Sardine startup Miss Can's kitchen-less restaurant in Lisbon, Courier, Aug/Sept 2016

Food International

Turning tinned fish and a tuk-tuk into startup success

Three Lisboetas have used their branding skills to put a modern twist on Iberia’s traditional tinned fish using snappy packaging, a kitchen-less restaurant and a tuk-tuk.

17 Aug 2016

Selling fish in tins wasn’t the original game plan. Tiago Ribeiro and his twin sister Bárbara Cabral had launched their own branding firm back in 2005. But business began to dry up as the economic crisis of 2010 pummelled Portugal. ‘Clients started taking 60, 100, 300 days to pay. Sometimes they wouldn’t pay at all,’ says Ribeiro.

The siblings were in their late thirties, wondering what to do next, and began talking about making their own product, rather than just designing brands for others.

‘Everyone started doing their design and marketing in house, so there was gradually less work, fewer payments. We needed a plan B, something we could sell straight to consumers,’ says Cabral.

Family history

What exactly that product would be was more elusive. After throwing around ideas with their friend Marta Fernandes, a designer who shared their office space, the three found the answer in the unlikely form of canned fish, the traditional Iberian peasant food.

The idea came from digging into their family history. Grandfather Ribeiro had owned a canning factory and their father had taken over the business until it was lost during the Portuguese revolution in the 1970s. Although their father has passed away, their mother remembered the old sauce recipes. Meanwhile, Fernandes discovered that her great-grandfather had once been the biggest canned fish distributor in the country.

From its humble roots, the store-cupboard favourite has experienced a bit of a renaissance in recent years and, being quintessentially Portuguese, they imagined it would be a hit with the city’s swelling numbers of tourists. The number of foreign visitors to Lisbon grew 42 per cent from 2011 to 2015, rising from 2.5 million to 3.6 million, while across Portugal there was a record 10 million visitors in 2015.

Startup city

Unsurprisingly, given their track record in branding, they were excited about doing something radical with the look and feel of their new venture; a modern iteration of the decades-old packaging that characterised the existing options. In a nod to the tradition of fisherman and factory owners naming their products after their love interests, they came up with the name Miss Can, characterised as a mermaid.

Miss Can Lisbon sardine startup, Courier, Aug/Sept 2016

By 2013, the trio were ready to launch. It came at a time when a new, forward-thinking leadership had taken hold of Lisbon’s city council, putting startups at the centre of their rejuvenation plans following the economic crisis. ‘There was a huge change at the beginning of 2012 in the municipality strategy,’ says Mariana Duarte Silva, who opened the Lisbon outpost of Shoreditch’s Village Underground workspace and venue in 2014. After spending four years trying to convince the municipality to provide her with space and funding, her calls were finally answered by the new leaders.

The startup-focused policy enabled Miss Can to borrow €20,000 at a low interest rate with no repayments due for two years. (Compare that to Athens, another European capital hard hit by economic crisis, where startups are forced to pay six months tax up front on predicted profits. There, overall recovery has been much slower than in Lisbon).

It was nevertheless a big risk; the three co-founders have nine children under 10 between them. ‘It was a lot of pressure. We’d built brands for other people but never ourselves. We had little experience of creating an entire business and everything around it,’ says Fernandes, with Ribeiro adding: ‘We said our children would be living on milk and canned fish for a very long time if it all went wrong!’

Packaging plan

The startup loan paid for the packaging, the first batch of fish and their first shop: a tuk-tuk parked by Lisbon’s Moorish castle, one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. To fill the cans they teamed up with a factory in the north of the country. Located three kilometres from the coast, it draws catches directly from the Atlantic and is one of only three remaining factories in Portugal that uses traditional preparation methods for canning fish.

The team first concentrated on a three-tin box-set to showcase what Miss Can has to offer; a trio of sardine, mackerel and tuna tins, available in a choice of sauces and packaged along with a history of the canning industry, recipe suggestions and notes on the benefits of eating oily fish. Unashamedly targeting tourists, Ribeiro explains the plan was ‘to create the perfect souvenir of Portugal in one box.’Miss Can Lisbon startup sardine tin packaging, Courier, Aug/Sept 2016

Two additional lines were aimed more at the Portuguese audience – North Sea cod cooked and processed in Portugal, and sardine’s roe, known as ‘Portuguese caviar’.

It’s been the modest three-wheeled tuk-tuk that’s been their secret weapon in promoting Miss Can outside Portugal. After winning a Portuguese startup competition in 2015, the business was selected to represent Lisbon at Copenhagen’s Creative Business Cup. They decided to drive the tuk-tuk all the way to the Danish capital in what proved to be an audacious marketing stunt.

Tuk-tuk adventure

Their tuk-tuk journey splashed them all over Portuguese media as they stopped in various cities en route to lay on dinner events and sell the cans, leaning on the large Portuguese diaspora across Europe to help out when they arrived. By the time the trip was over, they had sold out of their stockpile of cans across France, Germany and Denmark, bagged an award and even picked up a handful of international resale points.

They used their prize money to open what transpired to be the final piece of the puzzle (and an ambition for the trio from the start) – a Miss Can petiscaria, the Portuguese version of a tapas bar.

Located right in the centre of the old town, the small restaurant doubles as a secondary retail spot. It cleverly works as an eatery that doesn’t need a proper kitchen, avoiding the burdensome cost of equipment and chefs; the tinned fish is simply taken out of the can, served with bread, salad and a selection of just three wines.

Ribeiro spends his days at the petiscaria speaking to tourists that pass through, telling the Miss Can story. ‘People who eat here nearly always take a can or a box away with them, and then buy from our website when they return home.’ The team say that the online shop, which launched last year, is unlocking direct international sales on top of the stores and distributors they have already partnered with across Europe.

New products, including octopus, squid and anchovies, are currently being hatched, along with hopes to open a second petiscaria in Lisbon and a third in Porto. If all goes well after that, Ribeiro says the next step will be to take the petiscaria concept global.

This story features in Courier Aug/Sept 2016