Putting Maine Back in Maine Lobster
Three entrepreneurs reinvent the state’s most visible brand.
For John Jordan of Calendar Islands Maine Lobster, the light bulb went on when lobster prices collapsed in 2008.
For Linda Bean of Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster, it was watching another truck loaded with Maine lobsters headed to Canada. For Luke Holden of Luke’s Lobster, it was biting into a 30-dollar lobster roll in Manhattan that was drowning in mayonnaise.
Each of these entrepreneurs had a moment when he or she decided to challenge the once widely shared belief that Maine lobsters sell themselves. That quaint idea, although not as extinct as the great auk, has certainly been upended by recent industry entrants who believe investing in a brand identity will add to everyone’s bottom line.
Linda Lorraine Bean got her start in the branding world the old fashioned way. She inherited the notion from her grandfather, Leon Leonwood (L.L.) Bean and her uncle, Leon Gorman, relatives who built the family brand of L.L.Bean into an international powerhouse. When she almost accidentally got involved in the lobster industry in 2007, it may have been second nature for her to think about how to brand Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster.
For John Jordan, the call came from a different source after years as a full-time lobsterman. Jordan grew up summering on Chebeague Island, where island kids earned money working on wharves or stuffing bait bags. Throughout his four years at Colby College, Jordan worked as a sternman on Chebeague Island lobster boats. When he applied for his first job after college, his choice of career was easy. He thought an independent life on the water was something most job applicants could only dream about. Years into the business, with a wife and five children to support and the price for his catch dropping, he was looking for ways to cut out some of the middlemen from the lobster value chain.
Luke Holden came out of a Maine fishing family, and his trajectory was just the reverse of Jordan’s. His parents owned a seafood processing business and did not want him to become a lobsterman after spending 50,000 dollars a year on college because they knew how hard it had become for fishermen to earn a living. So Holden majored in finance and business at Georgetown University and got summer internships at investment banks instead of coming home to work on the water. Maybe lobstering was something he could do when he retired, he thought. But one day, while holed up in a boutique investment banking company in New York City, Holden tried to find a lobster roll—first online, then at the marquee seafood restaurants in the neighborhood. All he could find was an adulterated lobster roll tarted up with spices and celery. At 30 dollars a pop he thought, “I could produce something better than this.”
To understand how these three Maine business people ended up branding their own line of lobster products, it helps to have a little background on what has happened in the lobster industry during the past several decades. Beginning around 1990 Maine’s annual lobster harvest, which had hovered around 20 million pounds per year for decades began increasing, and increasing, and increasing. Between 1988 and 1993, the lobster harvest doubled to 40 million pounds a year. Five years later, it had doubled again to 80 million pounds, and exceeded 130 million pounds in 2013.
Perhaps the most remarkable fact of all is that demand also increased. New markets opened up, mostly abroad, so the prices fishermen got for their catch also rose. During these heady years, fishermen, dealers, and processors were all making money and moving more lobsters at higher prices than at any time in the industry’s history.
There were clouds on the horizon, however, which a few industry insiders recognized as a potential problem. Most of the increased harvest of Maine lobsters was loaded on to 18-wheelers as fast as they came out of the water and trucked to Canada, where they were processed at some of the dozens of lobster processing plants the Canadian government had subsidized in the jobs-poor Maritime Provinces. Then, in cruel irony, many of Maine’s lobsters returned to the U.S. market, no longer as Maine lobsters but as generic Atlantic lobsters, without the benefit of a recognized Maine brand.
Linda Bean’s Vow: “All Maine, All the Time”
In August 2006, Linda Bean got a call from the owner of a piece of real estate she had admired nine years earlier that had a 180-degree view of Port Clyde Harbor. Was she still interested, the owner wondered? Yes, she was, but there was a catch— literally. The property came with an active lobster wharf that a dozen or so lobstermen depended on and, allegedly, a Canadian outfit hovering to buy. “I never thought of running a lobster wharf,” she says, but thought, “I ought to be doing something new with my life.” So she made a deal that if the owner taught her the lobster business, she’d buy the property. Before closing on the property in March 2007, he taught Bean the basics of pounding lobsters, storing bait, and working with fishermen.
There was one thing about the lobster business that infuriated Bean, however. “Canadian processors were holding Maine dealers hostage when it was time to sell the lobsters too soft to ship live,” she says. The Canadians told her they’d buy her lobsters but only at a lower price, which according to Bean, “left many Maine wharf owners underwater financially.” So Bean vowed not to sell her Maine lobsters to Canadian processors; she would process only in Maine. With that, 35-year-old John Petersdorf, then the general manager of Atwood Lobster in Spruce Head, which had been one of Maine’s largest lobster dealers selling to Canadian processors, left to join Bean.
At that time there were only three processing plants in Maine that could supply her with product for her retail lobster roll and bisque businesses. But while at a seafood exposition in Brussels, Bean met another Mainer who owned a scallop processing plant in Rockland who offered to sell her the plant. She reasoned that by becoming her own processor, she might be able to save money plus create new Maine jobs in nearby Rockland, sharing middleman savings with fishermen under price pressure after the world financial crisis of 2008. So she bought the Rockland plant in 2009 and converted it from scallops to a lobster processing facility. She later acquired two additional plants in Rockland to sort, grade, pack, and ship live lobsters, and last year her various companies handled approximately 10 million pounds of Maine lobster.
