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JUDY AND CLIFF ALBEE: Exploring the Tucker Mountain difference

RICHARD BAKER: Captain D turns twenty

LINDA BEAN: Rescuing Maine's lobster industry

TONY BRAY: Fisherman's Friend Restaurant Is back on track

GARY BROUILLARD: An overhead made of money

MARIE CHIOFOLO: Bittersweet Bake Shop is no secret

PETER COLLIN: Teaching old dogs new moves


MELISSA FORD: Back where she began

LEON HARRINGTON: Kudos to the chef

SHIRLEY JONES: Getting yarn right

KIM AND FAMILY: Aperaham's back

CHRIS KRAVITT: A niche for knives

Cashing in on painful butts

SUZI AND JEFF MARGER: Model citizens turn a hundred

RICHARD MCDANIEL: Back to Tucker Mountain

Getting to know Noah

The outlook from the Bayview

RICHARD ROSEN: The first century

A shop utterly cool in countless ways

HALF TIDE SHOPS: The new and the remarkable

EGGEMOGGIN COUNTRY STORE: A center of community life

Lobster Roll With That Anorak?

From The New York Times
7 October 2009


EYEING a vivid heap of buoys on her wharf here, Linda L. Bean hatched another idea for her burgeoning lobster empire.

The buoys would be ideal decorations for Ms. Bean’s next lobster-roll stand, in Delray Beach, Fla. She was ready, as ever, to write a check. Money has been no object for Ms. Bean, an heiress to the L. L. Bean fortune, in the two-plus years since she plunged into the struggling Maine lobster industry. To ensure a supply for her lobster-roll chain and a supermarket line of lobster products, Ms. Bean has spent millions to acquire and upgrade three wharves and buying stations — where several dozen lobstermen sell their catch — as well as a processing plant on the state’s midcoast.

She is opening a “lobster academy” for chefs, is seeking to trademark new names for lobster products (she thinks “claws” sound scary) and pushing, against the wishes of many here, for the state’s lobster catch to be certified as sustainable by a London-based environmental group.

Her goal, she said, is to save Maine’s most iconic industry by ending its dependence on Canadian processors and, under her Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine label, to mass market Maine lobster the way Perdue does chicken.

“What we’re trying to do is raise it up a notch in terms of identification as being very special,” she said, adding that too many Americans unwittingly eat “impostor” lobster from Canada. “They have to trust my name.” Ms. Bean, whose grandfather founded L. L. Bean, is banking on that name and a gene for smart marketing, she said, as well as on a fast-growing work force of locals who know their way around lobster. With their help, she estimates that she will buy about 5 percent of the state’s catch this year, a striking amount given her newcomer status. Besides the wharves, she owns a warehouse, several trucks and a pound, where thousands of live lobsters can be stored for months.

Nobody has complained yet of a monopoly in the making, but Ms. Bean, 68, is not universally loved in the insular, male-dominated lobster industry, or in Maine as a whole.

A deeply religious, conservative Republican who lost two races for Congress, she has raised hackles among some residents by fighting gay rights and casinos. Some in the lobster business question her hostility toward Canadian processors, with whom they have long relationships, and whether the ideas she seems to churn out at warp speed will work.

“She’s only been in the business three years and you’re telling me she’s got all the answers?” asked Peter McAleney, a lobster dealer in Portland who is president of the Maine Import-Export Lobster Dealers’ Association. “We’re already branded — it’s known as king of the sea, nothing has changed.”

Others say Ms. Bean’s strategies are worth a shot, especially since she has the money to see them through at a time when few others want to invest in such a battered industry. Price and demand have hit their lowest points in years because of the economic crisis, leaving an oversupply of a luxury product that many say should be diversified. Even the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, the industry’s marketing arm, has a budget of only $400,000 a year.

“If Linda can brand her little part of the industry and do a good job marketing it,” said Gerald Cushman, a fifth-generation lobsterman in Port Clyde, “I can only think it will help everyone else. While the rest of us are nickel-and-diming, she’s able to jump right in.”

Ms. Bean, who had no experience in the industry before buying her first wharf in 2007, said she stepped in because nobody else was moving decisively to solve its problems.

“It doesn’t seem like anyone is focused on the severity and the immediacy of the problem,” she said, “and what could be done better.”

