MACHIAS, Maine — Members of the Maine Food Producers Alliance helped 19 local farmers and producers Monday night as they figured out whether they were ready to step beyond just the local market.
A wide range of Washington and Hancock County producers — from a seafood processor to a goat dairy to a diversified organic dairy and vegetable farmer — had asked for advice from the alliance on expansions and marketing.
The event was sponsored by the Down East Business Alliance and MFPA, and was held at Helen’s Restaurant.
Cynthia Fisher, vice president of marketing for Bar Harbor Foods of Whiting, shared her expertise at Look’s Gourmet Foods, which she and partner Michael Cote purchased in 2003.
“Be flexible. Find out what works for you,” she advised.
Fisher said each producer first must assess whether he really wants to expand at all. “What if Hannaford did order 14 pallets [of product] for their first order? Can you meet the demand? Do you really want to have 40 employees?” she asked.
Fisher said it was important for every producer to understand his individual product category.
“We bottle clam juice — a $10 million category in the U.S. — and we are number two in the country,” she said. “But we are so far behind number one.” Not only will each product compete with like products, they will compete with store brands, she said.
All of the producers in Maine have an edge, Fisher said. “You are from Maine. You must sell Maine,” she said.
“Washington County has a logistical challenge. It is at the end of the pipeline. Some truckers don’t even know where it is,” she said. “But at the same time, Maine products are the most coveted, across the country and the world.” An example of this popularity, she said, is that Bar Harbor Foods is able to sell Maine clam chowder in Japan.
Beyond local sales, Fisher said, the producers had five options: e-commerce, social media (such as Facebook) and word of mouth, direct shipping, local distribution services and national distribution.
As producers asked questions, Fisher advised them to attend trade and specialty food shows, work closely with brokers and distributors, respond and track customers’ comments, and make sure they price their products appropriately.
“You need to know what every jar or can or bottle costs, including the shipping,” she said. Holding up a can of Bar Harbor clam chowder, Fisher said that it costs 5 cents a can to ship.
“You must know your costs — electricity, labor, everything,” she said. “Be tough and don’t sell your product short.”