Foodies and Fishermen

January 26, 2011 – The Working Waterfront

Foodies and Fishermen: Calendar Islands Maine Lobster company bridges the gap between trap and plate
by Craig Idlebrook

On a snowy day in January, Chebeague Island lobsterman John Jordan is worrying about something that wouldn’t concern most lobstermen: glue lines on cardboard packages.

Jordan, president of Calendar Islands Maine Lobster, drives through heavy snow to look at the prototype of the company’s packaging to make sure it’s glued correctly. If not, the careful design for the package is thrown off, he said. “It was going to change the way our box ran.”

Jordan isn’t the only Casco Bay lobsterman thinking about such marketing nuances. The company’s 39 fishermen are all stakeholders in the busines. Calendar Islands launches its product line. The company has created and plans to sell a line of gourmet value-added lobster products, from lobster soups and lobster pizzas to lobster pot pie.

Jordan believes a fusion of the gourmet food market and Maine lobster will strengthen the lobster industry. But the partnership is surprising, at least on paper, he said.

“It’s this unexpected partnership between foodies and fishermen, aprons and boots,” Jordan said.

Lobstermen co-operative ventures are nothing new along the Maine coast. Calendar Islands is different, however, because its lobstermen not only control sales of their catch, but also the processing. The lobstermen-owned company controls every aspect of how the catch gets from the boat to store shelves. The company officially launched at a gourmet food trade show in San Francisco this January. Calendar Islands will also have a booth at the International Boston Seafood Show in March.

Calendar Islands is an offshoot of a more traditional lobstermen co-op. In 2004, nine Chebeague Island lobstermen banded together to form Dropping Springs LLC, a co-op that sold its lobster directly, eliminating the middleman. The venture was so successful that the group expanded to include a successful bait business along the coast.

But it was the lobster price crisis of 2009 that prompted co-op members to find a new business model, said Jordan. As landing prices crashed, many fishermen realized the lobster industry was at the mercy of complex international forces. Lobstermen wanted more control, said Jordan.

“The magical words ‘marketing’ and ‘brand’ started appearing on a lot of lips,” he said.

It was the specter of industry collapse that caused independent-minded co-op members to seek ways to control pricing of their product. Dropping Springs LLC worked with the Island Institute to develop a business model in 2009, first examining ways to brand live lobsters, but then deciding to develop value-added products. The group networked to find local investors, including the owners of Stonewall Kitchen and a stakeholder in the Boston Globe. With investment secured, the newly-named Calendar Islands Maine Lobster company then recruited recipes for lobster value-added products and looked to find manufacturers.

Jordan said the Calendar Islands model is designed to be inclusive. The company now includes lobstermen from Cliff Island, Freeport, Yarmouth and Portland. Many of the processors and developers Calendar Islands uses are from Maine, as well. Calendar Islands also openly collaborates with other value-added lobster producers in the state.

The way to bring more stability to the lobster market, Jordan believes, is a DIY solution. Lobstermen must exert more control over what happens to their harvests.

“If you want Maine lobster to be worth something, you have to treat it like it’s worth something,” he said.

Dr. Robert Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute at UMaine, believes Calendar Islands is smart to find ways to convert lobster meat into value-added products.

“It’s not the guy growing the wheat that makes the money, it’s the guy who bakes the bread,” Bayer said. “Value-added, that’s where the money is.”

In recent years, some Maine lobster businesses have begun to focus on value-added lobster products. Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine has made a big splash by marketing processed lobster. Bean also strives to avoid the middleman by creating a horizontal lobster empire; she owns wharfs for buying lobster, trucks to transport the product and processing facilities. Another successful model has been for lobstermen to sell their lobster directly via mail-order. Other Maine fishing industries have also tried to exert more control in how their products are sold off the boat; Port Clyde Fresh Catch has created a community-supported fishing program to sell groundfish directly to consumers. But Calendar Islands may be the first large-scale venture where lobstermen control the marketing of value-added lobster.

Bayer said that while many Maine lobstermen were spooked by the 2009 price crash, few have warmed to the business model advocated by Calendar Islands.

“There hasn’t been a groundswell,” Bayer said.

But Jordan hopes Calendar Islands has enough success to get other lobstermen thinking about their options.

“We’re interested in changing the model,” said Jordan.