Focused she is, but how Ms. Bean keeps track of her projects is anyone’s guess. Foremost is the Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster Roll chain, which she aims to expand from 2 stands and 3 restaurants in Maine to at least 100 franchises nationwide in a year. In addition to her signature lobster roll — a quarter-pound of meat, topped with herbs, on a grilled, buttered roll spread with mayo — the menu will include Linda Bean’s Port Clyde Lobster Stew and Linda Bean’s Lobster Cuddlers, the name she is seeking to trademark for claws with drawn butter.

“We’re trying to find better names for claws,” she said, studying one before popping it into her mouth at the Dip Net, a longtime Port Clyde restaurant that she bought this year. “Like chicken tenders — it tells you you’re eating something succulent, not scary.”

Ms. Bean hired Margaret McLellan, a corporate chef from a lobstering family, to develop new products and to run the Lobster Academy at Cook’s Cove, scheduled to open next summer, where chefs from around the world can learn new ways to cook with lobster. She wants her “frozen line of lobster meals and treats,” including her lobster stew and other, yet-to-be-disclosed items, to be on sale in 2,000 grocery stores, along with live lobsters with tags that identify their port of origin — Port Clyde, Tenants Harbor or Vinalhaven.

Her plant, which opened in July and can process 20,000 pounds of lobster meat daily, is one of only four in Maine. At least half of the state’s lobster catch is sent to Canada to be processed and labeled a product of that country, a procedure Ms. Bean considers “a tyranny on our price here.”

But many say her belief that all Maine lobster should be processed in Maine is na´ve. Canadian processors can charge less because they are given generous government subsidies, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Even more controversial is Ms. Bean’s resolve to have the state’s lobster fishery certified as environmentally sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, a London group that promotes responsible fishing. Wal-Mart, for one, has vowed that by 2011, it will buy only from fisheries certified by the council. “People are worried about where their fish is coming from,” she said. “We here in Maine know our catch is sustainable, but someone in California may not.”

Her position irks many lobstermen and dealers, who question why Maine should pay an estimated $150,000 for the certification and an additional $25,000 to $50,000 a year to maintain it. Maine lobster does not need an outside group’s approval, they say, and there is no guarantee that certification would make it more valuable anyway.

“This industry can’t bear any more cost right now if not guaranteed a profit,” Mr. Cushman said.

Others question Ms. Bean’s choice of Frank Perdue as a role model, saying that giant companies should not have a role in Maine’s famous mom-and-pop industry. “All the little independent operators, whether farmer or fisherman, seem to disappear in that process,” said a veteran lobsterman who requested anonymity because he said he did not want to anger Ms. Bean. “That doesn’t bode well for 100 little harbors up and down the coast of Maine.”

If Ms. Bean knows she has detractors, she does not say so. She said she worried at first that lobstermen would not want to sell to her, and that they suspected her interest in the industry was fleeting. “The impression I got was that they were thinking, ‘Oh, well, she’ll turn all this into condominiums,’ ” Ms. Bean said of her wharves, where the lobstermen sell her their catch.

She has worked to win their loyalty by selling bait and gas with no profit margin, she said — lobstermen are independent operators who own their boats — and by giving them annual bonuses that amount to an extra 33 cents for every pound they sold her that year. “They’ve become quite loyal,” she said.

Generally, though, she stays off the docks and sticks to the more cerebral part of her enterprise: coming up with marketing schemes, lobster products and catchy advertising. She is hoping to trademark two phrases to describe her product line: “It Stirs Your Primal Senses” and “In a Class by Itself.”

“I love to work with words,” she said, admiring the latter phrase on a truck.

She has also commissioned local artisans to make tableware from lobster shells and a lobster claw pendant; both will be sold at her restaurants.

“If I’m quick I can do it for Christmas,” said Ms. Bean, whose role at L. L. Bean is limited to a seat on its board.

Ms. Bean, who drove from her wharves to her processing plant one warm afternoon last week wearing fur earmuffs and blasting classical music from her Jeep, is sending “lobstermobiles” — RV’s that sell lobster and shrimp rolls — to county fairs, a practice she may expand to East Coast boat shows and to Wall Street.

Many here wonder how long she will keep buying wharves and other pieces of the lobster industry, a question she herself cannot answer. She said she has spent “several million” so far and would keep spending if demand proved high enough. “Who knows?” she said. “I don’t have a target. I just want to take care of the situation.”