Richmond—Two new food processing businesses adding value to some of Maine's natural resources

Brian Swift watches Gov.  Baldacci skillfully shuck a lobster claw

by Ramona du Houx

Two companies are the beginning of a food processing center right in the middle of Richmond.

When the former Etonic shoe factory in Richmond closed, it marked an end of an era.

"Large industries have left gaping holes in communities. There is no doubt Maine has suffered from that," said Governor Baldacci. "But now we are beginning to see more businesses in one area. We’re becoming smaller and more diversified — so not all our eggs are in one basket."

Fully aware of the problem of large, unstable industries dominating Maine’s communities, when the governor was a congressman he worked on various solutions to the problem. When he became governor he implemented the Pine Tree Zone (PTZ) program, where companies receive tax incentives. Because the Kennebec Valley had been designated as a PTZ area, interest in the transformed shoe factory, now the Richmond Business and Manufacturing Center, had been building.

Throughout Maine the PTZ program has helped over 80 companies and has added over 3,200 jobs, helping to diversify towns that once had only large industries as major employers.

The PTZ’s designation is a major reason why last spring Shucks Maine Lobster opened up in the former factory. It’s also why two years ago Naturally ME, Inc. set up shop in the center and is now expanding.

John Hathaway of Shucks and Doug Roberts of Naturally ME, Inc. thanked the governor and his administration for their assistance at every step of the way.

"We want to thank not only the governor but the town of Richmond and everyone involved. We’ve all been on the same page. If it wasn’t for the PTZ certification, we wouldn’t be able to expand at a quicker rate," said Roberts. "Believing in the dream and having the incentives has made all the difference."

Both businesses have obtained grants to aid in their expansions.

"The town of Richmond has really been critical," said Governor Baldacci. "What was a shoe factory now services different businesses, making Maine stronger and more diversified."

These two companies are the beginning of a food-processing cluster right in the center of Richmond. According to the Department of Economic and Community Development, three other companies have also expressed interest in the center.

A recent Brookings report analyzed Maine’s strengths and weaknesses. The report made recommendations and said Maine was poised for economic growth. With the aid of incentives for businesses from state government, increases in research and development funding, and training workers with new skills — giving them educational options — the Baldacci administration has been working to position Maine for the new mobile, global economy. The state is just beginning to see some of the results from all the work that has been achieved.

The Brookings report also recommended the state develop food-processing clusters. What’s happening at the former shoe factory could become a model for the future in similar areas around the state.

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The governor speaks of the importance of adding value to Maine’s natural resources, while praising Shucks for their lobster processing business.

 SHUCKS MAINE LOBSTER —

Shucks incorporates high-tech to shuck lobsters raw and vacuum pack them. The process starts as the lobsters are sealed inside a pressurized tube. Within seconds the lobster dies, within two minutes the process kills any bacteria present.

The pressurizing machine is fondly nicknamed the "big mother shucker," because the pressurization separates the membrane surrounding the lobster meat from the protective armor. After the "mother shucker" has done its job, workers easily separate the lobster from its shell, as the meat smoothly slides out.

It’s an efficient process invented by the US military for better-tasting and healthier meals ready to eat (MREs) that are a staple for the troops. Shucks is the first company in the world that is using the technology for lobsters, enabling them to ship raw lobster meat — around the world.

"I am very happy and proud to be a part of this wonderful team," said Renato Ragosta, who represents a French seafood distributor with facilities in Spain, Italy, and France. He is certain that the vacuum-packed, raw lobsters will appeal to his customers in the European Union. "Now that I have seen the facility and met everyone — including the governor — I know I will try to sell as much lobster meat as I can."

At the opening ceremonies for Shucks, Ragosta signed an agreement with Hathaway to distribute Shucks’ products in the EU. Five months in operation, and a contract with an EU distributor has Shucks President and CEO John Hathaway, a former Maine state senator, smiling about the future. He readily admits he loves to eat the crustaceans, but doesn’t like having to shell them.

"Chefs love Maine lobster, too, but they hate the mess and fuss of the shell," said Hathaway. "No chef buys steak with the horns still on. Before this process, the only way to kill a live lobster for the meat was to cook it. And a chef doesn’t want cooked meat he then has to cook again," said Hathaway. "When you want the freshest lobster in the world, you want fresh, raw Maine lobster meat. We are here to meet that need."

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Governor Baldacci talks with employees during his tour of Sucks

In the seventeen hundreds the now highly prized crustaceans were so abundant that farmers crushed them for fertilizer; prison wardens fed them to inmates, and fishermen considered them a bycatch. Lobsters four feet long and weighing 45 pounds were not uncommon, they say, in those days. An organized, commercial lobster fishery didn’t develop in Maine until the 1840s. Now the industry is regulated and is for many families a traditional life style.

Maine accounts for over 80 percent of America’s lobster catch. Last year 60 million pounds of lobster were caught in Maine’s waters at a value approaching $300 million. The industry provides jobs not only for harvesters and processors, but supports additional jobs for boatyards and marine outfitters, as well as for retail and restaurant establishments. In 2004 there were 7,435 commercial lobster harvesters in Maine.

Maine is the nation’s biggest lobster-producing state, but until now over 60 percent of the catch has been shipped to Canada, where it is processed for distribution.

In just the past few months, Shucks has diverted nearly 60 percent of the lobster that would have been processed in Canada right back here.

