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Can the lobster roll really save the lobster industry

Thinking big, Linda Bean wants lobster rolls to be the next big thing Could the delicate culinary alchemy known as “lobster roll” help save lobstering?

That might be a bit dramatic — it could be the lobster industry doesn’t really need salvation — but the push by Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster Roll illustrates a good idea. Her concept is to improve the already strong “brand” of Maine lobster, but also to move the lobster roll into the sandwich big leagues with the likes of the hamburger and hot dog. Her website lists the lobster roll as America’s next great sandwich. This is not entirely new — McDonald’s, after all, has offered McLobster rolls, although the home of the clown used mostly Canadian lobster and, also, the sandwich kinda sucked. (Although it’s worth noting, on the quality scale, that you wouldn’t confuse the Big Mac with a Front Room burger, yet the Golden Arches stays in business.)

It made news this week that Bean is opening a sit-down restaurant on Exchange Street that’s a far cry from the kind of street vendor operation she’s had so far, like the one near the family retail compound in Freeport. Up there, her stand offers $16 lobster rolls but the only seating is a nearby park bench. The surrounding options illustrate the competition: Amato’s sells a mighty good $9 lobster roll a block away while another street stand by Freeport Lobster is even closer, and often has a line. Bean’s new Portland eatery is in a high-profile location — on lower Exchange Street, in the space now housing Java Net Cafe. (As an aside, the café will be sorely missed.)

So what? Lots of people offer lobster. Well, lots of people sell good jackets and boots, yet L.L. Bean seems to hold its own. What’s likely most interesting about Linda Bean’s idea is that she intends to own the supply chain, at least from the dock to the table. In a way, she’s following the trend of quality restaurants becoming affiliated with specific farms — or, increasingly, owning the farms that supply everything from produce to pork.

She’s putting ID bracelets on lobsters to document where they were caught, and figures the market will eventually pay that sort of pedigree. Anyone doubting her very probably doesn’t share my financially challenging lust for Olivia’s Garden fresh basil. Bean is out to own the docks, the processing and the restaurants.

Taking a cue from the family business, she’s selling online — you can get two live Maine lobsters shipped to your dinner table for about $40 each, with a minimum order of two. It’s hard to tell if the name recognition that comes with being Maine retailing royalty, or a high-profile “flagship” restaurant on Exchange Street, will boost lobster rolls into the next big thing. If it does, then maybe our next crisis in the lobster industry won’t be low prices, but depleting stocks to meet increasing demand — which, thankfully is increasingly unlikely given harvest practices. For that matter, launching a new lobster-focused restaurant in Portland, especially one designed to be the flagship of a franchising effort, is no easy task. You may have noticed that Portland offers a few decent dining options and getting everyone to agree on the “perfect Maine lobster roll” is about as easy as reaching consensus on health care or on “the most evil New York Yankee.”

Still, you have to think that converting lobster — especially quality lobster selling at the dock for a few bucks per pound — into $16 take-away sandwiches or $80 online orders creates some profits to work with. It remains to be seen how much of that apparent profit goes to benefit the lobster industry, but Bean has not been shy about promoting the state or its favorite license plate entree. For those who know her only in the context of doomed congressional races (she’s been a Republican candidate) or as the granddaughter of a legend may be surprised.

At the very least, she seems to be having some fun while thinking big: It was Bean, back in June, who teamed with Portland’s West End Neighborhood Association to make history: securing a Guinness World Record by making a 61 foot 9 1/2 inch lobster roll. The benefit raised about $6,000 for the Association’s summer swimming classes. That achievement is celebrated with photos and background on the Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine website, which still lists as “under construction” lesser priorities like “franchising” and “about the processing” links. Fun local stuff gets an online link before the franchising info? Ah, perfect Maine indeed.