TRESCOTT TOWNSHIP, Maine — John Phinney and Phillip Avery are a couple of maverick scrappers. They are fishermen, musicians, scallop draggers, whelk harvesters and friends.
The pair began working together a dozen years ago, selling fish off the back of a truck; developed it into Phinney Fisheries — a local seafood buyer; and are now in position to launch a national product featuring Maine ingredients: Maine Fresh seafood pies.
But the venture wouldn’t have found footing if not for a distinctive partnership between Phinney and a nonprofit organization, the Cobscook Bay Learning Center.
The partnership has provided Phinney with a resource team of international experts for every aspect of business, a free resource that is enabling him to access information on marketing, branding and manufacturing.
On the flip side, the partnership has provided the learning center with potential revenues to keep its educational programs solvent and will provide at least 10 new jobs within the area.
Behind the project is the desire to better the Lubec area, using seafood pies for social change, and that’s why Maine Fresh has a tag line: Restoring Healthy Communities.
Allan Furth, executive director of the learning center, explained that when the center was founded, Lubec was on the eve of disaster. In 2002, infectious salmon anemia hit the salmon pens, closing them down, and the last sardine factory in Lubec shut its doors. More than 500 jobs were lost.
“Our entire population is centered on the fisheries business,” Furth said. “How could we be talking to the community about educational opportunities when they didn’t even have a job?”
The learning center came up with a plan to help for-profit businesses while ensuring revenues for itself and using and strengthening the local resource base, sort of a “one hand washes another” mission.
The first goal, Furth said, was to put people to work. “We wanted to create high-quality, value-added products that add to the quality of life of the community,” he said. “That was our compass.”
The first product idea was chowder. Grants were obtained and a business consultant hired, a market analysis conducted, a feasibility study done and a business plan created.
“But what we found was that the chowder business is already pretty saturated,” Furth said.
Everything but Furth’s enthusiasm was shelved.
Then, in October 2007, along came John Phinney. He asked to see the business plan and quickly embraced the learning center’s goal of reflecting and supporting the vibrancy of the Lubec area.
“For years, we shipped all our stuff away,” Phinney said, adding that Canada and other processing locations reaped the profits. “I really like the idea of what we are trying to do — hire local people, use local products, support the local community.”
“Value added is extremely important as we look to grow our economy here in Washington County,” said Harold Clossey, executive director of the Sunrise County Economic Development Council, said Thursday. “Governor Angus King used to say, ‘Let no fish leave the state of Maine with its head on.’ In order to add value to our economy, we are going to need to export.”
Clossey said value-added goods, whether they are products or services, “can be a source of real profit and opportunity” for Washington County businesses.
Avery, Phinney’s plant manager, said he is particularly happy to be able to help out local fishermen and farmers who will be supplying the pie ingredients.
Phinney will double his work force in the next month and start “pickin’” lobsters and crabs for his pies. “Pickin’” is the local term for cleaning the meat out of the shells.
By January he should be in full production, making four kinds of pies at a rate of 60 seafood pies an hour. Each will have a phyllo dough crust and be flash-frozen.
Meanwhile, as part of the process, the Cobscook Bay Learning Center and Phinney have created two go-between entities, Cobscook Bay Co. and Periwinkle LLC. Cobscook Bay is owned and managed by both Cobscook Bay Learning Center and Phinney through Periwinkle.
Phinney retains 55 percent ownership of Maine Fresh while the learning center has 45 percent ownership.
As the profits begin to flow, Periwinkle will donate its share to the center.
“We’ve already put $30,000 into the local economy by hiring local tradesmen,” Phinney said of his warehouse renovations. “We will also pay top dollar for their products to further help the community.”
“This is a real exciting model for other nonprofits,” Furth said. “CCLC is very interested in talking with other people in the region about developing businesses and sharing revenues.”
When the learning center founded Cobscook Bay Co., it installed an advisory board that consists of retired and active international businesspeople who supported the center’s vision of enhancing the local community through business support.
“We have both a local and a global connection at CCLC,” Furth said. “We are not isolated here.”
Cobscook Bay Co. advisory board members come from California, Chicago, Atlanta, New Jersey, Maine and Massachusetts, and they are dedicated to sharing their expertise and connections.
“They love the idea of how we are trying to help our community,” Phinney said. “We are now aligned with an incredible cast of characters with an incredible range of business experience. We have a former CEO with Yahoo working with us, a former rocket scientist with NASA, an ex-CEO of Whole Foods, and 15 or 20 other advisers from all across the country, and all of it is pro bono.”
Avery said that many branding consultants were asking $30,000 for their services. “A brander from Chicago came here and spent a day and a half coming up with our brand. We fed him well, but he did it all for free,” Avery said.
“We are part of an amazing business development team because of our partnership with CCLC,” Phinney said.
Through the learning center, Phinney was able to obtain a $150,000 grant for business development through Great Bay Foundation, is awaiting word on a $120,000 state Community Development Block Grant, and borrowed $150,000 from Bar Harbor Bank & Trust.
“This economy is certainly a terrible time to run a business, but it is a great time to build one,” Phinney said. “We purchased all our equipment at auctions. At one Shaw’s auction, we bought $120,000 worth of equipment for only $12,500.”
Phinney is advertising for crab and lobster pickers and expects to double his three-person job force by next month, and possibly double it again by the time production begins in January.
“And we will be sourcing from 40 to 60 fishermen from all over Cobscook Bay,” he said. “We are some excited.”