EDITORIALS

It’s not your momma’s lobster: How to re-imagine and sell Maine seafood

Maggy Mulhern (left) and Katharine Mead prepare a lobster bake for dinner on the shore of a small island in Penobscot Bay Thursday, August 2, 2012.
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Maggy Mulhern (left) and Katharine Mead prepare a lobster bake for dinner on the shore of a small island in Penobscot Bay Thursday, August 2, 2012.
Posted Aug. 22, 2012, at 6:53 p.m.

Fishermen, state officials and many Mainers support the idea of having more lobster processing facilities in the state. No longer having to rely on Canadian processors to cook and package a sizable amount of the state’s lobster meat could mean more local revenue and jobs, in addition to expanded uses for fishermen’s increasing lobster landings.

Before trying to increase the number of processing facilities in Maine, however, the state must recreate how it markets lobster. There is no point in encouraging more processing plants if the consumer base around the world is not broadened first. We would like to see current facilities expanded or new ones built, but the plants would obviously not be viable businesses if their frozen lobster tails sat in storage.

Many people are already doing good work to spread the word about Maine lobster. Shuck’s Maine Lobster processing plant in Richmond sponsors a lobster chefs world series championship, for example. This year it held competitions in Hong Kong, Boston, Italy, France, Germany and Spain to pick out the best lobster recipes and introduce chefs to Maine lobster. The Associated Press reported that one of the winning recipes in the first round included miso-butter basted lobster with sunchoke puree, roasted maitake mushroom ragout and lily bulb.

Just as creative marketing is key, so is promoting Maine lobsters in regions showing growing demand. Darden Restaurants Inc. announced in 2010 an agreement to develop 60 Red Lobster, Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse restaurants in the Middle East over a five-year period. In 2011 it announced an additional 37 restaurants in Mexico. The lobsters that Red Lobster sells in Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico should be caught off the coast of Maine.

China is another clear example of a growing market for Maine lobster. In 2010, China bought $10 million worth of Canadian lobster, and in 2011 it tripled its purchases to a total of $30 million. Maine will need to increase its marketing there to familiarize the Chinese with Maine crustaceans and ramp up demand. And Maine may have to get innovative to suit the tastes of customers. Wendy’s fast food chain, for example, is launching a lobster and caviar sandwich in Japan, and it sells for a whopping $16.

The U.S. market also presents a huge opportunity for creativity and expansion. Consider the gourmet food truck scene in places like Chicago or Los Angeles. And lobster appetizers — such as Maine lobster rangoon, mini lobster tarts or lobster crostini — would be perfect additions to wine tasting events at vineyards across the country. Aside from supermarkets and restaurants, organizers of fairs, festivals, weddings and conferences should know how to purchase Maine lobster and what to do with it. How is Maine going to build the next big market in places like Kansas or Montana and get a quality price for its catch?

The state has been talking for years about Maine’s growing number of lobsters but has not done anything substantial to improve marketing. It has stalled too long. The Maine Lobster Promotion Council has an annual budget of $400,000, and the Maine Department of Marine Resources is looking at whether to assess a surcharge on lobster, dealer and processing licenses to raise as much as $3 million per year for marketing. It would be a good step.

There are many opportunities across the world to sell Maine lobster. The state just has to continue to make its product known. If Maine can’t agree on a course of action this year — after a record-breaking number of landings in 2011 and a soft-shell lobster glut this year, with a corresponding price drop — then we worry it will never happen. The state needs to act now.

All it takes is one taste. Maine just has to get people to take the first bite.

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