New York Times
7 October 2009
BY ABBY GOODNOUGH
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
“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
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
“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
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.”