FREEPORT, Maine — Linda Bean sat on the top floor of her new, 240-seat restaurant, across the street from the flagship L.L. Bean store that bears her grandfather’s name, as she reflected on her own growing retail success.
Linda Bean’s Maine Kitchen & Topside Tavern opened July 1, a bit ahead of schedule, in order to catch the heavy seasonal crowds that flock to L.L. Bean. As the summer progressed, the restaurant averaged 800 people a day, drawing busloads of shoppers and tourists whose numbers were supplemented by increasing numbers of locals.
The Portland Jetport’s recent expansion included the 180-seat Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster Cafe, run by HMSHost Corp. Bean has licensed the business to HMSHost with the agreement that it can be expanded to turnpike operations and other airports as the company decides. Bean said she already has talked to HMSHost about possible expansion to Boston’s Logan International Airport.
And Bean also licensed an operation at The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, a 45-day event featuring her company name and lobster, including lobster rolls and “cuddlers” — cooked lobster claws that you can eat and walk with, sort of like a corndog, but it’s a claw you hold on the half-shell instead of a stick.
Organizers expected to sell between 700 and 800 lobster rolls a day at the Epcot festival. Sales were double that immediately, said Bean, tripling on some days.
“Lobster is a word that connotes celebration, fun — it’s delicious,” said Bean. “It’s a luxury item people don’t think of having every day.”
Bean said Epcot already is talking to her about having a permanent kiosk there selling licensed Linda Bean lobster products.
Beyond a permanent kiosk at Epcot, she’s looking to become a supplier for all of Disney’s operations in Florida.
“I’ve learned that my name, Bean, combined with Maine lobsters opens doors,” said the businesswoman. “It’s a real blossoming.”
For Bean, increasing the retail end of operations means expanding the market for Maine lobsters.
“That’s what we’re basically there for — to get our lobster out,” said Bean.
In the Jetport, Bean’s operation is the sole supplier of lobster for other restaurants, for frozen lobster products people can buy there and for the live crustaceans travelers can take with them.
She’s distributing live lobsters and finished products through Walmart, Hannaford and Shaw’s.
Last year, she had between 40 and 60 people working in her processing plant in Rockland. Today she employs 80. She started with processing 400,000 pounds of lobster in 2007. Last year, she processed more than 3 million pounds. This year, she’s on track for more than 4.4 million pounds.
She began operations by buying from 15 lobstermen. Today she’s buying from more than 100 at five different buying stations.
And her business, she said, “is on the cusp of major growth.”
It comes down to opening new markets and selling the idea that adequate supplies of lobster can be sourced from the United States, said Bean.
The idea of licensing out her name, product, recipes and brand is relatively new. Bean originally looked to grow through a series of small lobster roll takeouts. She still operates a number of those, but licensing agreements are less hassle and offer a greater upside in terms of moving lobster and profitability, she said.
The restaurant she opened is also a sizable step ahead of what she had owned in the past. She has another sit-down restaurant, a 90-seat operation in Delray, Fla., that has been open for two years.
A venture on Exchange Street in Portland’s Old Port hasn’t been successful. Bean said she wasn’t focused enough on its success and a key manager died. Her manager on the property has changed it to a new theme, under the name The Thirsty Pig; Bean said she’s done in that space when the lease is up at the end of the year, though the manager may continue with The Thirsty Pig.
Bean bought the Freeport building that holds the new restaurant for more than $3 million and invested more than $500,000 in renovations.
The Freeport restaurant features two levels of dining, with an outdoor balcony and outdoor street-level dining. It’s decorated with Maine pieces from Bean’s own collection including clocks, crockery and other items, and much of the furniture is Maine-made. For next year’s 100-year anniversary of L.L. Bean’s founding, she wants to bring in a number of the prototype items her father developed, from gun cases to totes.
And the menu features a number of offerings from Bean’s own family recipe book. Leon Leonwood Bean’s camp recipe for baked haddock is a particular patron favorite, said head chef Andrew Omo.
At 70, said Bean, the restaurants and licensing agreements have given her “a new lease on life.”
“I don’t have to cook myself, now,” she said, smiling.