TOPSHAM, Maine — Tucked behind a warren of strip malls in Topsham, Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co. looks like a typical manufacturing facility.
In a featureless expanse, workers in smocks and hairnets prepare and package delicacies. Boxes are stacked for shipping, and in the front office, administrators work the phones.
But this workaday appearance masks the high-wattage reality.
Around the corner, a giant photo of Hancock’s Downeast lobster rolls from Oprah’s “The O List” screams from a bright red wall. The briny smell of seafood and butter fills the room with succulent warmth. To the left, gold and silver statuettes crowd a table resembling a scene from backstage at the Oscars.
Owner Cal Hancock arrives with a hearty handshake.
“Did you hear what’s going on?” she asks a visitor.
“We just got an account with Delta for our lobster mac and cheese,” beams Hancock, whose rich and creamy recipe made with Maine lobster and mascarpone cheese will be served in the airline’s first class cabins this fall. “It’s very exciting.”
Since 2000 when Hancock, a Cape Neddick native, returned home to launch a second career in food, she’s carved a turbo-charged trajectory.
Starting with a lobster stew recipe she purchased from a woman in Presque Isle, Hancock has turned a mail-order specialty foods company into gourmet gold.
And speaking of gold, she took home the top award from the Specialty Food Association’s fancy food show this summer for her Old Port Lobster Flatbread. It was her 10th such award.
“It’s a thrill to win every year. You are just never sure,” said Hancock, who walked the red carpet and received her hardware in the “outstanding frozen savory” category from celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson.
With 2,573 entrees this year, a record for the association, she wasn’t a shoo-in. But, says Louise Kramer, communications director for Specialty Food Association, Hancock’s reputation shines in upper echelon circles. She ranks third in all-time top award winners in what’s known as “the Oscars of the food industry.”
“Her products are just wonderful and they really appeal to the different panel of judges every year,” said Kramer. “They are consistently excellent. She manages to be innovative and has products that are hard to produce.”
Her prize-winning pie is layered with ample chunks of sweet lobster, artichoke hearts and lemon butter, garlic, lemon zest and fresh parsley. Light on dairy and long on flavor, “it’s the butter that coats the lobster, so we don’t have heavy cheese,” said Hancock.
Sophisticated palates from the top names in retail, Whole Foods executives and the style editor of O Magazine praised it for “it’s integrity. It’s just delicious. You could feel confident serving it to guests,” Kramer confirms.
Basing a business on a commodity like lobster can be risky, but Hancock has the heart of an entrepreneur. She learned the ins and outs of the food business from her grandmother, who opened a lobster restaurant in Ogunquit in 1946.
“She was very clear that if you serve lobster, be sure you don’t hide the taste of the lobster,” said Hancock.
While her father’s mother’s cooking style was no-frills, her mother’s mother had an elegant approach focused on presentation.
“I said, there must be someplace in the middle,” said Hancock.
She found that happy medium in the middle of the country.
Landing in the Midwest after college, Hancock worked for years in the medical field in Minneapolis. One day she realized that the rest of the country was craving something that she could provide.
“In the Midwest, people loved lobster, but didn’t want to get a live lobster in the mail and have to put it in a pot to cook it,” she said. “So that gave me an idea that value-add lobster would really be the thing to do.”
Value-add, the industry term for augmenting a protein like lobster or shrimp and turning it into a meal, is hot in the seafood industry right now. And speciality foods, such as the gourmet meals she makes in small batches, is skyrocketing.
Sales of specialty food and beverages in the U.S. rose 14.3 percent to $86 billion in 2012, more than doubling the 6.8 percent increase recorded in 2011, according to the Specialty Food Association.
If this all sounds like Hancock is headed for Food Network fame, she’s been there and filmed that. In 2010, she was surprised by top chef Bobby Flay, who walked into a Harpswell restaurant and challenged her to a lobster macaroni and cheese throwdown.
She saw the Food Network star and her jaw dropped. When he announced why he was there, “my first thought was ‘Oh s——,” she said.
Hancock, who is becoming known as the “lobster queen” and sells her famed dish to gourmet food retailers, restaurants and institutions across the country, crushed him like a lobster shell.
Today, Hancock makes 78 entrees, soups and appetizers — from lobster gazpacho, to lobster flat bread, to lobster potpie — and despite the high price tag, consumers are lapping them up.
Her creations are sold through Williams-Sonoma, Dean and Deluca and the Neiman Marcus catalogs, among others, or direct from her website.
Those in the industry, like Kramer, are not surprised by her success.
“Consumers that are interested in high-quality food made by entrepreneurs like Cal Hancock love great food, but don’t have the time, or knowledge or access to ingredients,” she said. “With the economy getting a little better, people are willing to spend and some are trading dining out to eating at home.”
Hancock, who still takes the time to taste every batch made in her Topsham facility and Cundy’s Harbor test kitchen, is hungry for more.
“People go into business for three reasons: For fame, to make money and to have fun … I want all three.”