Shucks represents the future, as an example of how entrepreneurs can add value to Maine’s natural resources to make good incomes. Processing and distributing the raw lobster meat from Maine will bring more profits to the state, growing the economy and providing jobs.

"When I get a twenty-pound box of spaghetti for the restaurant [Baldacci’s], it’s $15; I know if we cook up the spaghetti and add sauce, we can get $115 from that initial investment. Maine has been shipping its raw materials elsewhere for too long. Lobster is one of Maine’s most precious, sustainable resources, vital to our economy," said the governor. "Here at Shucks the purpose is to keep those lobsters — and the jobs that go with them — in Maine. This is proof that Maine not only has the capability to prove itself as a leader in technological development, but that Mainers are taking the initiative to ensure that the resources we have to offer are competitive in the marketplace."

"A few years ago, I opened a little lobster shack. My five kids all worked different summer jobs, and I thought it would be a good idea to have all of them work at the lobster shack together. I started steaming Maine lobsters, and people started eating. But I noticed that people — OK, the tourists — didn’t really like shucking their own Maine Lobster; it was too messy and too hard to get the meat," said Hathaway.

In 2004 the Maine Technology Institute, which has continuously been supported by Baldacci, awarded the Maine Lobster Promotion Council with a grant to conduct extensive consumer-based market research to better understand market opportunities for the Maine lobster industry. The report found that there was significant interest in convenient lobster products. Hathaway read the report, and his quest to start a value-added Maine lobster business was born. Shucks later received research and development grants from the state.

"What really pleases me is that funding this type of research and development has allowed me to pursue a venture that helps to make Maine’s economy more sustainable and one that is keeping jobs here in Maine," said Hathaway. "I now have more than 34 full- and part-time employees, and those are all new jobs in central Maine."

The company hopes to double its employee roster in 2007.

The company envisages that the value of not having consumers shuck the lobster themselves will be very advantageous. For some that’s half the fun, but in many a restaurant patrons would prefer to be able to get to the heart of the matter and savor the lobster meat before it cools.

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Renato Ragosta signs a contract for distrabution of Shucks Lobster to the European Union and the governor witnesses it.

Last summer the Maine Lobster Promotions Council created the brand and logo designed to definitively tell consumers that their lobster came from the waters of Maine, protecting Maine’s reputation as having the best-tasting lobster in the world.

Promoting Maine as a brand was also a recommendation from the Brookings report. Maine’s brand name is already having an effect in the world’s marketplace, helping to identify Maine as having quality products, hard workers, a high quality of life, and being a destination to visit.

For more, visit www.shucksmaine.com.

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 Governor Baldacci slices himself a piece of blueberry pie at Naturally ME, while he talks with the owner Doug Roberts.

NATURALLY ME —

"People know the quality of Maine-made products, and Naturally ME pies are strengthening the Maine-made brand," said Governor Baldacci. "It is no wonder that supermarkets such as Hannaford and Whole Foods have signed on to distribute Naturally ME pies."

Naturally ME, Inc., a specialty pie business, has been in operation for two years, and their products are available in 20 states. With orders increasing, the family-run business announced that it will double its workforce to six employees.

When Doug Roberts, president of Naturally ME and a Massachusetts native, wanted to start his business, he decided Maine was the place to be.

"We looked for a manufacturing facility from Chicago to New Jersey and most connecting states but couldn’t find acceptable manufacturers," said Roberts. "Because we bake wheat-free and gluten-free products, we realized we had to actually operate our own facility to avoid cross contamination.

"In thinking about marketing and fruit, Maine has the best reputation by a long shot. We are right in the middle of blueberries, apples, and cranberries! In Maine, property costs were lower, old manufacturing buildings were available at reasonable costs, trucking was reasonable, the state has a great labor force, business incentives, and last but not least, the quality of life is unsurpassed. Case closed, here we are!"

Naturally ME, Inc. is making pies that still taste like traditional pies, but don’t have the bad ingredients.

"It’s a completely healthy desert," said Doug Roberts. "We’re doing something here that literally no one else in the world is doing."

Many of the ingredients for the Naturally ME pies come from local farmers.

Roberts is dedicated to providing specialty foods for special dietary needs, as well as offering an alternative which will appeal to all dessert eaters.

The pies and pie shells can be eaten by people with nine different types of major food allergies, vegans and vegetarians. The products are certified Kosher, safe for hypoglycemics, people who must monitor refined sugar and carbohydrate intake, and lactose intolerants.

The pies contain no: wheat or gluten, egg, dairy, corn, soy, refined sugars, artificial additives, preservatives or coloring, no genetically modified organisms, nuts, trans fats, hydrogenated oils, or cholesterol.

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The governor with employees of Naturally ME, Inc., which is a family-run health-conscious pie business.

"Nobody else encompasses all of these eating demands," said Roberts.

Perhaps the best selling point is — they are mouth watering and taste out of this world.

"This is delicious, I’m taking this to the Blaine House," said the governor, savoring a bite of blueberry pie. "All you need to have is to get someone taste this."

The company is also hoping to expand its product line to include an allergy-friendly pizza crust and muffins.

A growing segment of consumers are troubled about the long-term effects of various additives, fertilizers, and negative environmental factors that find their way into the food chain. A recent study in Canada attributed chemicals in food as having negative effects on behavior. Obesity is a major problem across the nation and is contributing to increasing health-care costs.

Naturally ME, Inc. has found a niche market that is bound to increase.

Additional information on the company can be found at:

www.naturalfeast.com.