TRESCOTT, Maine — The seafood pie assembly line at Cobscook Bay Co. worked mouth-wateringly well Thursday. Steam swirled as shrimp were carefully boiled; a giant mixing vat hummed as butter and fine pastry flour were creamed together.
Tiny, succulent Maine shrimp were piled into pie containers; a creamy roux, thick with carrots, was poured over them; and finally, little whole-wheat pastry crusts were placed on top. Country music played on the radio, and workers bustled around, turning out hundreds of pies an hour.
At first glance, CBC, which produces four types of all-natural seafood pies under the Maine Fresh label, looks like any other coastal business —capitalizing on local products, hiring local workers and creating a high-end, quality product.
But what isn’t evident in the workroom is that Maine Fresh has a mission. While co-owners John Phinney and Jeff Johnson share 75 percent of the profits, there is another partner in this venture. Silently working behind the scenes is the Cobscook Community Learning Center, whose campus is located about a mile down the road from Phinney’s pie factory.
Twenty-five percent of the company’s net profits are donated back to the community through the learning center.
Some of the programs at the learning center that will be supported by Maine Fresh profits include an alternative high school, enrichment learning for seniors and others, an education center for local medical practitioners, community-building seminars and workshops, a dormitory that will become a satellite campus for the University of New England in Biddeford, a folk school, and continuing education classes to benefit the local maritime community.
In Washington County, Maine’s poorest, with one of the lowest employment rates in the state, a school and a pie maker may seem an odd pairing.
But Alan Furth, director at the learning center, said Maine Fresh’s business model is the way of the future — a circle of support that allows a business to contribute to the health and well-being of its community while the center builds on the strength of the business community.
In Washington County, Furth said, the business of poverty is huge, with a social agency on almost every corner.
But Furth said it has been an endless shuffle of good intentions with few results.
“A group gets a grant, comes into the county for three years, and then leaves,” he said. “Nothing changes. There has been a legacy of ineffective intervention in Washington County. The money has never matched the promises or the ability to deliver.”
Not so with the partnership between Maine Fresh and the learning center, he said. “Even though we are aware of the economics of Washington County, this learning center is not a charity. It is not an emergency response.”
Using a seafood analogy, CCLC’s Penny Guisinger said her company is focusing on the good things going in Washington County, not the problems.
“We’re focused on the fish, because there are lots of other people focusing on the sharks,” she said.Furth said that through the business partnership with Maine Fresh — which he maintains is the first of many such endeavors — CCLC is not playing with poverty statistics but leveraging a strength.
“We can really make a change,” he said.
Already, the pie maker is influencing the local economy. Cobscook Bay fishermen supply the shrimp, lobster, scallops and crabs. Local farmers supply the milk, butter and vegetables used in the roux. A Lubec sea salt company supplies the seasonings. Sam Hayward, a well-known Portland chef, created the recipes. And local men and women work the factory floor.
“We now have 10 workers, and we will likely be hiring an additional 10 this year,” facility manager Phillip Avery said. “Not one of these workers had a job when they came to us. Every one of them had been unemployed for more than 60 days.”
“This job means everything to me,” Tony Pottle of Perry said as he timed the boiling shrimp. Pottle had been a fisherman, worked in a sea cucumber plant and tried his hand as a mechanic before coming to Maine Fresh.
“For me, that is what this has always been about: creating jobs,” Avery said. “We didn’t want to just give jobs. We wanted to give good jobs with medical benefits and a livable wage.”
Avery said he and Phinney, who operates a seafood buying business in the same warehouse, were sick of sending fish and seafood to Boston and never getting the value-added profits returned to Washington County.
“We did this to turn around the local economy,” he said.
Ten additional jobs may not seem very aggressive in Boston or Portland, but in rural Washington County, 10 jobs can have a big impact.
Avery is proud of the fact that with a bit of Yankee ingenuity and some shrewd buying, the factory was outfitted with state-of-the-art food making and packing equipment for $26,000. “It was estimated that it would cost us $109,000,” Avery said. “But because of the economy, we were able to make some pennies on the dollar deals.”
Thursday was the fifth run of pies since mid-November at the little factory. All 177 Hannaford stores now are carrying the pies, and Maine Fresh is about to launch a major new marketing effort, Johnson said.
“It is going to be very important to us to highlight the pies’ social mission,” Johnson said. “That is the key element that distinguishes our brand.”
Johnson said that by using locally sourced, sustainable ingredients and by giving back to the local educational effort, Maine Fresh can foster prosperity in a different way. “All of Washington County can benefit from this,” he said.
With a product unique in the freezer case and a local economy supporting it, Maine Fresh is poised for success, Johnson said. Although there are no profits to share at this point, Johnson said, 2012 should be a real turning point.
“This is what it is all about,” Furth said. “It’s about having a healthy community. It’s about the people of this region having a great life.”
When Maine Fresh customers purchase a seafood pie, Furth said, he wants them to look beyond the lobster, white wine and mushrooms.
“We want them to buy it with intention, to leverage the positive impact of every ingredient and the educational component as well.”
Maine Fresh seafood pies are available at all Hannaford stores. They sell for $5.99 to $7.99, depending on the flavor. The company may be reached at 733-4652 and soon at www.maine-fresh.com.