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Bean’s lobster business on roll

ST. GEORGE — For years, Linda Bean had admired the picturesque wharfs and waterfront businesses in the villages on the St. George peninsula on Penobscot Bay.

She even went so far as to offer her name and phone number at one point to David Albano, owner of the Bay Lobster Co. and wharf in Port Clyde, in case he ever decided to sell. Then she forgot all about it, until Albano, who had stuck her number in a drawer nine years earlier, called her to ask if she was still interested.

On the threshold of a divorce and after years of not working, and at an age when many are seeking to kick back a little, Bean jumped at the chance at buying the business in 2007.

“I said, ‘I sure would love to get involved, but you would have to teach me,’” said Bean.

Four years later, Bean, granddaughter of Maine’s most famous retailer, L.L. Bean, is presiding over a growing lobster business as she approaches age 70. The mother of three sons in their 40s, and grandmother of four, Bean has built an empire that extends to four wharfs, a floating buying station, the midcoast’s only lobster processing plant — with another in the works — plus other waterfront properties.

Her volume has grown from 400,000 pounds of lobster the first year to 4 million pound this year.

She has opened a chain of eight lobster cafes, with another due to open this spring. Her businesses are providing jobs for 156 workers, excluding the fishermen, and are well on their way to achieving her goal of creating new markets for Maine’s lobstermen.

With the announcement last month that she had snagged the Walmart account for frozen cooked lobster claws, Bean became a key player in Maine’s most valuable fishery.

The state’s annual catch of about 75 million pounds is worth about $300 million to the roughly 6,000 licensed lobstermen. The industry employs thousands of others as crew members and at associated businesses, such as processing plants, restaurants, bait dealers and boat yards.

Bean’s Walmart account was the result of a change in law this year that allows Maine companies to sell lobster claws and knuckles separately and offer value-added products for the first time. Previously, only whole lobsters, whole lobster tails in the shell and lobster meat picked out of the shell could be sold, due to concerns that undersized lobsters would be sold if the parts were separated.

The changes were designed in part to stop the flow of tens of millions of pounds of Maine lobster to Canada, where it was legal to process into parts. The processed lobster was then resold in the United States as a Canadian product.

It appears the law may be working. Not only is Bean selling her claws to Walmart, but another processor is looking at setting up shop at the former Stinson Seafood plant in Prospect Harbor.

The lobster processing plant at 17 Merrill Drive in Rockland was humming last Tuesday following a run of good weather and a plentiful haul.

Inside workers, wearing tall rubber boots to avoid the ever present lobster juice, separated the claws from the bodies. The claws were quickly cooked then plunged into a cooling bath. The smell of cooked lobster wafted throughout the plant. Several of the workers said dealing with mounds of lobster all day has had no impact on their own appetites for the crustacean.

Some of the claws were headed for the picking room where a couple dozen workers separated the meat from the shell, including the hard to get at knuckle portion. The meat was headed to her restaurants and other food service operators. The rest of the whole claws were flash-frozen, scored and packaged for Walmart.

Bean said she didn’t know a thing about lobster when she got into the business. A business accounting major at Antioch College, Bean’s business experience included a stint as a publisher and her position on the L.L. Bean board of directors.

Bean is probably best known for her outspoken conservative Republican views, aired during unsuccessful bids for Congress in 1988 and 1992. She played up her connections to the family’s famous outdoor clothing company, a strategy that raised eyebrows even within her family.

In her new venture, Bean unabashedly exploits her connection to the famous retailer and Maine brand to market her products. She sells her live lobsters with a bracelet that identifies the port where the lobster was landed.

Some of her competitors say they can’t help but admire her branding skills.

“Linda has got some good ideas. She is a strong marketer, which is ultimately good for the whole industry,” said John Norton, president and chief executive officer of Cozy Harbor Seafood Inc. in Portland.

Cozy Harbor and Portland Shellfish Co. Inc. are the state’s two biggest processors. Cozy Harbor processes about 5 million pounds of lobster a year, compared with Bean’s 2 million pounds.

Bean spent her first year in the business learning everything Albano could teach her. Today, she said she depends heavily on her chief executive officer John Peterdorf’s knowledge of the lobster market. But she is very hands-on in other aspects of the business. She works the crowds at trade shows, dollops lobster into rolls at country fairs and studies the fine print in all her business contracts.

The front seat of her late-model Volvo station wagon, which she drives at a stately pace around the peninsula oblivious to the line of cars behind her, overflows with business papers.

Bean’s conservative views imbue her business strategy. Her deep distrust of Canada, which she calls a socialist state, influenced her entry into the business. One of the reasons she says she jumped at Albano’s business was to protect it from an interested Canadian buyer.

She set the business up on a vertically integrated model, with separate companies contributing to each step of the supply chain. All of the businesses, from processing plants to restaurants, are separate companies that are held by Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine LLC.

She said making each entity a separate business allows her to more closely monitor their profitability.

While vertical integration is not uncommon in the lobster industry, Bean has taken it a step further by opening up her own Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster Roll restaurants. They include outlets in Del Ray Beach, Fla., where her grandfather retired; St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands; Nantasket Beach in Hull, Mass.; Portland, Port Clyde, Rockland and Camden.

She operates a mobile food stand and is working to open a new restaurant in April across from the L.L. Bean flagship store and campus in Freeport, which now houses a Linda Bean’s Perfect Lobster Roll food stand.

Bean and several others in the industry are pursuing certification from the Marine Stewardship Council for the Maine lobster fishery. They believe that would make the fishery even more marketable to the growing number of food retailers interested in stocking only sustainably caught seafood.

But not everyone agrees MSC certification is the way to go. Jeff Holden, president of Portland Shellfish Co., said it could mean a record-keeping nightmare for fishermen and dealers. Marianne LaCroix, marketing director of the Maine Lobster Council, said others worry that if Maine fails to win certification it will reflect badly on a fishery long-recognized for its sustainable practices.

Whatever the outcome, the lobster business is looking up after two years of slumping demand due to the recession.

And Bean said she intends to keep growing. She is working on a line of new value-added products, such as ravioli stuffed with real chunks of lobster meat, which she has personally named Lobster Traps. Bean said her broker told her last week the frozen claws product, sold in one pound bags of five to six claws for $10, was flying off the shelves. Her sales force is also working to get the claws into more Maine retailers’ freezer cases.

She sells them at her Port Clyde General Store for $7.99 a pound.

“It’s a great commodity to be in,” she said with a big smile.