Ceapa also acts as the company's front man. At a fundraiser at Toronto's Evergreen Brickworks last October, for instance, Ceapa was building word-of-mouth by the spoonful, spreading his wild-caught caviar onto crackers and passing around skewers of sturgeon ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juice). A few months before that, he was in South Korea, spreading the word about the aquarium fish business. “I'm hands-on, but I wear different hats,” he says. “I can put on a tie and represent an exclusive product. But when it's time to pull in a net, I get in there.”
But Ceapa has competition, and they, too, play the patience game. In March, for instance, after 11 years of aquaculture, Target Marine Products in Sechelt, B.C., began harvesting its first yield of white sturgeon caviar from 100 fish (sold under the name Northern Divine); the firm has nearly 2,000 mature females. There are also cautionary tales, like Supreme Sturgeon and Caviar of New Brunswick, whose main investor was the federal government's Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. ACOA invested nearly $3.6 million into Supreme over a dozen years, only to see the company enter receivership in 2010. In August, 2010, the company's assets, fish included, were acquired by a group of investors and renamed Breviro Caviar. This year, Breviro is anticipating its first harvest of short-nose sturgeon caviar - the same product that Cornel Ceapa is four years away from netting.
There's a lot more competition abroad. Experiments at the University of California at Davis in the mid-1980s led to the first sturgeon farms in North America resulting in thriving California businesses like Petrossian Caviar, which sells a highly regarded osetra-style caviar. France, Italy, Uruguay, Israel, Russia, Iran, China: All have sturgeon aquaculture operations, all of them targeting a gap between supply and demand created after a 2006 ruling by the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species limited the export of Caspian Sea sturgeon. In the United Arab Emirates, the Bin Salem Group and Germany's United Food Technologies are investing $80 million (U.S.) in a sturgeon farm.
Asked if he fears falling behind in light of the pending harvests at Target and Breviro, Ceapa says, “I don't worry about the competition. We have our own clients, our own distribution channels. They have to build them. It took us three years to get where we are. There is room for everyone. Canada has 35 million people. Target says they have 100 females. That's a maximum of 200 kilos of caviar. That's not going to overflow the market.”
Ceapa has 1,000 friends on Facebook, most of them chefs, restaurant owners and other specialty food buyers whom he wants to “like” him. No doubt caviar adds that certain air of sophistication to any menu, but, thus far, Ceapa's social media efforts have convinced only 10 restaurants to put it on theirs. As for private consumers, his nutritional pitch is compelling: Caviar is one of the healthiest gourmet choices out there, brimming with omega-3s (“reduces the risk of anxiety, depression and Alzheimer's”) and packed with vitamins and minerals (“especially important for pregnant women, children and the elderly”).
But around a table of eight urban sophisticates at Oyster Boy, only three had ever tried genuine sturgeon caviar, and no one had purchased it. Along with the sturgeon ceviche, that $65 tin of Acadian caviar was passed around. The server said the restaurant only sells a few tins each week – surely a case of price trumping curiosity. This may be the greater challenge facing sturgeon aquaculture here in Canada: an absence of caviar culture.
Indeed, the qualities that make Canadian foodies such a prime target for specialty food purveyors like Ceapa – concerns for the environment and sustainability – work against caviar marketers, who must overcome the negative publicity: the environmental catastrophe of the Caspian Sea, the endangered state of the fish. Sturgeon aquaculture may be sustainable, but spreading the word, along with the caviar, is another story.
This story originally appeared in the June, 2011 issue of Report on Small Business magazine.