“My business approach is not the traditional ‘buy low and sell high,’” Bean says. Instead her goal is to reverse the business model by expanding into new markets and selling high volumes of lobsters to consumers at lower cost with the goal of sharing economic benefits with lobstermen through higher bonuses. “For me, now entering my eighth year in the business, and choosing to be an all Maine, all the time branding leader, it’s not just a job. My mission is to keep Maine lobstermen and women on the water and create new processing jobs right here in our home state.”
Boots and Aprons: Fishermen Invent a Future with Island Recipes
Developing a new business plan that would raise demand and share proceeds with fishermen was an even more urgent concern to John Jordan on Chebeague Island. After the financial crisis of 2008, the average boat price of lobster, which had peaked in 2007 at 4.39 dollars per pound, was almost a dollar less at 3.51 dollars, and by 2009 had declined to less than 3 dollars per pound, finally bottoming out in 2012 at 2.69 dollars per pound.
As Chebeague’s lobstermen began preparing for another season in the spring of 2009, one of the island’s lobster co-op members, Ernie Burgess, began talking about his mother’s lobster stew. He recalled that it had been a favorite of the oldest active lobsterman on the island, who fished into his nineties, “I’m pretty sure it was my mother’s lobster stew that kept him going,” says Burgess. This was the light-bulb moment for the co-op. Maybe they could make their own lobster stew and sell it in order to make some more money as prices continued to plummet.
The idea of using homegrown lobster recipes that have been passed around the islands for generations and selling them to food lovers also appealed to some of the island’s summer entrepreneurs, as well as to the owners of Stonewall Kitchen, Jonathan King and Jim Stott, who invested in the company. They named themselves Calendar Islands Maine Lobster after their roots among the islands of Casco Bay.
Since 2009 Calendar Islands has been marketing a line of lobster bisques, lobster cakes, and lobster appetizers along with whole frozen and whole cooked lobsters, lobster tails, and other products in an effort to “grow the foodscape,” says Jordan. They recently added seafood cioppino stew and calamari and marinated mussel insalate, and will introduce a new seafood idea at the International Boston Seafood Show in the spring of 2015. In the meantime, Jordan has to satisfy and make happy the 34 lobstermen in the co-op who are part owners as well as the other investors in the company. As Jordan put it recently, “I’m not saying this is easy or there’s a giant pot of gold out there. We’ve had some good ideas and some bad ideas, but that’s how you learn.”
Luke’s Millennial Lobster Recipe: Fast, Casual, Native, and Green
When I enter Luke Holden’s seafood company in Saco, Cape Seafood, one of his young staff members sits cross-legged on the floor typing on a computer while waiting for a meeting. Looking anxiously at his watch, Holden graciously motions me into a tiny room ahead of the staff member. I sit in the only chair while Holden drags in a box to sit on to tell me about Luke’s Lobster. “Our business model is simple,” he begins. “The production is driven by our restaurants.” Currently, there are 13 Luke’s Lobster restaurants that have opened during the past five years in cities throughout the United States, and up to five new locations are scheduled to open in 2015.
“We have a vertically integrated strategy and offer only the highest quality lobster, crab, and shrimp selections. Our restaurants are “fast, casual, and small,” which means there is no room for large freezers, only refrigerators. “That forces us to be very quick on turn-around.” A lobster that Holden buys on a dock in Friendship or Stonington on Monday can be in his restaurant by Tuesday night.
If the model is easy to describe, everything else about Luke’s Lobster business is complicated. There are innumerable opportunities for missteps in a process that ranges from sourcing lobsters from selected fishermen and lobster dealers, to hiring the highly skilled workers who pick the lobster meat, to determining the exact temperature to cook the claw and knuckle meat to keep it tender (211 degrees Fahrenheit), to maintaining the quality and cleanliness of the plant, and finally to distributing the carefully packed boxes to restaurants in traffic-choked Manhattan, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.
As one example of the intense focus the company brings to all aspects of the business, Holden and his team only buy lobsters right off the boat that are harvested off rocky bottoms, because lobsters from soft bottoms have a different taste. They check whether the lobsters have been held in clean or dirty storage tanks. They do taste tests every day they process. This individualized attention to sourcing, which Holden calls “the ultimate in traceability,” follows the lobsters all the way to the restaurants, where individual lobstermen or particular Maine harbors are profiled on blackboards in all Luke’s Lobsters announcing who supplied the catch of the day or which harbor it came from.
Holden and his team, which includes his brother Bryan and two other partners, are fanatical about branding not just their own seafood, but Maine products and values generally. They source top-sliced rolls from Maine’s Country Kitchen Bakery; they serve Maine microbrews and organic Maine Root and Green Bee sodas. The chowders and bisques come from Hurricane’s in Greene, and the ice cream is from Gifford’s. The restaurant countertops and furniture feature wood salvaged from submerged logs stranded during old river drives. While I was there, Ali Kokot, the marketing coordinator, showed me a new line of chowder bowls from Peasley Pottery. “It’s a constant effort to build a Maine brand,” says Holden.
Today, five years into the business, Holden is surrounded by such a strong management team that he can “steer his day a little more, rather than just getting through it.” But it’s not just the management that is impressive. I watch a group of 14 highly skilled employees who will pick 30,000 pounds of lobster in five or six hours, and can see how far the operation has come since Holden was sitting in an investment banking office 14 hours a day, thinking about how much he wanted a simple, fresh lobster roll at a fair price for lunch.Through the work of these three lobster industry entrepreneurs and countless others, Maine is reclaiming its valuable lobster brand. The recent green seal of approval attached to Maine lobsters as a sustainably harvested fishery by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council last year adds value to Maine lobsters’ luster, especially in European markets. But most everyone in the Maine lobster industry agrees that maintaining Maine in the state’s most visible brand is worth the investment.