put it mildly, but I found it to be wildly fascinating, finding brand deals for clients and negotiating the heck out of them. Which is probably why Fishwife does like, five partnerships a week.
After that, I went to a major record label, still working primarily in brand partnerships and artist marketing. The big music industry thing wasn’t really taking, and I left to work at a small, early-stage music startup from London, which is when the cogs started to turn about starting my own business.
How did you get into the food industry?
I got into the industry by recognizing the gaping hole in the U.S. in the tinned seafood category and becoming obsessed with the idea of filling it. On a hike in early 2020, my co-founder Caroline and I had the light bulb moment. We realized that, although there were countless Americans who adored high-quality tinned fish, there was no American company catering to this audience. After this initial realization, the need became abundantly clear for a new American tinned seafood company built on an ethos of quality and ethical sourcing, and I could clearly imagine the path toward building it.
We came up with the idea and started Fishwife in the heart of the pandemic. It’s terrible to say, but had the pandemic not happened, I doubt Fishwife would exist because we would not have had the time and bandwidth to come up with the idea and see it to fruition.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
Everything was a challenge — and that was the fun part! Every single thing (with the exception of marketing, branding, and creative direction) was entirely new: sourcing fish, building supply chains, finding co-manufacturers, working on product innovation and development, fundraising, putting together the building blocks of a formalized company. Of all the challenges, finding great partners to produce our product at the rate we need has definitely been the biggest.
Did you have any setbacks? What were they?
The biggest setback was in late summer 2021, when we were rather abruptly pushed out of the first cannery we were working with. Due to the strain of the labor shortage, combined with the busy summer season, they told me in August they wouldn’t be able to produce our products until October at the earliest. The ground fell out from under me. It was the most terrifying moment in running the business thus far, and a massive wake-up call that we needed to bolster and fortify our supply chain enormously — which is what we spent the rest of the year doing, to great success.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?
I’ve always had mentors, but I’ve never leaned on them like I have while starting Fishwife. The best and most reliable sources of information while starting a business are folks who have done it. Other than living it yourself, there’s no other way to learn about the many pitfalls you should avoid or the goals you should focus on. Adam Eskin, the founder of Dig, is my closest advisor and he has been instrumental in guiding my growth as a leader of this company. I’m close with many former employees of his company, many of whom are CEOs themselves now.
What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?
As one of only a few full-time employees at Fishwife, my job involves every task that needs to be completed at an early-stage food CPG [consumer packaged goods] startup. That includes supply chain (sourcing raw product, procurement, and management of our cannery and fulfillment partners), marketing (creative direction, social media, and design), partnerships, collaborations, product development, fundraising, team management, and more.
I’ve always loved collaborations of all kinds and I’ve found that running a company is a utopia for a collaboration-loving lady. Whether the collaboration means working with a small artist to come up with a 10-piece collection of tinned fish-inspired ceramics or collaborating with the plant manager of a cannery in Washington State to develop a new smoked salmon recipe, building a company is really just figuring out how to work with other people to create the best possible outcome.
How are you making change in your industry?
We’re attempting to change the way people think about and eat seafood. Average seafood consumption in the U.S. is among the lowest in the industrialized world, and this is, in large part, due to two key factors: lack of knowledge about how to prepare seafood and lack of understanding around quality and sustainability of seafood.
We are looking to address the first challenge by doing the prep work for our consumers. All of our products are ready to eat right out of the can and require no additional seasoning or cooking. We hope to address the second challenge by showing complete transparency in our supply chain and making an effort to educate our customers on what seafood sustainability really means in each and every circumstance. It’s an incredibly nuanced and complex subject, but we hope to meet customers where they are and invite them to learn more about the seafood they’re eating.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.